AF French Film Festival 2019 Review: The Fall of the American Empire (La chute de l’empire américain)

Alexandre Landry and Maripier Morin in The Fall of the American Empire (La chute de l’empire américain)

What: The Fall of the American Empire (La chute de l’empire américain)

Who: Directed by Denys Arcand, starring Alexandre Landry, Maripier Morin, Rémy Girard, Pierre Curzi

When: Alliance Française French Film Festival 2019; see website for full program (http://www.affrenchfilmfestival.org/)

What would you do if you won the lottery? The possibilities are endless. Pay off your debts, fulfil your desires, leave responsibility behind … maybe even use your good fortune to help others. But what if, rather than winning the lottery, you found yourself in possession of a pile of stolen cash? Would you keep it, and use it? Should you?

This is the dilemma that faces Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), a Montreal delivery driver, when he arrives at the scene of a robbery gone wrong. With a PhD in Philosophy, Pierre-Paul might seem uniquely qualified to navigate this situation. However, his panicked fumblings soon reveal that, despite his ability to quote the great philosophers, he badly needs help from someone with more street smarts. Thankfully, he soon connects with Sylvain ‘The Brain’ (Rémy Girard), an ex-con with a degree in finance, and Aspasie (Maripier Morin), Montreal’s most expensive escort, and the unlikely trio set about planning what to do with the ill-gotten dollars. Along the way, the police, the gangs of Montreal, and the financial mechanisms that support large-scale tax evasion all become wrapped up in the action.

Arcand has woven a clever and engaging story around some of the major economic and social issues of our time: poverty, inequality, and the global systems that sustain them. I was immediately reminded of 2015’s The Big Short: like the earlier American film, The Fall of the American Empire takes an economic subject that could be dry and impenetrable to the average viewer and creates a narrative that helps us to understand, even to become enraged. At the same time, because this narrative leads us to sympathise with characters who are entangled in the corrupt system, both these films force us to confront difficult questions about our own principles. As well as the importance of its overall themes, The Fall of the American Empire is lifted by moments of sardonic humour and fine performances from all of its stars.

Not everything about this film impressed me, however. Most strikingly, the racial politics represented in The Fall of the American Empire felt off-kilter. Every black character in the film is associated with a criminal gang, while the protagonists and the police are white. As far as I can remember, all of the speaking roles for homeless people at the soup kitchen where Pierre-Paul volunteers are also filled by white actors — a situation unlikely to reflect reality, given Canada’s multicultural population and the racialisation of poverty. Meanwhile, Canada’s First Nations only appear in two brief scenes, during which their voices are never heard. In this context, the final scene – a montage of closeups of the faces of (presumably) homeless Indigenous people – feels tokenistic. Of course, as a foreigner to French Canadian culture, I might be missing something, but these casting and storytelling choices left me feeling uncomfortable. In addition, there is one violent scene that is quite disturbing and feels out of step with the rest of the film.

Aside from these concerns, I left The Fall of the American Empire feeling both entertained and intellectually stimulated. This clever, thought-provoking and well-acted film is definitely worth a look.  

3.5 out of 5 stars

Matilda Handsley-Davis

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