Every now and then I’ll see a movie that I don’t particularly like but I find thought provoking.
Every now and then I’ll see a movie I find thought provoking not because of the depth of its ideas but because of the ideas it doesn’t sufficiently explore.
Denys Arcand’s The Fall of the American Empire occupies both of the above categories. It’s a narrative and philosophical misfire with its heart in the right place even though its head is elsewhere. The film is a thematic sequel to the series of movies spawned by 1986’s The Decline of the American Empire.
The cause of the eponymous fall is global capitalism, specifically the various mechanisms in place that allow the ultra-wealthy to evade taxes as well as any moral and ethical accountability for their actions. Those much lower on the economic totem pole pay for it, sometimes with blood, and especially if they’re people of color. Yet our hero Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) gets to indulge in the fantasy of wealth, sex, and moral incorruptibility. As the film went on, I wasn’t sure if I was meant to root for Pierre-Paul or consider him a pernicious nice guy graced with equal parts white privilege and the endless good fortune of an author-insert character.
The Fall of the American Empire (La chute de l’empire américain)
Director: Denys Arcand
Release Date: May 31, 2019 (limited)
Pierre-Paul is a little bit schlub and a little bit nebbish. He has a philosophy degree and works as a parcel delivery man, though he spends his free time volunteering at a homeless shelter. There’s a good heart in him, but he’s also a snob; his girlfriend breaks up with him over lunch in the opening scene as he boorishly lists the faults in other people to justify his place in the world. While making a delivery, Pierre-Paul happens onto a violent robbery in progress. One person gets away while two others are gunned down. Before the police arrive, Pierre-Paul takes the two duffel bags of cash for himself. It’s just a question of how to keep the money without the authorities or the crime bosses catching on.
The Fall of the American Empire is split into two modes: a witty comedy about a fool in the world of elite money laundering and a crime/police procedural about a convoluted underworld double-cross. Their narrative threads intersect but they never quite gel. They each have their own problems. The crime story feels oddly out of place since the lives of the police officers and the victims of the crime feel unexplored. I wonder if this could have been intentional as a means of social criticism (but maybe I’m giving the generally on-the-nose script too much credit). The robber who survived is a black man in his early twenties named Jamel (Patrick Abellard). Jamel has to undergo emergency surgery in a seedy Chinatown clinic and hide from the police lurking in his neighborhood. More on Jamel in a bit.
Pierre-Paul, by comparison, hires a recently released felon named Sylvain (Rémy Girard) to help him stash the money and launder it. He also decides to hire a high-priced escort who goes by the named Aspasie (Maripier Morin); she appeals to him because of her beauty and because her name is an allusion to a companion of Socrates. He acts like an incel around her and falls for her immediately. For some reason she falls in love with him even though she is way out of his league. And so we have a strange combination of stock characters here to guide us through the mechanisms of high-level tax shelters. There’s the philosopher with a head full of rocks, the principled criminal with a code of conduct, and the hooker with a heart of gold.
The romance between Pierre-Paul and Aspasie reveals a lot of the off-putting wish fulfillment at the heart of The Fall of the American Empire. I can believe a guy like Pierre-Paul falling awkwardly for Aspasie, but I’m thrown by the idea of a woman like Aspasie falling for someone like Pierre-Paul. It’s not just his twitchy, unsure, nervous energy that’s similar at times to Jesse Eisenberg, but his naïveté about the way of the world. She helps him launder money, and she gives up sex work for him; this guy, the same man who indirectly berated his previous girlfriend over lunch in an extended kvetch that was essentially the grad school version of a temper tantrum. There is an odd sense of control Pierre-Paul exerts over Aspasie, and the seeming idealization of this fantasy relationship left me uneasy.
While Pierre-Paul seems to be getting everything he wants, we cut back to Jamel who has both of his shoulders dislocated in a surprisingly brutal torture scene. Jamel wouldn’t have been tortured had Pierre-Paul not taken the money in the first place. The black man in a low-income neighborhood suffers while the white guy with the advanced degree gets a much easier fate. But perhaps Pierre-Paul can atone for his sins with that money he stole. It bought him love, didn’t it? Why not forgiveness?
That could be another aspect of The Fall of the American Empire that put me off. There’s a strange ennobling quality to money in Pierre-Paul’s life. Before these two duffel bags of cash, Pierre-Paul was a go-nowhere guy who was well educated but unmotivated. Now, thanks to money, he can pay off his student loans, he has a hotter girlfriend who’s head over heels for him and seems to have no autonomy, and he could potentially atone for his sins via payouts from a shell company. It’s presented like a fairy tale about a moral everyman getting away clean in a world of elite cutthroats. He does not compromise his moral stances or his philosophical principles. Instead, he reifies them with money. There’s no darker interrogation about the corruptibility of Pierre-Paul’s principles.
Tired: filthy lucre.
Wired: lucky lucre.
Arcand periodically flashes images of actual homeless people in Montreal. They’re asleep on stoops before being woken up and shooed away each morning. Their faces tell sad stories of being discarded and ignored. We witness this reality every day. Pierre-Paul and his story is total fantasy, and unconvincing as well.