The Fall of the American Empire: Don’t Give Me That Do-Goody-Good Bullshit, by David Bax
On its surface, Denys Arcand’s The Fall of the American Empire has the politics of the present day on its mind, with references to ongoing issues like the resurgent anti-immigrant sentiment that is currently tearing most of the Western world apart. But it’s been more than 30 years since Arcand made his The Decline of the American Empire and, as the similarity between the titles suggests, his focus remains on ongoing issues like the hegemony of the United States and Canada’s foolish tendency to follow in its southern neighbor’s footsteps. This time, though, he’s pivoted, with crackling success, from sex dramedy to thriller.
That would be the thriller of both the crime and political varieties, with a healthy dose of heist movie thrown in. When a broke Montreal delivery driver and intellectual named Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) happens upon the aftermath of a botched robbery, he quickly tosses two massive duffel bags filled with cash into the back of his van and drives off. With two detectives (Maxim Roy and Éric Bruneau) who suspect him on his tail and a whole bunch of gangsters eager to get their money back, Pierre-Paul is increasingly boxed in. Luckily, his recent foray into criminality has put him in touch with with people like Camille (Maripier Morin), a very high-class prostitute, and Sylvain (Rémy Girard), a halfway reformed crooked accountant, both of whom are willing to help Pierre-Paul in exchange for a piece of the pie.
It sounds trite and superficial to say that money dictates most of how we conduct our lives but that’s only because we generally don’t question the construct. When seen through Pierre-Paul’s altruistic (if often naive) worldview, though, the pervasiveness of commerce begins to look oppressive. Even before he’s gone on any tirades, the first thing we hear in Fall is a sports talk radio show in which the hosts are debating Canadiens goalie Carey Price’s contract. Being opposed to the very idea of money seems a quixotic stance in a world that is so inescapably defined by lucre. It’s not until Pierre-Paul vocalizes his perversely comic dilemma–“I have too much money,” he confides in Sylvain–that the inherent ridiculousness of the system blunders into the spotlight.
But that’s not actually the movie’s point. Arcand, unlike Pierre-Paul, is not prone to strident polemics. Fall is, on the contrary, an undeniably dialectical film. The character of Camille could be seen, at a glance, as a suggestion that we must all indulge in something like prostitution to get by. That’s facile, though, and Arcand knows it. Before long, he and Camille are asking us to consider whether we think there’s anything morally wrong with prostitution. In other words, is capitalism evil or is it a matter of perspective? In the hands of a decent person, could capitalism be a force for good?
Once again, though, Arcand is not willing to leave it at that. In scenes following the gangsters’ search for the loot, we are reminded that money is an unmoved mover that changes the lives of everyone with whom it comes into contact with a total indifference to whether those changes are positive or negative. Arcand directs the cops and robbers material with a confident and forceful hand; there are scenes of matter-of-fact violence that might cause squeamish viewers to cover their eyes. Pierre-Paul may not be aware these things are happening but we are not given the luxury of ignoring them while he plots ways to make a positive difference with the stolen money that others are being killed over. Arcand nudges us to question our own ethics as viewers, in addition to those of the characters. Some of the people who elect to help Pierre-Paul redistribute his wealth without getting caught spend the rest of their time using their skills to more devastating ends. They get paid the same either way but our allegiance with Pierre-Paul leads us to cheer for them to get away with it.
At times, The Fall of the American Empire threatens to share Pierre-Paul’s pessimism about humanity; the frustrated intellectual explains the popularity of Sylvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump by remarking that, “Imbeciles worship cretins.” This barrage of misanthropy, coming early in the film, is admittedly pretty funny. But Arcand, in the midst of all the lies, theft, murder and torture, insists that there is reason to hope and even maybe room for God in our callous, calamitous present and future.