The films of Montreal based writer/director Denys Arcand deal with societal ills in a frank manner seen rarely in domestic films.
Previous Arcand films that have played in Houston, perennial favorites at the local Landmark Theatre chain, include “The Decline of the American Empire,” a 1986 film dealing with sexual mores amongst a group of intellectuals; “Jesus of Montreal” from 1989 that takes on religious attitudes and how it affects secular lifestyles; “Stardom” (2000) with its sardonic definition of the meaning of beauty; and 2003’s “The Barbarian Invasions,” which offered an unflinching look at health care systems in modern democracies, and which also won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
“The Fall of the American Empire” continues Arcand’s deconstruction of the division in life between the have and the have-nots.
Alexandre Landry plays an effete philosopher with a PhD who works as a delivery driver because they make more than teachers. In an opening monologue Landry as Pierre-Paul Daoust laments that smart people will never make the kind of money that less intelligent people will make because they can never be sincere about such mundane tasks as selling vacuum cleaners.
Pierre-Paul’s life is turned upside down when, while delivering a package, he witnesses a robbery gone wrong. Not only does he see the robbers all killed in a crossfire of violent gunfire, he grabs the large bags they leave behind, containing millions of Canadian dollars, stuffs them in his delivery trucks seconds before the cop cars arrive and proceeds to anguish over his newfound wealth.
Other players gets involved, such as an expensive prostitute that Pierre-Paul starts seeing now that he has limitless funds played with effusive sexuality by Maripier Morin. He’s attracted to her website because she uses the moniker Aspasia, an influential femme who was written about by Socrates.
Pierre-Paul also contacts a recent parolee he sees on television whose claim to fame comes from using prison time to get a degree in finance. The connection being that this former biker can help him launder his money. Actor Rémy Girard (who has appeared in all the previous mentioned Arcand movies) gives this character the best arc, at once wanting to go straight but conflicted by the chance to score the deal of a lifetime.
Despite their differences this disparate trio hooks up with a billionaire who specializes in out-of-country-bank-accounts and who was once a customer of Morin.
There’re also a couple of Montreal detectives who are hot on Pierre-Paul’s trail. He’s left a trail of clues a mile wide. In sharp contrast to the main characters the police are portrayed as emotionless functionaries and never show a hint of sympathy.
Meanwhile, the money that’s missing turns out to be mob money and people are getting tortured right and left to find out where it’s gone.
The magic of Arcand’s narrative demands that the audience roots for the underdogs, the hapless innocents who merely want to share a bigger piece of the pie.
Yet the subliminal message is that this worldwide process of money laundering is exactly what the one-percent conducts as a way of life. Trump in addition to other government figureheads gets mentioned in Pierre-Paul’s opening speech. Politicians are the bad guys and the hoi polloi are the good guys but what happens when you employ the same means of treachery as your adversaries?
Yet you can’t help but root for the mismatched trio as they syphon funds from country to country into anonymous bank accounts, all under the umbrella of a non-profit agency that provides shelter for the homeless.
“The Fall of the American Empire” unwinds exclusively at the River Oaks Theatre starting this weekend.