Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) could be the most worried-looking guy in the history of the movies. At the start of Denys Arcand’s The Fall of the American Empire, he’s obsessed with the problem that he’s too intelligent. People who are less intelligent than he is, have no problem following their self-interest and becoming rich or famous or whatever. As Pierre-Paul explains this to his then-girlfriend, she walks out on him.
For all his hapless foolishness, Pierre-Paul is kind and generous. He volunteers in a soup kitchen; he gives money to homeless people on the street. For work, he delivers packages. But he is terminally naive, and he really has no money to give away.
Until he happens upon a robbery in progress that’s gone bad. Two big bags of money are lying in front of him in a parking lot, with no one around. And what follows is a story that’s part farce, part touching moral drama and full-out fantasy.
French Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand has been making moral dramas since the 1980s, with his two best-known movies – The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal. But The Fall of the American Empire may be his most fluid and graceful film. As a side note, when Arcand uses the word “America,” he’s not thinking of the United States – Canada is a big chunk of North America.
Pierre-Paul has no idea of what to do with this ton of money that fell into his lap. He’s also too dumb in the ways of crime and criminals to realize that the people who believe the money is theirs are not good people, and he also doesn’t stop to think that perhaps the police might also be interested in what happened and where the money might have gone.
Pierre-Paul’s first clueless step is to hire the most expensive prostitute in Montreal, who turns out to be far more than the clichéd hooker with a heart of gold. Aspasie (Maripier Morin) is just as smart, generous, sensible and perceptive as Pierre-Paul is dense. They take walks together, and talk all night long until you figure that her business must be going to pot. A second stroke of luck comes in the form of Sylvain, a master crook just out of prison, who also has no malice in him.
It’s hard to find a movie that’s simultaneously kind, moral and witty. A surveillance cop falls asleep on the job. Pierre-Paul chooses Aspasie in the first place because Aspasie is the name of a friend of Socrates, and she can quote the French writer Racine. When Aspasie confesses that she feels intellectually shallow, Pierre-Paul counters that he has a Ph. D. in philosophy and can provide the depth for the two of them. True to dorky form, Pierre-Paul is dead serious.
It’s of course a male fantasy – this gentle, wise prostitute who makes everything good for an inept guy. But The Fall of the American Empire goes way beyond Pretty Woman with its movie star prostitute who apparently never has or will do an actual trick. All through the movie, Aspasie and Pierre-Paul bump into her satisfied clients. She gets texts and calls late at night. But she slowly grows fond of her needy little man – who never in the movie shows a spark of savvy.
Ultimately, The Fall of the American Empire is a love story and a caper movie, but the usual terms are folded inside out. You figure out where it’s going, but the journey is so full of humanity that it’s just fine. And it’s a wonderful break from the harsh fantasies that careen off movie screens full of hostility, death and astonishing lack of respect for the audience. But The Fall of the American Empire is not mush. It’s a moral drama that makes both characters and audience consider how we behave in the world. And it’s fun.