Review: Intelligence, Love and the Ways of the World in Astute The Fall of the American Empire

Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) is very smart, and he sees this as a crippling strike against him in love and life. As he sees it, he’s so intelligent that he can’t engage with women (or anyone) on the most basic level, because he finds everything from small talk to the trappings of love as something that only the less intelligent get involved with. If this 36-year-old French-Canadian deliveryman sounds like someone you would absolutely despise, you’re probably right, which makes the success of The Fall of the American Empire all the more fascinating and engaging.

Fall of the American Empire
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The film is the brainchild of writer/director Denys Arcand (The Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal, and the Oscar-winning The Barbarian Invasions), and begins as something almost too outrageous to be true. When Pierre-Paul is making a delivery to a fairly abandoned location, he gets caught in the middle (or more specifically, off to the side) of the violent robbery of a safe that results in many dead people and two very full bags of millions of dollars left out in the open, with no one around to see the delivery man hide them in his truck. Having no reason to suspect him and no idea that money is even missing, the police let him leave the scene.

As annoying as he might be, Pierre-Paul is a decent guy, volunteering at the local soup kitchen and always giving whatever he has in his pockets to the homeless people in his neighborhood, even though he himself is nearly broke. Suddenly coming into possession of all of this untraceable cash puts him in a bind. He hides it well (he thinks) but is afraid to spend it, knowing eventually the police will come back to him as a suspect. He’s tempted to do many things with the money—give it all to charity, improve his life or just sit on it indefinitely. His one indulgence is to hire a high-priced escort named Aspasie (newcomer Maripier Morin, in her film debut), whom he selects based on references to his favorite philosophers on her website. After only a few minutes in her company, two things happen: he naturally falls deeply in love, and the police immediately suspect him of having the money since hiring Aspasie costs more than Pierre-Paul makes in a month.

Strangely, the two do form a connection based primarily on their mutual intelligence. It turns out she studied growing up to be good at her job, so she knows a great deal about many things, including finance and how to evade the police. Pierre-Paul hires former biker gang leader Sylvain ‘The Brain’ Bigras (Rémy Girard), recently released from prison, who studied finance while locked up, to advise him how to get the money to an undetectable account outside of Canada without actually going across national borders.

All of this is a pleasant enough distraction as a story, and the way the ever-growing group of would-be money launderers continue to escape the authorities is rather amusing, but the real purpose of Fall is to explore societal values in the corruptive presence of money, the complicated inner workings of the human heart, and question whether it’s worth being intelligent in this day and age. The film is very much of the moment (the current U.S. president’s name is mentioned once or twice as an example of the dumb voting for the dumber to lead them). And while Arcand includes an actual hooker with a heart of gold as a central character, Morin’s performance is so unexpectedly nuanced, charming and witty, it’s easy to notice the differences between her portrayal of such a character and ones that, on the surface, feel similar. The movie sneaks up on you, gets under the skin and wins us over with its astute observations and keen sensibility about the way of the world and the ways the system can be subverted. This is one truly worth seeking out.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.