He picked the theme up again with his best foreign film Oscar–winning The Barbarian Invasions (2003), featuring Rémy Girard, the womanizing history professor from his first film, but now on his deathbed. Though ambitious and poignantly acted, Barbarian Invasions showed a cranky reactionary streak, particularly Arcand’s satirically distorted indictment of the Canadian medical system that jibed too easily with American caricature of socialized medicine. (No, I kept telling my American friends, your medical system sucks so much worse.)
Arcand followed that with the misanthropic minor satire Days of Darkness (2007) before taking another decade-long break. Despite its grand-sounding title, The Fall of the American Empire is another trifle, a familiar harangue against human perfidy wrapped in a creaky farce.
The protagonist is Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), a sullen 36-year-old Montreal delivery driver and misanthropic left-wing intellectual who quotes other people’s maxims a lot and believes only stupid people can be happy and successful. That causes his obviously not-stupid bank teller girlfriend to promptly dump him. The rest of us are compelled to continue sharing his grumpy company.
Then, as if to test Pierre-Paul’s self-righteousness, fate steps in: he is making a delivery to a mall where a robbery takes place and he lifts a couple of duffel bags full of mob money from the scene of crime. Pierre-Paul — who works in a soup kitchen and helps the homeless — puts fantasy over idealism. The first thing he does is hire an expensive escort, Camille (television presenter Maripier Morin). His justification is that she sounds well-educated because of her professional pseudonym, Aspasie, the name of a legendary figure from Greek philosophy.
Camille and Pierre-Paul, of course, discover they have much in common and they connect with a grizzled ex-con, Sylvain (Girard in a ponytail) with a gift for financial chicanery. Next they link up with one of Camille’s former clients, an international money-launderer, Wilbrod (Pierre Curziin) to find a plan to make the money clean again. Throughout, they have to keep one step ahead of the gangsters Pierre-Paul robbed, and a pair of persistent but bumbling detectives (Louis Morisette and Maxim Roy).
At one point, Wilbrod offers an extensive lecture on how to send money to off-shore accounts, to charitable foundations (“sick kids are irresistible”). Although the account reminded me of the more abstruse portions of the documentary Inside Job, it was less entertaining.
Occasionally, the characters comment on the fact that they’re stereotypes (happy hookers, brainy gangsters) which doesn’t stop them from being stereotypes, and some of them are offensive. There’s a bafflingly tone-deaf scene in which white gangsters torture a black criminal by stringing him up with a garage door opener. The film concludes with images of homeless Inuit on the streets of Montreal, intended to signal compassion, though it feels perilously close to exploitation.
The Fall of the American Empire. Directed and written by Denys Arcand. Starring Alexandre Landry, Maripier Morin, Louis Morissette, Maxim Roy and Rémy Girard. Opens May 31 at select theatres including Toronto’s Cineplex Varsity and the Canada Square.