In the opening scene of JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme takes out one heavily-armed, vaguely military bad guy after another with his bare hands (and whatever blunt instruments and discarded weapons he grabs along the way) in an elaborately choreographed long take. He comes out the other end huffing and winded as the set falls down around and ruins the take. “It’s hard for me to do it all in one take,” he begs the arrogant, snotty young director. “I’m 47 years old.” And we can see the toll that age, exertion and high-living have taken.
JCVD is an action film where the flamboyant heroics occur only in fantasy. Van Damme’s most daring stunt is a monologue dropped into the middle of the movie, a self-pitying apologia, where he spins his story of a simple Belgian martial arts champ seduced by Hollywood, the naive innocent destroyed by the liars and corrupted by the sudden fame and decadence. It plays like Van Damme’s version of Bela Lugosi’s “Home? I have no home!” speech in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Beast, with Van Damme showing his thespian skills by letting a single tear roll down his cheek up as he rakes over the coals of his screwed-up life. His dramatic muscles are awfully creaky and it’s hard to tell if it’s achingly pretentious, deadpan self-parody or merely Van Damme’s idea of screen test.
But that ambiguity makes the scene so much more interesting and Van Damme is surprisingly engaging as a version of himself who is more vulnerable human being action hero as he tries to survive an armed gang of unraveling personalities. In the real world, he’s more apt to talk than take on a trio of thugs with guns. It’s his first feature in French, his native language. And he manages to maintain self-effacing dignity in the face of director/co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri’s take on his troubled private life. It’s an impressive stunt that pays off in an action film for art movie aficionados and a foreign film for the popcorn crowd. As long as they don’t mind reading subtitles.
I wrote about JCVD for my blog here and for for MSN here.
Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)
Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.
Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel) is my favorite film of the year to date and perhaps the popular breakthrough this French director deserves. It’s the story of a family coming together for Christmas and the conflicts the erupt, but that’s as close as this film gets to the familiar comedies of dysfunctional families reluctantly gathering for the holidays and colliding in slapstick scenes. This is a film of delirious details, great and small, that layer in the complicated relations and complex emotional histories of siblings and parents and cousins and loved ones. Explanations only offer a surface understanding. It’s the way in which these folks act and react and interact that tells us who they are. The why is left to us to ponder.
It’s a lively and dynamic drama played out under the shadow of death: in the untimely death of a first-born (played out in flashback via shadow puppets, an odd device that brings a touching sadness to the memory), in the cancer that is killing family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve), in the odd sibling dynamics that has caused eldest Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance), in the fragility of Elizabeth’s teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling).
This is neither a farce of dysfunctional collisions nor a family drama where dredging up past sins and misunderstandings leads to teary reconciliations. It’s about the messy space inhabited by loved ones who will never know or understand everything about each other (or, for that matter, themselves) and may never overcome their own impulses (rational or irrational) and emotional reflexes. For all the prickly relations, Desplechin’s mix of joy and sadness and generosity and selfishness and forgiveness and blame is beautiful and celebratory.
I also review the film at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.
Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese are an upper-middle-class couple whose entire world is turned upside down when the husband loses his job and struggles with his sense of shame and impotence, finding so much of his identity defined by his career and his ability to support his family.
Soldini doesn’t play the ordeal for melodrama. His sensitivity to depression and pride is nicely measured, and the performers bring a subtlety to the complicated emotions. But his awareness doesn’t probe much beneath the surface of a married couple whose aspirations are subsumed by their desperation to hold on to the status quo.
JCVD is not a biography, though Belgian-born Jean-Claude Van Damme does in fact play a martial arts champion and aging action movie star who returns home to Belgium while he’s embroiled in a brutal custody battle over his daughter and struggling with a film career sliding into cheap international flicks and direct-to-DVD productions.
It’s not exactly an action thriller, though there is a heist-turned-hostage situation a la Dog Day Afternoon, with JCVD smack in the middle and a growing crowd shouting their support for their favorite son (the cops assume that he’s the leader of the gang).
And it’s not quite a satire, though Van Damme allows director Mabrouk El Mechri to lay waste to his film career in sardonic comments and his life in self-lacerating scenes.
In the film’s opening, an elaborately choreographed long take with JCVD breathlessly taking out bad guy after bad guy with his bare hands (and whatever blunt instruments and discarded weapons he grabs along the way), he comes out the other end utterly winded. “It’s hard for me to do it all in one take,” he begs the arrogant, snotty young director. “I’m 47 years old.”
That’s the least of his trials. He’s gripped in a brutal custody battle for a daughter who is embarrassed by her failure of a dad. He’s losing parts to Steven Seagal and he’s teetering on bankruptcy. He can’t even get spending cash out an ATM. Which is what sends him to a post-office at such an inopportune time.