Oscar-winning director Denys Arcand offers The Fall of the American Empire, an eclectic genre mash-up combining crime drama, a thrilling heist adventure, and a social commentary. This French-Canadian film spoken almost entirely in the beautiful language of French (and subtitled in English) is sure to entertain and amuse audience members, while simultaneously challenging and convicting them with hard-hitting questions and discussion points regarding society, politics, culture, and religion.
The main protagonist, Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry), is a highly-intelligent, yet lonely, depressed, and unmotivated middle-class individual. Despite possessing a Ph.D. in philosophy, Daoust is struggling to make ends meet by working as a deliveryman. He feels stuck in a rut, personally, emotionally, and financially. Unfortunately, he cannot muster excitement or enthusiasm for anything in his daily life. Still, in the midst of these personal battles and afflictions, Daoust takes the time to volunteer at homeless shelters, getting to know these impoverished individuals on a personal level. He asks them about their hopes and dreams for a better life and what exactly would lead to their contentment. These compassionate and kind-hearted gestures from Daoust develop his character as remarkably likable, engaging, and appealing. The audience wants this man to succeed and find his happiness in one way or another. Despite his dejected personal spirit, he still sacrifices time and energy to help others who are less fortunate than him. Thus, when the inciting incident in the narrative arrives, viewers are already emotionally captivated by the main protagonist and are curious with where the story will take him next.
One day on a routine delivery run, Daoust stumbles upon a violent robbery involving millions of dollars and rival gangs. Surrounded by dead bodies on the ground and two large bags of cash, Daoust makes the decision to take the money for himself, unbeknownst to the first responders and detectives who shortly arrive to the scene. Perhaps this is the big break for which he has been hoping. Is this “divine providence,” or simply a lucky coincidence? Either way, what results is a wildly entertaining tale full of slick schemes and intriguing maneuvers.
Playing as the innocent bystander may have gotten Daoust out of trouble the first time around, but savvy detectives Pete Labauve (Louis Morisette) and Carla McDuff (Maxim Roy) soon pick up on a few hints and recognize that Daoust is hiding something. Daoust does not do himself any favors by becoming associated with Camille Lafontaine (Maripier Morin), a very expensive – and also very illegal – escort. To add yet another element to the mix, Daoust approaches Sylvain Bigras (Rémy Girard), a newly reformed criminal money launderer, to help him out of this tight spot. On top of all this, multiple gangs and mobs are searching for the missing money. The interactions between all of these characters and plot threads is considerably compelling.
Each character is written and developed exceptionally well, with various defining traits, characteristics, and quirks that are easy to appreciate. All of the focus characters are well-rounded, layered, and multi-dimensional. There is nothing flat or stale about any of them. The rich dialogue and clever conversations are crucial to this development. One could easily draw parallels to the work of Quentin Tarantino in the way that certain scenes play out. There are long, uninterrupted sequences of discussion and discourse between individuals, with each word and sentence serving a purpose in the progression of the conversation. Nothing feels unnecessarily extended or bloated. Comparisons in the film could also be made to the styles of other filmmakers such as Woody Allen or Edgar Wright. There is a certain innocence and naïve nature to Daoust and his interplay with the other characters. He is someone in which many viewers may see themselves. Yet, the Tarantino similarities really shine when these lengthy dialogue scenes and quirky moments are swiftly transitioned into brutally violent and gut-wrenching occurrences. These junctures are few and far between, but they certainly leave an impact. They feel completely believable and comprehensible within the context of the narrative.
Remarkably, Denys Arcand also manages to weave incendiary social commentary into the narrative. Every aspect of society, from politics, to the class system, to religion, is touched upon in one way or another. There are no holds barred, and certain comments are likely to even offend certain viewers, depending on their ideologies. However, the majority of this conversation naturally flows with the story. It further complements and supplements the various themes and ideas of the narrative, which will undoubtedly lead the audience members to take some time for self-reflection and introspection. Nobody is safe from having their opinions and beliefs criticized and challenged in this film. Still, while perhaps a bit too heavy-handed at times, these questions make the viewing experience all the more intriguing. This is the furthest thing from an easy-going, relaxing feature, but rather a poignantly cerebral and engaging film that requires the viewer’s undivided attention and full commitment.
Looking to the technical side of things and the cinematography from DP Van Royko, one may see even more Woody Allen influence. There are a handful of scene-setting shots of the city of Montreal, which are akin to many of Allen’s love letters to various cities in his films. One shot in particular shows Daoust and Camille Lafontaine sitting down by an overlook, having a conversation with the backdrop of Montreal . It is a gorgeously simplistic image that connects the characters and their situation with the Montreal setting in a singular frame. One could even find some deep symbolism in this shot. Had Daoust made the decision to simply take the money and leave the city, his predicament – and that of all the other characters – would be much simpler. Nobody else would have been dragged into this, and he might have been able to escape both the law and the mob. However, by staying in town, a larger fabric of interdependent events was woven. Every ensuing choice and narrative interaction was connected to the city of Montreal.
The Fall of the American Empire is not going to please everybody. This is for a specific niche audience, one who is open to a foreign language film, and is also prepared to invest mental energy into the story, while even having their ideals confronted. If a potential viewer checks all these boxes, they may very well be in for an enjoyable movie-watching experience.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on July 1st, 2019, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2019/07/01/fall-of-the-american-empire/. *