TIFF Review: 'The Fall of the American Empire'

The Fall of the American Empire (La chute de l'empire américain)
(Canada, 128)
Written and directed by Denys Arcand
Starring: Aléxandre Landry, Maripier Morin, Rémy Girard, Louis Morissette, Maxim Roy, Pierre Curzi, Vincent Leclerc
Programme: Special Presentations (Toronto Premiere)
Denys Arcand is back with a vengeance! The Quebecois master returns with The Fall of the American Empire, a Robin Hood fable for the Trump era that resonates strongly with the anxieties, tensions, and unrest of the time. It's a perceptive punch in the face to capitalism and a damning satire of these days of darkness.  

Days of darkness are nothing new to Arcand -- that is literally the title of the 2007 film that Fall of the American Empire builds upon in the director's oeuvre. Festival buzz positions Fall as the third installment of the American Empire trilogy that began with 1986's The Decline of the American Empire and 2003's Academy Award winner The Barbarian Invasions even though the same angle was used for Days of Darkness. Perhaps Arcand and company would rather everyone forgot his 2007 misfire and perhaps it's best we all did. The new film is not a sequel to Arcand’s previous works except in a thematic sense, yet Fall is the fitting conclusion the series deserves.

Arcand critiques the ills of capitalism as greed befalls his well-intentioned hero, Pierre-Paul (Aléxandre Landry), who decides to rob from the rich and give the goods to the poor. Pierre-Paul, a Doctor of Philosophy who earns his bread as a deliveryman, is in a predicament familiar to many patrons of the liberal arts from his generation. He's wasted his life in pursuit of knowledge that can and should change the world, but high intelligence isn't a hot commodity in capitalist systems. School, really, is just a scheme to keep poor schmucks like Pierre-Paul (and this reviewer) in perpetual debt.

Luck comes Pierre-Paul's way when he makes a delivery at the scene of a robbery gone awry. One of the two thieves at the scene gets away, while the other one is fatally shot by a surprise assailant before killing him in turn. Both thugs drop their bags, though, and P-P scoops the cash. Let the police and everyone else assume that the other crook made off with the score.

Pierre-Paul might be a genius, but he does not have the smarts to pull off this cakewalk of a payday. He is a colossally stupid criminal despite his high intelligence. He makes all sorts of rookie mistakes, like approaching the accountant of a biker gang (Rémy Girard) for advice on how to cook the books and pay off his student debts without getting caught. His other seemingly terrible idea is to fall in love with a high-priced escort, Aspasie (Maripier Morin), named for the Greek philosopher whose wisdom is said to have influenced Socrates.  

The relationship between Pierre-Paul and Aspasie highlights how much the young man needs to learn about the world. When Fall begins, Pierre-Paul is waxing philosophical with his then- girlfriend, blathering on about "intelligence" and how capitalist society rewards mediocrity and people who seek comfort and stability by tasking menial jobs that help run the machine.  His definition of intelligence, however, is awfully narrow. He conflates intelligence with bookmarks and academic rigor. Pull his nose out of a book, however, and Pierre-Paul knows diddly about life. He has no practical experience or sense  of functioning outside a classroom or library.

Aspasie, however, has what Pierre-Paul lacks: street smarts. Robin Hood's Maid Marion is reared from hard experience.  She  knows that people are not innately good and must lie, cheat, steal, and screw one one another to get ahead in this world. Aspasie draws out the protagonist's naivete, although her primary function in the film seems to bed eye candy, and the pair joins both sides of the brain to get the score. If Pierre-Paul can change his way of thinking, perhaps he can change the course for his future.

The Fall of the American Empire unfolds as a fable as grand gestures and deep dialogue positions Pierre-Paul’s plight into a timely parable about the temptations of greed and the perverted value systems that throw the world off balance. Landry is excellent as the wise yet naive Pierre-Paul and a who’s who of Arcand regulars joins him in a top form ensemble with Girard stealing every scene as the tough street-wise accountant who wants to go straight.

Fall is Arcand at his most cynical and perceptive. The film sees Arcand in his element crafting deliciously literary characters well-versed in philosophy and pop culture arcana. He's fearless in his critique not only of Trump, whom the film colorfully and fairly dubs a "cretin,” but, as with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, Trump isn’t Arcand’s target. Both filmmakers have their sights locked and load on the repugnant system of capitalism that breeds social inequality and cultural divides.

Arcand situates the drama within the social divides percolating invisibly in Canada while chaos South of the border consumes the headlines. The coup that ties the caper within its real world concerns is Arcand’s choice to emphasize the faces that have been failed by the system. The homeless of Montreal figure prominently as Pierre-Paul constantly acknowledges his comforts and donates his spare change to people on the street, often stopping to offer the greater support of exchanging a few words to feed their humanity. His efforts to volunteer in a local soup kitchen, moreover, stresses the divides poverty creates and the bridges one can make to share wealth and comfort. The faces of Montreal’s homeless gradually come to the forefront of the film as Arcand inserts portraits of the poor who stare directly to the camera and defy the audience not to feel hungry for change. The film is a return to form for Arcand and a great political satire for our times.