Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Here is a movie where everybody talks about nothing but sex, and the real subject is wit. The movie takes place during a little more than 24 hours in the lives of some friends, who either work in the history department of a Canadian university, or sleep with people who do. They meet for dinner, and as they prepare and eat the food and drink the wine, they talk and talk about sex. But if you listen carefully, you will find that their real subject is not sex, but verbal cleverness, and that their real passion comes in the area of intellectual competition.
"The Decline of the American Empire" has been described, far and wide, as a French-Canadian version of "The Big Chill." It reminded me more of "My Dinner With Andre." It is about people whose private lives are mostly kept off-screen, so that we have to picture the adventures and exploits, the scandals and disappointments, as they describe them.
The movie is filled with words, lots of words, all of them in French with English subtitles. In a curious way, the subtitles are a bonus; they double the number of words contained in the movie, and underline the way that these intellectuals have been able to locate their sex lives mostly between their cerebral cortexes and their larynxes.
Sex itself is a very simple thing - so simple that it can be adequately discussed in such limited vocabularies and basic images as those used by Charles Bukowski or Henry Miller. But it is not the physical activity of sex that the characters in this movie are really talking about. They're discussing the meaning of sex, the object of sex, the embarrassment and guilt, the ambition and silliness of sex. To them, as to so many civilized people, good sex boils down to winning the admiration of someone you admire. They'd rather have a mediocre time in bed with the right person than a great time with the wrong one.