×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Fall of the American Empire’

Denys Arcand neatly balances film noir and social satire in a bracing comedy with a serious purpose.

Director:
Denys Arcand
With:
Alexandre Landry, Maripier Morin, Remy Girard, Vincent Leclerc. Louis Morissette, Maxim Roy, Pierre Curzi. (French, English dialogue)

2 hours 8 minutes

Charged with alternating currents of droll wit, sardonic cynicism, and socialist-tinged idealism, writer-director Denys Arcand’s “The Fall of the American Empire” is a richly amusing rumination on the excesses and amorality of capitalism that plays like an ingeniously contrived mashup of film noir melodrama and Ealing Studios comedy. Despite the title, the new film has nothing to do with “The Decline of the American Empire,” Arcand’s classic 1986 roundelay about the lusty lives and endless conversations of eight self-regarding French Canadian intellectuals. But it does share at least a few thematic threads with that movie’s Oscar-winning sequel, “The Barbarian Invasions” (2003), which suggested that, in times of crisis, even a die-hard socialist might appreciate the value of having a great deal of money at his disposal.

Of course, you don’t have to have seen either of those earlier works to enjoy “Fall of the American Empire.” It’s very much a stand-alone work, focused on such contemporary concerns as the ever-expanding divide between the wealthy and the wretched (specifically in Montreal, but by extension everywhere), the shameless methods employed by the wealthy to hide their holdings in a labyrinth of foreign exchanges, the straining of social safety nets, and the corruption and/or incompetence of police, political leaders, and other defenders of the status quo.

On the other hand, longtime Arcand admirers may be fascinated by the subtle ways his latest effort ties in with some of his previous films — including, unexpectedly, “Jesus of Montreal” (1989), in which a modern-day Christ figure finds new ways to restore eyesight to the blind and life to the near-dead.

Popular on Variety

It’s difficult at first to warm to this film’s would-be savior, Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry), who’s introduced as a self-pitying malcontent railing against the “stupidity” of anyone and everyone who’s ever accomplished more than a well-educated individual such as himself. (Asked to explain the election of Donald Trump, he snaps: “Imbeciles worship cretins.”) When he mentions that he’s never had a serious romantic relationship, well, it’s easy to believe him. And when he complains that, despite having a Ph.D. in philosophy, he’s underemployed as a driver for a Montreal courier service, you can’t help wondering how unappealing he came across during interviews for other jobs.

Still, it’s clear from his generosity to homeless people — he gives money to panhandlers and volunteers at a soup kitchen — that Pierre-Paul’s heart is in the right place. And he greatly benefits from being in the wrong place at the right time when, while on his delivery rounds, he shows up during a robbery at a store where mob money is deposited in a back-room safe. After the shooting stops but before the police arrive, Pierre-Paul is the only one capable of snatching two duffel bags stuffed with cash. So he grabs the loot and tosses it into his truck.

All of which may sound like the setup for a typical film noir about a guy who pays dearly for a step out of line, and is prodded further down the primrose path by bad companions. That impression is reinforced by the introduction of two other key characters: Aspasie (Maripier Morin), a slinky call girl Pierre-Paul calls primarily because her online ad sports a quote from Racine — yes, he’s that snobbish — and almost immediately embraces her as a sweetheart and close confidant; and Sylvain (frequent Arcand collaborator Remy Girard), a burly biker who studied high finance during a just-ended prison stretch, and is understandably dubious when he’s approached for “investment” advice by a philosopher-quoting naif with a problematically huge stash of cash.

Here and there, Arcand acknowledges the noirish strains in his storyline with wink-wink, nudge-nudge humor — especially when Aspasie and Sylvain first meet and size each other up as archetypes — and sporadic outbursts of deadly serious, even shocking violence. Gradually, however, the traditional melodrama elements are overshadowed — even while Pierre-Paul continues to be trailed by two suspicious cops (Louis Morissette, Maxim Roy) with their own character quirks — as “Fall of the American Empire” emerges as a parable about doing the wrong things for the right reasons in a world so corrupt that even would-be saints and seriously tarnished angels can profit (materially as well as spiritually) from being sinners.

As is often the case, it all boils down to having friends in the right places. In this case, the three lead characters come to rely on Wilbrod Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), a highly respected and utterly unscrupulous financial wheeler-dealer who just happens to be one of Aspasie’s former clients. In a handful of scenes that depict Taschereau’s practiced mastery of hard-to-trace methods for moving money hither and yon across continents, Curzi effortlessly seizes control of the movie so confidently, he appears poised to simply tuck it into a pocket of his elegantly tailored sit and walk away with it. A nice touch: The normally curmudgeonly Sylvain is genuinely impressed to meet Taschereau because he studied about him in finance courses, and recognized him as a soul mate.

Arcand stumbles a bit as he approaches the finish line, and “Fall of the American Empire” evinces signs that he was hard-pressed to find fully satisfying ways to tie up all of his plot threads. (The fate of one character, while inarguably justified, seems a bit harsh under the circumstances.) And Arcand tries a little too hard at the very end to demonstrate his deep-down earnestness. But never mind: The performances across the board are everything they need to be, and the satirical thrusts are well aimed at the right targets. Better still, possibilities for redemption (or something like it) are intelligently introduced and cleverly realized with nary a dab of sentimentality.

Film Review: 'The Fall of the American Empire'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 7, 2018. Running time: 128 MIN.

Production: (Canada) A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Cinemaginaire production. Producer: Denise Robert.

Crew: Director, writer: Denys Arcand. Camera (color): Van Royko. Editor: Arthur Tarnowski. Music: Mathieu Lussier, Louis Dufort.

With: Alexandre Landry, Maripier Morin, Remy Girard, Vincent Leclerc. Louis Morissette, Maxim Roy, Pierre Curzi. (French, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Colombia’s ‘Valley of Souls’ Wins Marrakech’s

    Colombia’s ‘Valley of Souls’ Wins Marrakech’s Etoile d’Or

    The 18th edition of the Marrakech Intl. Film Festival awarded the Etoile d’Or for best film to Colombia’s “Valley of Souls,” directed by Nicolás Rincón Gille. In his acceptance speech the director said: “Colombia is a country that people know very little about. But in this film I try to offer a glimpse of the [...]

  • SAFF Winners 2019

    ScreenSingapore: Philippines Projects Take Top Prizes at SAFF Market

    Projects from the Philippines took away the top prizes awarded Friday at the conclusion of Screen Singapore’s Southeast Asian Film Financing (SAFF) Project Market. The event is part of the Singapore Media Festival. The winners included director J.P. Habac’s musical comedy drama “Golden” about homeless gay seniors who reunite to perform as drag queens to [...]

  • THE FAVOURITE

    'The Favourite' Wins Big At The 32nd European Film Awards

    Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite” scooped the 32nd European Film Awards, winning best film, best comedy and best actress for Olivia Colman who previously won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Anne in the film. “The Favourite” was leading the nominations along with Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory,” Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor” and Roman [...]

  • Ed-Skrein-Erica-Rivas-Fernando-Trueba-Lucia-Puenzo

    Ventana Sur 2019: Big New Titles, Argentina-Mexico, Deals, Trends

    BUENOS AIRES   —  The last few years have caught Ventana Sur – Cannes Festival and Market’s biggest initiative outside France – taking place as the industry debated radical change. This year saw the Latin American industries in a state of  transformation themselves, wracked by headwinds – Jair Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil – or looking [...]

  • 'Free Guy' Trailer: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie

    'Free Guy': Ryan Reynolds, Taika Waititi, Jodie Comer Star in First Trailer

    The first trailer for Ryan Reynolds’ “Free Guy” premiered Saturday at the CCXP convention in Brazil. Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller and NPC (non-playable character) who discovers he’s living in a video game. In the trailer, hostage situations, buildings being blown up and people shooting guns off in the street is depicted as [...]

  • KARMELE

    Asier Altuna Preps Basque Historical Drama ‘Karmele the Hour of Waking Together’

    Basque cinema is booming, and director Asier Altuna is part of the vanguard leading it forward. The Spanish filmmaker, behind 2005 Youth Award winner “Aupa Etxebeste!” and 2015 Best Basque Film “Amama” at the San Sebastián Intl. Film Festival, attended this year’s Ventana Sur Proyecta sidebar with his next project, “Karmele, the Hour of Waking [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content