In “The Fall of the American Empire,” Quebecois director Denys Arcand looks at capitalism eating itself, and finds the only moral people left are a depressed philosopher, a high-class call girl and a just-paroled fraudster.
The movie is not a direct sequel to Arcand’s 1986 comedy-drama “The Decline of the American Empire,” a roundelay of academics and their lovers talking about themselves, their sex lives and their scholarly pursuits. That movie spawned a follow-up, 2003’s “The Barbarian Invasions,” with the same characters, one of whom is dying.
In “The Fall of the American Empire,” the story starts with Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), a philosopher who knows too much about everything to be happy. His job as a Montreal delivery driver just adds to his depression, as does a break-up with his girlfriend Linda (Florence Longpré), a bank teller.
One day, someone robs the store where Pierre-Paul is delivering packages. There’s a shoot-out, with a mafia thug killing one robber and injuring another, who runs away. The thug is also killed, and there are two duffel bags filled with cash lying in the parking lot. Pierre-Paul impulsively grabs them and takes them home.
Pierre-Paul seeks advice on how to deal with such a large amount of cash. He finds Sylvain Bigras (played by Arcand regular Rémy Girard), aka “The Brain,” who just got out of prison after a fraud conviction. Sylvain is well-connected in Montreal’s criminal element, so he knows the money was stolen from the mob — and Pierre-Paul could get killed if anyone connects him to it. Sylvain’s advice is to bury it, and not draw attention by spending any of it.
Too late, as Pierre-Paul took some of the cash to hire a prostitute (Maripier Morin), who goes by the name Aspasie, a reference to ancient Greece that appeals to Pierre-Paul’s intellectual side. Her fee is more than a delivery driver makes in two months, which piques the interest of two police detectives (Maxim Roy and Louis Morissette) investigating the botched robbery.
Aspasie, who’s kind of falling for Pierre-Paul, becomes a third member of his and Sylvain’s plot to handle the money. Good thing, too, since she’s got a big connection: One of her former clients, Wilbrod (Pierre Curzi), is a highly placed financier, just the guy who knows how to move money to offshore accounts without anyone knowing. The rich are very different from the rest of us, Sylvain notes, because they have the most efficient crooks.
As the plot unspools, and these three small fish work their way past the mob, the cops and the super-rich, Arcand unloads his thoughts on the state of the world. It’s a cynical view, where stealing a little gets someone in prison but stealing a lot gets them set up on their own private island somewhere.
Arcand’s message is as blatant as his heist plot is subtle, and perhaps that’s the point. In “The Fall of the American Empire,” the biggest crimes are in plain sight, and the little criminals have to fly under the radar.
‘The Fall of the American Empire’
Opened May 31 in select cities; opens Friday, July 12, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for some strong violence, sexual content/nudity and language. Running time: 127 minutes; in French with subtitles.