- Denys Arcand
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 7 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
...for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me...
(La chute de l’empire américain)
Denys Arcand, who in 1989 gave us the challenging Jesus of Montreal, returns to that Canadian metropolis in this satirical crime caper, sprinkled with witticism skewering societal and political foibles. Earlier, in 1986 he made The Decline of the American Empire, but his new film with a similar title is not a sequel, though both films certainly include a dose of sex (mostly talk about in the earlier one). The new title comes from the declaration of the intellectually arrogant anti-hero who, at the beginning of the film, tells Linda (Florence Longpré) who is about to end their relationship, “That’s what destroyed America: Money. Believing only in money.”
Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry) has a Ph. D. in philosophy but he works as a Fed Ex-like delivery agency because it pays more than an entry-level teaching position. He tells Linda hat he is “too intelligent to make it as a bank president and that famous authors and philosophers are “dumb as mules.” Commenting on the election of Donald Trump, he says, “Imbeciles worship cretins.” He sprinkles his self-pitying remarks with quotations from philosophers: “You can’t be a saint when you work 16 hours a day” (Jean Paul Sartre); “Destiny can’t be changed but it can be challenged” (Martin Heidegger); and “A Wise man has money in his head, not in his heart” (Jonathan Swift). The self-absorbed man seems to possess just one redeeming quality: he is genuinely concerned about the city’s large homeless people, especially the indigitents. Whenever he sees one he drops money into their cup or hand. He also volunteers at a city soup kitchen where he befriends its head Jean-Claude (Vincent Leclerc).
One day as he is opening the back of his delivery truck two crooks are stealing several million dollars from an underworld mogul. A third would be robber arrives and shoots them, but he is injured and has to flee out the back. One of the robbers manages to stagger outside before he dies, leaving the two large dufflebags of money lying by his body. Pierre-Paul stands frozen for a couple of minutes, his facial expression revealing the struggle raging in his mind—should I or should I not grab the money. “Should I?” wins out, and he quickly hauls the bags into his truck and hides them behind the packages.
The police show up and rope off the scene. Pierre-Paul claims to have seen nothing, and before the detective can search his truck, she is distracted, and Pierre-Paul drives away. He stashes the bags in a newly rented storage space and ponders what to do. Taking a small stack of bills with him, he ponders what to do with the rest. Some he decides to spend on sex, so, he searches on social media escort site, choosing a partner (Maripier Morin) because she calls herself Aspasia, the name of the mistress of the Athenian leader Pericles, and her ad quotes from the philosopher Racine. She turns out to be as gorgeous and “satisfying” as she is expensive, so Pierre-Paul arranges to see her again. Surprisingly there is something that draws her to him, so she spends longer periods with him than her professionalism warrants, eventually relenting and revealing her real name, Camille.
Pierre-Paul also gets in touch with a newly released convict he has read about, Sylvain Bigras (Remy Girard), a tough-looking biker who, the news article reported, had studied high finance while in prison. Pierre-Paul, well aware that he is out of his depth, contacts Sylvain, who at first, skeptical of the nerdy young man, brushes him off. Pierre-Paul persists, and when he sees the money and realizes how much, warns him not to change anything about his lifestyle. For a cut, he will help in laundering it. He is upset that his now partner has spent some of it on a high-priced call girl, but as Pierre-Paul falls in love with Camille, she is brought into their scheme.
Meanwhile two very suspicious cops, Carla and Pete (Louis Morissette, Maxim Roy), are dogging Pierre-Paul’s path. They have tracked him to the storage bin via the establishment’s surveillance video. Fortunately, by the time they force Pierre-Paul to open it in their presence, Sylvain has moved it the two bags. Using a hood to conceal his face, they are not able to recognize him when they secure the surveillance tape.
A third group introduced to us is an unseemly array of criminals, first the thug who had arranged for his safe stuffed with the cash of another crook to be robbed so he could gain the money, and then two other gangs laying claim to the money and angry that their money has disappeared. There’s some torture and bloodshed involved in this segment, which makes it a bit difficult to enjoy the rest of the film.
Camille turns out to be a key person in the laundering scheme because she has “serviced” Wilbrod Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), a highly respected but utterly unscrupulous financial wizard specializing in money laundering and international tax shelters. In the scene with him we are given a brief lesson law-bending wheeler-dealing, illustrated by a map that traces the labyrinthine route of their money (I should put quotes around the last two words) from Montreal and then the several transfers among the banks of several cities. He has advised them to set up a charitable foundation—“sick children are irresistible”—as a front, as well as several shell companies with respectable but corrupt business leaders willing to serve on their boards. “Money buys happiness: the best-kept secret,” he says.
By this point in the film, we have begun to like Pierre-Paul because he intends to use his portion of the money to benefit Montreal’s homeless people. The most touching scene in the film is what he does for his friend Jean-Claude, head of the soup kitchen, who early on had revealed that he too was homeless but still harboring the dream of being able to walk into his own apartment and not have to move on the next day. This is one of those films whose protagonist uses dubious means to achieve a good outlet because his heart is in the right place. Camille, of course, is the traditional prostitute with a heart of gold, changed by the man who at first had bought her companionship, but then had become her lover. This is a satire, not a social realism film, so it’s probably best not to analyze it too deeply. Just be grateful that Denys Arcand does raise up the issue of homelessness, as well as the disparity of wages, how the wealthy can manipulate the system to avoid taxes, and more. Arcand even closes his crime caper as if it were a documentary with a montage of the faces of Montreal homeless people, many of them indigenous folk.
This review is in the August issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.