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Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2002

This is action for art's sake, baby


Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Roman Coppola
Running time: 88 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 7

Anybody who's in love with the movies always has their own private fantasy film that they can run through their head. You know, some kind of dream-team extravaganza that impossibly packs all your fave talent into one flick. Mine goes something like this: Beatrice Dalle and Maggie Cheung playing opposite Sean Penn and a young Jack Nicholson in a Jim Thompson-scripted film noir, soundtrack by Ry Cooder. Director? C'est moi. Why not? It's my dream, so bugger off.

News photo
Angela Lindval in Roman Coppola's "CQ"

Of course, not many of us are in a position to act on our dreams. But when your name is Roman Coppola, noted director of Fatboy Slim videos and Gap commercials, and your producer -- also your dad -- is the guy who made a little flick called "The Godfather" . . . well in that case, your daydreams are just a few phone calls away.

Roman's debut, "CQ," is very much a fantasy flick come true, a film that's about nothing more than the films he likes. If I wanted to be highbrow about it, I'd call it a "homage" to late '60s French films that draw on diametrically opposed styles; the kitschy B-movie sci-fi and softcore of "Barbarella," plus the introverted, intellectually rigorous works of Godard and Antonioni. In a less generous mood, I'd peg this as "Austin Powers" for the art-house set.

Certainly when your film has a Che Guevara lookalike (Billy Zane) in black beret and silver jacket spewing quasi-hippie agitprop from his base-camp on the moon -- "We need to be free! To make love every day! All day!" -- the Austin comparison seems inevitable; welcome to Swinging Paree, baby! But this bit is from "CQ's" film within a film, a sci-fi spy flick called "Dragonfly." The hero of "CQ" is actually the assistant director on the film, an American ex-pat named Paul, a guy who takes himself much more seriously and obviously knows his Godard.

Paul (Jeremy Davies) wakes up every morning, in his dilapidated Left Bank flat, locks himself in the bathroom, turns the camera on and films himself giving diarylike confessions. (The art-cinema as masturbation metaphor has never been this boldly stated before.) Paul gets pissed off when his girlfriend, Marlene (Elodie Bouchez, in a bad wig), disturbs him; she actually wants to use the bathroom. Fuming, he tells her, "I'm just trying to find what's real and honest, the opposite of the film I'm working on." Marlene, in turn, offers to contribute to his film: "You're self-absorbed," she fumes to the camera. "You obsess over details as if they'll give you some kind of understanding. But what if it's boring?" She's got a point.

Sharing a dislike of pretentious cinema is the producer of "Dragonfly," a smooth-talking Italian named Enzo (Giancarlo Gianini), who sacks Andrezej, the director of the film (Gerard Depardieu), for trying to turn this Corman-esque B-movie into art. "My vision is to subvert the audience's expectations," rants Andrezej, in defense of the flick's nonending. "No film of mine has ever ended with a whimper," replies Enzo.

Andrezej's out, and into the breach steps Paul, who may dream of being an auteur, but still has the sense to notice a career opportunity when it smacks him in the face. Or, at least, when Marlene does.

Marlene walks out on Paul, who -- true to form -- agonizes over his situation, sans girlfriend and with a mere two days to come up with an ending to the incoherent "Dragonfly." Jeremy Davies, as he's proven in the past with "Spanking the Monkey" and "Saving Private Ryan," is a master at playing the chronically incapable guy, but here he gets to take fortune into his own hands. He begins to notice that his leading lady in "Dragonfly," a svelte hippie chick named Valentine (Angela Lindvall, a model for Vogue and Elle), is actually what he desires. That, and a nice big credit on a film that makes money.

As such, "CQ" almost feels like a parable on the virtues of "selling out." A closer look, however, reveals that sometimes it's better to just cut through the complexity. Paul learns -- when he and Valentine leap into a car to give chase to a thief who's stolen the film's final reel -- that sometimes action trumps observation. All of a sudden, he feels less embarrassed by the film he's making.

Coppola's take on the eternal struggle between artistic integrity and commercial success is that the trick lies in learning to balance the two. It's a lesson the director has obviously learned; films about filmmakers have a tendency to disappear up their own bungholes (i.e. "Irma Vep"), but Coppola balances the urge to ruminate with the desire to resuscitate. He revels in the clunky old tech of the times -- such as massive headphones and cameras, primitive purring electronic music, ineptly conceived action sequences (a la the TV "Batman" ), or the sonic boom of the first Concorde flights -- while also capturing the feeling of freedom and potential that was in the air of 1969, the artistic, political and sexual revolution that seemed on the cusp of being. Like "The Ice Storm" or "In the Mood for Love," half the point of "CQ" is to recapture the feel of the era, as if its essence could be found in the ambience.

"CQ" isn't entirely successful in that regard, as the film's retro-chic look lingers far longer than anything it has to say. (Though being upstaged by set-designer Dean Tavaoularis, of the "Godfather" series and "Apocalypse Now," is no sin.) But again, that may be the point: Roger Vadim's "frivolous" little piece of fluff, "Barbarella," is rather more fondly remembered than the now rather tendentious Maoist posturing of Godard's "One Plus One" (aka "Sympathy for the Devil"). And both -- thanks to that great equalizer, time -- are largely viewed through the lens of nostalgia as curious reflections of their times.

As Paul learns on the set of "Dragonfly," you play the hand you're been dealt. If your actress' screen image is making you fall in love with her, and the script calls for her to pose and strut around in some tres cool thigh-high leather boots and space-age outfits, well, keep the art in the bathroom.

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