Denys Arcand’s latest film, The Fall of the American Empire, is the third part in an unofficial trilogy that spans The Decline of the American Empire, released in 1986, and The Barbarian Invasions, released in 2003. Focusing on a collection of couples discussing marriage, infidelity and sexuality in a frank and open manner, Decline was a high watermark in the 1980s conversation film. Along with releases like My Dinner With Andre, it paved the way for a new kind of literate, theatrical and arthouse cinema in both Canada and the United States, that was invested in challenging the ideas of cinematic spectacle promulgated by Hollywood. Despite being released almost twenty years later, long after this moment in arthouse cinema had passed, The Barbarian Invasions managed to reinvent and remediate its style for the new millennium, gaining Arcand the first ever Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for a Canadian entry, and the much-coveted Best Screenplay Award at Cannes.
Nearly as much time has elapsed between The Barbarian Invasions and Fall as between Decline and The Barbarian Invasions, making for a very different instalment in the trilogy. In essence, The Barbarian Invasions caught up with the characters of Decline a generation later, examining how their discussions and conversations played out deep into middle age, and with a new awareness of mortality. Most of the film was propelled by the fact that the main character, Remy, played by Remy Girard, was terminally ill, signalling an end to the salons and chambers dramas that he had erected around himself in the first film. For that reason, Fall deals with an entirely new set of characters, and departs quite dramatically and deliberately from the conversation mode of the first two films, even if it plays as a commentary upon that conversation mode, and its ongoing viability at the end of the 2010s.
For a moment, however, Arcand seems to be heading in the same direction as the first two films, opening with a sustained conversation between Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry) and his ex-girlfriend Natasha (Rose-Marie Perreault) in a non-descript Montreal café. From the outset, Pierre-Paul is immediately recognisable as a descendant of Arcand’s first two conversation films, not just in the way in which he holds his own in his discussion with Natasha, but in the way in which he frames himself as a speaker. First and foremost, he insists to Natasha, he is a man of intelligence – so intelligent, in fact, that he has been unable to rise above his current job position as a courier for a local Montreal company. In a rambling monologue, he goes through all the different ways in which intelligence is a disadvantage in this world, drawing upon famous writers, philosophers and thinkers – all of them white men – to support his point. It feels almost inevitable when we discover that Pierre-Paul has a PhD in Philosophy, since something of the slightly uptight and inflexible demeanour of so much academic philosophy works its way into his conversation as well, as he proceeds to explain to Natasha why their relationship went wrong, and how to repair it.
At that level, Pierre-Paul exudes the same assurance in his own voice, and his own discourse, that made the speakers in Arcand’s previous two films feel so invulnerable, even or especially when they were disclosing highly sensitive or personal information. Yet Pierre-Paul’s intelligence, and his confidence, also feels compensatory here, partly because the film doesn’t – or can’t – accommodate itself to his utterances in the same way as the first two films in the trilogy. In Decline and The Barbarian Invasions, Arcand’s camera was content to wrap an insular and hypnotic chamber drama around the lives and words of his speakers, rarely venturing outside of their conversations for any great length of time. By contrast, Fall quickly gives way to a action-heavy genre film, in which Pierre-Paul witnesses a robbery, steals an enormous amount of cash, and then finds himself uncertain of how to conceal it.
Throughout this process, there are fragments of the first two films – asides where Pierre-Paul discourses about the nature of capitalism, the United States and the nature of the world in 2018. However, these moments are always subsumed back into the pace and rhythm of the film, giving a sense that the kinds of discourse once proffered by conversation films has now become impotent and ineffective. In particular, the digital harshness of Fall made me realise just how stately and cinematic the visual appearance of the first two films actually were. Less about conversation, in the end, than taking the chamber drama to its logical conclusion, these two films assumed that the camera was capable of cordoning off these speakers from the rest of the world for two or three hours at a time, and enjoining the audience to do the same. By contrast, the digital address of Fall is too messy and promiscuous to allow Pierre-Paul’s observations to ever achieve that splendid isolation, or that splendid sequestration from the world to which they refer. Assuming a critical distance that is denied by the filming apparatus itself, Pierre-Paul’s comments aren’t all that different from those of the original characters in the trilogy, but are so quickly displaced by the camera’s restless and roving energy that they quickly start to feel trite and platitudinous – and to suggest that perhaps the first two films were rather trite and platitudinous all along.
In fact, the chambered talkiness of the first two films seems to make Fall doubly restless to displace Pierre-Paul’s utterances whenever they veer too far towards monologue, as if prescient that indulging a full-blown conversation film would be self-parody at this point. The more he becomes a source of moral gravity in the film – donating to charities, expounding to an escort about the plight of Inuit peoples in Montreal – the more anxious the film is to displace him. By about halfway through, it feels as if the playfully authoritative male voice that anchored Decline and The Barbarian Invasions is no longer tenable, so it’s appropriate that Remy Girard returns in the guise of Sylvain “The Brain” Birgas, an ex-con that Pierre-Paul hires to help him dispose of all the cash he has accumulated. Whereas Girard was the anchor of the first two films, here he functions as the point where all that conversational gravitas disperses and decelerates. Whether he’s putting a hoody over his eyes to avoid being caught on a security camera, or taking Pierre-Paul to where he buried his own stash in a local graveyard, he’s easily the broadest character in the film, and the character most indebted to Hollywood conventions, making it impossible for Pierre-Paul to indulge in disquisitions whenever he’s around. In fact, much of their rapport involves Sylvain shutting down Pierre-Paul whenever he tries to converse in the manner of Fall or The Barbarian Invasions, as Arcand takes the conversational motor-engine of his trilogy – and one of only two actors to recur – and uses him to show the trilogy arriving at its own limit.
Within this unusual set of circumstances, Pierre-Paul is never able to find the balance between normality and exceptionality that made the original speakers in the trilogy so compelling. While these speakers were all quite exceptional in their willingness to speak about their lives, the point of the first two films was that their lives were also more normal than Hollywood would have us believe – their exceptionality lay in their determination to revise our ideas of what normality entailed. Of course, that ability to be both exceptional and normal at the same time is a hallmark of whiteness, and how whiteness perceives itself, with the result that Pierre-Paul often plays as a sniveling study in white fragility more than anything else, alternately insisting that he is an “archetypal upright citizen…working-class family, university degree” but also that his PhD in Philosophy makes him the smartest person in the room, as when he blithely assures Aspasie (Maripier Morin), a high-class escort, that she can depend on him to provide the “depth” in their burgeoning relationship.
By extension, the first two films were also keen to be both normal and exceptional in their relation to Hollywood conventions, assuming an avant-garde distance from the language of Hollywood while also drawing quite obviously upon American visions of baby boomers coming of age, most notably The Big Chill and thirtysomething. By extension, too, Fall is also unable to maintain this precise balance between normality and exceptionality, resulting in a film that often seems to draw upon the most banal parts of both arthouse cinema and mainstream cinema. From the moment that ominous hip-hop blares over the credit sequence, Fall often feels like a student movie, with a soundtrack drawn from public domain music, or even from iMovie. For all the parodic nods in the direction of Hollywood film genres – the theft occurs in a deserted Hollywood video store – the film itself feels almost laughably indebted to the crudest of genre tropes, and utterly insatiable in its movement from one genre to the next. At times, too, it plays like the most generic of television procedurals, especially when the two agents investigating the burglary, and keeping an eye on Pierre-Paul, don their sunglasses and parry banter that could be ripped from a CSI draft.
As might be expected, that’s a pretty stark contrast to the tightly wound tastefulness of the first two films, and for a while I didn’t find it especially interesting or enjoyable to watch, even if I wasn’t a particular fan of the first two films in the trilogy either. However, this odd atonality takes on a different intensity about halfway through the film, when Pierre-Paul, with Sylvain and Aspasie’s help, gets in contact with Maitre Taschereau, played by Pierre Curzi, the only other actor to recur from Decline and The Barbarian Invasions. As a tax haven specialist, Taschereau ensures Pierre-Paul that he will be able to make his money legitimate enough for him to be able to “draw salaries, make investment reports and claim tax deductions.” The very fact of Curzi being cast in this role, along with Remy in the role of the aging career criminal, speaks volumes about how the ambit of the trilogy, and its optimism about the baby boomer project, has changed since Decline was released. While Decline was certainly self-deprecating at times, it was also confident of the ability of baby boomers to voice even that self-deprecation like no other generation, exuding a playful self-assurance that is light years away from the hard, cold tax advice given by Taschereau in this sequence. The point is made succinctly when Taschereau compares tax evasion to wife-beating, observing that, since wife-beating is legal in some countries, wife-beaters should strategise so as to take their wives to these countries – a subordination of sexual liberation to financial pragmatism that eloquently encapsulates how drastically the trilogy has transformed itself.
More evocatively, however, Taschereau tells Pierre-Paul that he will clean his money by sending it on a “trip around the world,” moving it through the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles, the Channel Island and then London, before it finally ends up in Switzerland. I felt, at this point, that what Arcand really wanted to do was to follow the money – or that this is what Arcand had already been doing – in order to capture the odd atonality of money itself in our contemporary capitalist environment. Both sinister, but also exuding a picaresque sense of being benign against all the odds, Fall exudes the tone of money, the way money feels as a continuous point of reference in our society. The fact that physical money is fading away makes this atonality even more glaring, just as the atonality of the film peaks at those moments at which the physical presence of the money is most remote from the action (and Arcand rarely spends much time on the physicality of the money anyway). Despite all the suffering it produces, the film also can’t shake the idea that money is inherently good, or inherently charitable, suggesting it’s impossible to conceptualise money without taking both of these ideas into account. When Taschereau tells Pierre-Paul that the best way to hide his money is through an anonymous charitable organisation – “an international fund for children” – it doesn’t quite feel like cynicism, or satire, so much as a way of taking advantage of the inchoate tonality that money already possesses in our world.
For that reason, The Fall of the American Empire often reminded me of Robert Bresson’s Money in its desire to capture the inchoate and inconsistent tonalities of money outside of the constraints of a human narrative. For Arcand, it seems as if the fall of the American empire is tantamount to the fall of an American way of understanding money – an attribution of a consistent tonality to capital that is distinctively American. Whereas the first two films were charting, and resisting, the decline of a form of cultural capital that was also distinctively America, this third film situates that in a more literal form of capital, one that undoes all the exquisitely manicured tonality that made the first two films so iconic. As the tension of Fall gradually dissipates, it feels as if we are also witnessing the first two films in the series decelerating and devolving, as Pierre-Paul’s disquisitions on Plato, Socrates and Wittgenstein are displaced by cruder – and yet also more satisfying – genre sequences. By the end, when Pierre-Paul actually returns to working in a soup kitchen, and buys a house for a homeless friend, you sense that something has been disrupted, but that the film can’t even frame that disruption in a consistent way either, since that would be to accept the totalising tonality once again. All Arcand can do is end, quite abruptly, with a montage of indigenous Canadians, none of whom have featured in the film, but all of whom suggest, somehow, that the form of capital he is challenging is even more white than it is American, and must now look to people outside itself in order to envisage any hope of a real future.