With its portentous title and a story that skirts a handful of different genres, Denys Arcand’s The Fall of the American Empire is a remarkably civil comedy, a film that pits bad behavior against good intentions and criminal actions against an almost naïve faith in humanity. It’s a sly, subtle film, managing to pass through elements of a contemporary gangster film, a police procedural, a heist story and a romantic comedy even while rarely raising its voice.
It’s a busy narrative, with enough twists and digressions to fill at least half a dozen episodes of a typical TV cop show, but so underplayed that you can almost forget the threat of violence lingering in the background. A gang-related robbery in a strip mall ends with two men dead and a third on the run. Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), who has a Ph.D in philosophy and a dead-end job as a delivery truck driver, pulls into the parking lot just as the fleeing robber drops the bags of loot. Almost without thinking. Pierre stashes the bags in his truck. With both the mob and the police on his trail, he enlists a grizzled ex-con and Montreal’s highest paid escort (Maripier Morin) to help him elude his pursuers without compromising his naively idealistic sense of morality.
Arcand splits the genre threads by taking the film into two radically different directions. At times it resembles the conversational and moral investigations of Éric Rohmer, with a talky but not entirely grounded hero who can freely quote philosophy but rarely knows how to maneuver his way through the real world; at others, it’s a kind of fantasy in which the workings of international finance and the criminal underworld — not that far removed from each other — are a kind of Wonderland, through which Pierre is guided not by a white rabbit but by a worldly, literate call girl.
Ultimately, Arcand — like Pierre-Paul — is less interested in the activities of cops and robbers than in a bigger and more unfortunate reality. The Fall of the American Empire is a satire about criminals, but it never loses sight of a more insidious crime: the economic inequality that has isolated his hero from society and caused an escalation in Montreal’s homeless population. In a world where financial criminals are sheltered by power and prestige, Arcand (and his hero) turn their attention to the real-life struggles of the poorest and least protected. (It is hardly coincidental that the escort, being an otherworldly creature, has never even noticed the poverty of the street.)
It’s not entirely clear what Arcand is implying with his mock-historical title (or how it relates to his 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire), but perhaps his intention is more optimistic than destructive. It begins with an instance of all-too-familiar contemporary violence and widens its scope to take in an abstract international web of money and influence, yet Pierre-Paul, removed from both things, never loses his strict moral vision. From the prosaic details of crime, corruption and greed, Arcand has crafted a kind of fable, a story (with a moral, of course) about ordinary people displaying extraordinary virtue.