The Fall of the American Empire (2019; Denys Arcand)
By Daniel Barnes
The film opens on Friday, July 12, at the Tower Theatre in Sacramento.
“Static, Shapeless and Flat”
While the films of Atom Egoyan chart a pronounced rise and fall, fellow Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand remains harder to grasp. I remember being blown away by Jesus of Montreal in film school, although it’s hard to trust anything I liked in my twenties. With every passing year, though, Jesus of Montreal feels more like a vital outlier in an otherwise unmemorable filmography.
Arcand’s latest film is The Fall of the American Empire. As far as I can tell, the film makes no specific connection to Arcand’s 1986 breakthrough The Decline of the American Empire or its Oscar-winning 2003 follow-up, The Barbarian Invasions. However, by fashioning this quirky crime film as a “spiritual successor” to those popular movies, it worms its way into a brief theatrical release. Of course, that irritating switcheroo would not matter if The Fall of the American Empire delivered, but the film is static, shapeless and flat.
Alexandre Landry leads an ensemble cast as Pierre-Paul, a philosophy graduate drifting through life as a delivery driver. After whining about his lack of money and prospects, Pierre-Paul gets dumped by his girlfriend in the opening scene. Right away, a strange twist of fate drops two giant bags of stolen cash in Pierre-Paul’s lap. While the cops nonchalantly close in, Pierre-Paul enlists the help of an ex-con business student and Aspasie, a Socrates-themed prostitute.
Naturally, Aspasie (Maripier Morin) bears a heart of gold, and she becomes charmed by the thoroughly charmless Pierre-Paul. She’s not even repulsed when Pierre-Paul drools lines like “When you took me in your arms, I was in a state of total bliss.” Even the film’s many pompous monologues about money and What It All Means sound good after that tripe.
The Fall of the American Empire sets up, however halfheartedly, a classic premise about sex, greed and crime. Unfortunately, the film never gets us to care about the characters, who seem to only talk in plot points and themes. It doesn’t work as a crime film, an ensemble drama, a dark comedy or a commentary about capitalism.
Meanwhile, Arcand grasps about for big ideas. At various times, The Fall of the American Empire touches on government surveillance, class struggles, homelessness and global finance. Knowing Arcand, there’s probably also a metaphor for Quebec nationalism that went right over my head. At the end of the day, though, this is some Crash-ass shit