Denys Arcand on the theme that ties ‘The Fall of the American Empire’ to Trump


TORONTO — Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand believes that centuries from now, people will remember our current political moment as the end of an era.

In this way, the title of his latest feature, “The Fall of the American Empire,” could also be read as “these times we are living in,” Arcand said.

“It’s not precisely about … Donald Trump. But still, every day, the news that you look at or that you read is reminiscent of a kind of fall,” Arcand said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.

“(The U.S.) is going to hell, at least as far as I can see it. They are running into trouble.”

The 77-year-old director, who won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2004 for “The Barbarian Invasions,” admits the Montreal-set film is somewhat removed from the workings of the Trump White House, but he said the cinematic and political dramas share a common theme — the power of money to drive people’s choices, for good or for ill.

“Once you don’t believe in anything, the last thing you believe in is money,” Arcand said. “It’s unavoidable, and at the same time, it’s our tragedy, because we have no other values than, ‘What are you worth?'”

A spiritual sequel to 1986’s “The Decline of the American Empire,” “The Fall of the American Empire” was inspired by a 2010 shooting in a Montreal clothing store that killed two people, which at the time police believed to be gang related.

The film centres on Pierre-Paul Daoust, played by Alexandre Landry, a disaffected young man with a PhD in philosophy who has to work as a courier to make ends meet.

During a delivery, Daoust happens upon the scene of a botched armed robbery to find two people dead and bags filled with millions in cash lying on the ground.

The philosopher is faced with a real-life ethical quandary: Should he leave the evidence for police, or take the money and run?

His decision sets the stage for a game of cat and mouse involving criminals and law enforcement, following the money as it circulates in ways both legal and illicit.

Arcand said the film was originally titled “The Triumph of Money,” but he decided that was too narrow, because money is just a tool — its moral value is determined by how one uses it.

“You can do great things with money. You can better people’s lives; you can build hospitals; you can save refugees from Africa,” he said. “And you can also just have it and totally corrupt an election.”

Having premiered in Quebec last June, Arcand said he’s curious to see how the film is received by English-speaking audiences, particularly those in the U.S.

As with so many aspects of American life, he imagines the response will likely be divided along political lines.

But to those who may mistake “The Fall of the American Empire” as call for Trump to be ousted from the Oval Office, Arcand has a warning: be careful what you wish for.

“In the Roman Empire, after Caligula came Nero, so don’t get your hopes too high,” he said. “If (Trump is) impeached and then (Vice-President) Mike Pence becomes president, it could be worse.”

“The Fall of the American Empire” opens in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Calgary on Friday.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press