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PostPosted: Thu May 30, 2019 11:15 am 
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DENYS ARCAND: THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE/LA CHUTE DE L'EMPIRE AMÉRICAIN (2018)

A caper and a lecture, and nary a "fall" in sight

The witty, didactic French Canadian director Denys Arcand is already well known to American moviegoers, if only for a few films. This new feature stands out a little more than it may deserve, not for its minor caper story, still less for its lecture on money laundering and its disapproving look at the worship of wealth, but simply because it's in that same Québecois accent and has a provocative title that links it to its maker's long-ago predecessor, The Decline of the American Empire, (1986) followed by the similarly impressive-sounding The Barbarian Invasions (2003). It turns out none of these titles describe the contents - a provocation probably more attractive than if they did.

What the titles accurately signal is that Arcand has things to say. His characters do, especially in the first two of these films. (I'm skipping over the intervening Jesus of Montreal (1989), with its more earnest "What would Jesus do if he were to come here today?" theme.) Decline is a gathering of French Canadian intellectuals, mostly university teachers, who have a great deal to say. They talk a lot about sex in what they think is a bold and sophisticated manner. Then at the end they turn out to be as prone to ordinary jealousy and possessiveness as their more conventional bourgeois neighbors. Invasions (whose title presumably refers to 9/11) takes one of the characters of the earlier film, who's now dying, and gathers people around him to talk and talk and send him off, out in the country, in style.

Mores changed, but nobody declined and nobody invaded. If you know those two earlier films and see the new title and the name, you think of the conclusion of a trilogy in spite of yourself, even when you remember the earlier names were just gestures.

This new movie takes us out of the salon or the bedroom to the life of a doofus called Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) who thinks he's super-smart. He tells his girlfriend (Florence Longpré) so at a diner in the first scene, that he's too intelligent to succeed in this dumb world, which causes her to walk out on him. Landry is fairly hunky and cute, which makes him seem a sort of athlete intellectual. Pierre-Paul is plainly an idiot, but he is educated: he has a doctorate in philosophy.

This opening scene sets the limits of the movie. It's mildly amusing for its cockeyed presumption - it's a silly excuse for Pierre-Paul's being nothing but a delivery truck driver - but the diner setting reminds one of Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer's opening scene in Pulp Fiction. An unfair comparison no doubt, but it brings home the point that Arcand's dialogue never really sparkles, only percolates. He has no gift for the vernacular, and and that lack is more keenly felt in a plot with a genre flavor.

Pierre-Paul becomes a sort of bank robber malgré lui. He's parked for a delivery when there's a gunfight and the involved gangsters wind up dead or incapacitated with, lying a few yards away, two duffel bags of cash - which he instinctively grabs and throws into the truck. Never mind (though it's hard not to) that when the cops come and he's still there, they fail to search the truck. Pierre-Paul has landed a shitload of money and Arcand's caper tale is on its way.

What follows is largely, as Mike D'Angelo puts it in his AV Club review, "a crash course in money laundering." We must also choose to disregard that Pierre-Paul goofs up in various ways. Where he stashes the duffel bags of money is unwise. So is engaging the services of Montreal's highest priced call girl, Camille Lafontaine (Maripier Morin), an obvious attention-getter for the cops. He does this simply because Camille's work name is Aspasie - Aspasia is a figure in Greek philosophy. Camille becomes a new, cooler girlfriend for Pierre-Paul, and when let in on his windfall, an accomplice. She puts him in touch with one of her clients, Maître Taschereau (Arcand alum Pierre Curzi), an international financier. He also gets in touch with a recently released crook, Sylvain 'The Brain' Bigras (Arcand regular Rémy Girard), who took an economics course in prison that talked about offshore accounts. The "crash course" is on.

Pierre-Paul is also a do-gooder. He already works in a kitchen for the homeless and gives handout to any panhandler he meets on the street. So this leads to Arcand's other lecture topic, how much good could be done if you had a lot of money, never mind where you got it.

Arcand keeps the action moving along, though he ends things in an unsatisfying way. The basic elements of the noirish semi-comic thriller are entertaining. The characters are appealing, especially Morin, who's a media figure in Montreal. Landry could be a gas. His character's mix of hunk, nerd and Robin Hood has an oddball appeal. But as D'Angelo points out, he's too recessive to remain interesting as a character. Ultimately the lectures derail the caper tale. All the talk is more glaring than the earlier films, which never strove for action. The effect is of structural ineptness. Like his lead character, Arcand seems too smart to get anything done. With his sixth feature just premiered to acclaim (to his admirers) at Cannes last week, it may be said with confidence that Xavier Dolan is the big world figure among French Canadian directors nowadays. Good for Arcand to be still trying new things at 77, though.

The Fall of the American Empire/La chute de l'empire américain, 127 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2018. It opens in US cinemas 31 May 2019. Metascroe 64%.

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