By Thomas Puhr.
Denys Arcand’s The Fall of the American Empire (2018) asks a question that most never have the luxury to ponder: What does one do when they have too much money? This moral conundrum confronts Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry) after two duffel bags full of money from a botched robbery literally fall at his feet. He’s a deliveryman (and philosophy PhD) when one of the spots on his route is held up. A security guard and one of the robbers kill each other; the second criminal drops his share and flees, leaving Pierre-Paul alone. Over the wail of approaching sirens, he throws both bags in his delivery truck.
This decision sets off a serpentine journey (in this French-language thriller from Quebec), one in which Pierre-Paul finds himself at a loss as to what to do with his new wealth. It doesn’t help that the owner of the robbed business has mob connections and that two detectives follow him with growing suspicion. Added to the mix is Sylvain (a deadpan Rémy Girard, who steals many a scene), a biker gang criminal to whom our protagonist goes for guidance, and Camille (Maripier Morin), a “high-end” prostitute whom he calls on a lonely whim. Through a series of plot machinations too convoluted to explain here, these misfit characters ultimately become a crew of sorts, working together to (somewhat legally) funnel the money out of their native Canada.
When this motley crew finally comes together, the narrative takes off and Arcand displays some of his trademark, biting dialogue. Most amusing is a tête-à-tête between Camille and Sylvain in which they deconstruct the cliché’s associated with one another. “In films,” she tells a suspicious Sylvain, “bad girls seduce the guy to steal the cash…Biker reasoning. Idiot reasoning.” His retort: “‘Cause bikers are double-crossers. Hooker reasoning. Bimbo reasoning.” Another humorous scene involves Pierre-Paul weighing the philosophical issues of their predicament (referencing Kant, no less) as the three dig up a cash-filled casket in a cemetery. Arcand also manages to generate some genuine suspense, especially during an extended sequence in which the three try to launder the bills and cover their tracks, all with the police closely on their trail.
Nevertheless, such cleverness would feel glib if the film didn’t have a heart, and that it does. It initially seems inexplicable that Pierre-Paul, a self-described upright citizen, would suddenly decide to steal millions, but it gradually becomes clear that he didn’t take the money for himself as much as he did for his struggling community. Unexpectedly, the story reveals itself as a pretty heartfelt riff on the Robin Hood myth.
Despite these laudable aspects, the film ultimately disappoints for a number of reasons. Though she delivers some sharp dialogue with plenty of zest, Morin’s Camille feels underused. Arcand plucks her character out of the femme fatale trope only to wedge her into an equally problematic stereotype: that of the “prostitute with a heart of gold,” a la Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990). The writer-director provides her with an interesting backstory (she was raised by a single mother who thought the only route to happiness was to marry rich, at all costs) and some genuine pathos, but she ultimately becomes no more than a sidekick to Pierre-Paul; as a result, their inevitable romance is unconvincing and lacking in any real, well, romance.
For a film with so many disparate characters, twists of fate, sharp lines of dialogue, and suspenseful set pieces, its overall tone is strangely flat. In addition to the aforementioned lack of romantic chemistry, its lethargic pacing may also be to blame. Over two hours in length, it is at least half an hour too long. The narrative’s easy-to-identify excess fat includes a brooding, leather-jacketed mafioso who turns up looking for the stolen money and inexplicably disappears. Another element to consider is the muted color palette utilized by Arcand and director of photography Van Royko. While some may argue that these reserved visuals complement the dialogue’s dry wit or the story’s underlying social criticism, I found them simply bland.
As its title indicates, The Fall of the American Empire puts American capitalistic greed (and its inevitable entanglement with crime) in its crosshairs. Arcand seems particularly concerned with growing populations of the homeless. Many shots include homeless people sleeping in doorframes or standing outside of businesses, and the filmmaker’s choice to show this reality is a welcome antidote to most cinematic portrayals of big cities, which are often spotless and populated solely by young and attractive people. As the characters’ elaborate scheme implies, perhaps the only remedy left is to pit the system responsible for such social inequality against itself. It’s too bad the rest of the film doesn’t live up to this bold suggestion.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.