By Erica Abeel
For all its bite, Fall is oddly endearing, too, leavening its harsh portrait of money-madness with aw-shucks moments of solidarity and kindness.
The Fall of the American Empire, directed by Denys Arcand. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema starting June 14.
Denys Arcand’s The Fall of the American Empire is a hugely entertaining mash-up of crime caper and Ealing Studios comedy, driven by a mordant critique of the evils of 21st-century capitalism. As a bonus, the film also offers those in need of it a detailed tutorial on how to move a billion or so dollars around the world through shell companies and “foundations”– the better to dodge detection and the taxman. The foundation “Save the Children” is always a good bet.
As Arcand would have it, the “moral rot” of the American Empire, inflamed by the omnipotence of money, has steadily crept up, like toxic sludge, to infect its neighbor to the North. The Canadian auteur is a charter member of that subset of filmmakers powered by passionate political beliefs — particularly anger over economic inequality (Others working this vein include Ken Loach, Ruben Ostlund, Aki Kaurismaki, the Dardenne brothers — and Bong Joon Ho, awarded this year’s Palme d’Or in Cannes for The Parasite. Alas, American filmmakers generally abstain from such themes, perhaps fearful that political critique will spell death at the multiplex.)
Money — too much or not enough — is always front and center in Fall. Boyish, thirty-something Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) has a Ph.D in philosophy, but works as a delivery man because “it pays better than teaching.” He’s still mired in student loans. The tortured intellectual assures his girlfriend, a mournful bank teller, that it’s “the stupid [who] are rich” and intelligence is a handicap in a world that rewards the corrupt and those who have abandoned any sense of morality or solidarity. When she wonders why he’s never said he loves her, he counters with a quote from Wittgenstein — a regular gambit of this dude, who’s never read a philosopher he couldn’t quote. What turns out to be a breakup scene cleverly winks at its slicker version in Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network.
One day, while delivering a package, Pierre-Paul gets caught in a hold up gone terribly wrong: two are dead after a bloody shoot-out. Two duffel bags containing millions lie abandoned on the ground. Our protagonist’s dilemma: leave empty handed or grab the loot and run? To his own disbelief, our hero chooses the latter — for reasons he only begins to unpack many scenes later. Meanwhile, word reaches competing gangs about the cash at large; Pierre-Paul finds himself entangled with the vicious criminal underworld of Montreal. He must also outwit two goofily earnest cops — Louis Morissette and Maxim Roy — who always arrive seconds late. The first cop has his own backstory: he aspired to a Ph.D from Princeton but, lacking the funds, has ended up dealing with “pimps and psychos, “the dregs of humanity.”
Though he first comes off as a doofus, P.-P grows into an endearing figure who gives money to panhandlers and the many homeless lying in the streets of Arcand’s Montreal. He works in a soup kitchen. The huge stash he’s acquired now presents an unimagined dilemma: how to move around all that hot money? Why, by hiring an ex-con as “financial advisor,” of course! That would be the notorious Sylvain Bigras (Arcand regular Remy Girard). As luck would have it, the grungy, pony-tailed criminal has just been released from prison. (Earlier, in a comic throwaway, he’s seen taking an economics course at the university, exploring “fiscal optimization” — aka tax avoidance.) Bigras signs on as advisor to naive P.-P, but with the caveat that this time around he’s going to play it straight — that is, by aping the corporate bigwigs who bob and weave just outside the reach of pesky laws.
But first things first: after all the stress, P.-P, in need of a little sensual release, contacts a hooker he’s found online. He fancies her because her name is Aspasie (lovely Maripier Morin) and she shares his love of the 17th-century dramas of Racine. At every turn, Arcand mines comic riches from the clash of violent thugs and the intellectuals who revere their French classics and counter all the corporate cant with quotes from Kant. The Categorical Imperative anyone? Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus get an airing here, too.
P.-P immediately clicks with Aspasie — her nom de travail is borrowed from “history’s first great whore,” she says proudly (look it up; it’s true). As the most expensive escort in Montreal, she’s accustomed to high living, but the real aphrodisiac, the film insists, is their shared altruism. The two become an unlikely team, coached by criminal mastermind Bigras, to redistribute the money, Robin-Hood-style, back to those who need it most. The film stumbles only when the mayhem goes off the rails; there’s a violent torture scene that serves no narrative function and ought to be cut.
In the most delicious set piece, Aspasie connects P.-P with a gent named Taschereau (Pierre Curzi, and he almost walks off with the film) who can advise them on financial planning. Protected by his minions in his corporate tower, smoother than walnut oil and impeccably tailored, Taschereau is a highly respected and scruple-free wheeler-dealer, deft at moving money from the Seychelles to London and then to (home-free) Switzerland. There isn’t an African dictator, he observes, who doesn’t own major real estate in Montreal. Ex-con Bigras, who has studied him in finance class, bows to a master.
Landry as the hero is too one-note — he mainly wears an expression of disbelief/dismay, as if he just sat on a hot stove. Some viewers may feel hammered by the film’s blatantly left wing agenda. But the ironies and dark humor; the twinning of the business world and the criminal; those euphemisms for corporate skulduggery! — are all priceless. Arcand gracefully slips in facts: a guy from the soup kitchen has lost his job picking apples because “Mexican workers will do it for starvation wages at longer hours.” How can a film this serious be this amusing? I won’t give away the final droll twist involving Taschereau and the way he falls afoul of the law, nor the LOL fate of the two blundering cops. For all its bite, Fall is oddly endearing, too, leavening its harsh portrait of money-madness with aw-shucks moments of solidarity and kindness.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her recent novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the 50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing, she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre.