I watched JCVD last night, and I loved it. But then I dreamed about it all night, which is not something that happens with very many movies. This suggests that JCVD has some deep affective resonance for me; I’d like to figure out what it is. Also Charlie Bertsch asked me how I thought it compared to The Wrestler, which I also liked, though not anywhere near as much.
Both JCVD and The Wrestler are about highly athletic men who have slowed down in middle age. They both used to be big stars, but now they are both struggling to make a comeback. And in both films, this is the situation both of the protagonist, and also of the actor playing that protagonist. Now, I’ve never felt that Mickey Rourke ever went away — during the years of his obscurity, I continued to enjoy his star presence in such movies as Spun (2002), Sin City (2005), and Domino (2005). [And don’t forget how he is the only macho action star to have also successfully played such a role as that of St Francis of Assisi — as he does in Liliana Cavani’s underrated Franceso (1989).] But I couldn’t be happier that Rourke is winning all that attention for The Wrestler. In his portrayal of one-time wrestling hotshot Randy “The Ram”, he manages to be both masochistically exhibitionistic (in the wrestling scenes, of course), and at the same time sweet, clumsy, and clueless in equal measure (in the scenes depicting the rest of his life, at his job in the supermarket, his home in the trailer park, and his botched relationships with his daughter and with the Marisa Tomei character). I am rooting for him to wih the Best Actor Oscar (though I will be very surprised if he actually does; while Hollywood loves rehabilitation stories, their love goes only so far, and The Wrestler is too much the sort of termite-art, semi-disreputable genre movie that the Oscar crowd looks down upon, preferring to give awards to white elephants).
Jean Claude Van Damme, in contrast, will never be nominated for an Oscar. His performance in JCVD obviously does not achieve (and doesn’t even aim for) the gonzo bravura heights of Rourke’s turn in The Wrestler. But there’s a sense in which his simple presence on the screen is even more audacious than that of Rourke. And also, I really hadn’t seen Van Damme in years — his IMDB profile shows that he has been continually busy, but mostly in straight-to-video films that I had never even heard of.
In any case, in JCVD, Van Damme simply plays a double of himself: “Jean Claude Van Damme”,Â a middle-aged, one-time martial-arts-action-star, with his career now on the skids. He’s coming home to Brussels, after failing miserably in Hollywood. His agent can only find him roles in the crummiest, lowest-budget movies; his finances are so low that all his credit cards are rejected by the ATM; and (in the opening section of the film) he loses custody of his daughter after a bitter divorce trial (in which his ex-wife’s lawyer denounces the moral depravity and glorification of violence in Van Damme’s movies, and his daughter complains to the court that other kids in school make fun of her for having such a washed-up has-been ex-star of a father).
But even before the divorce-court flashbacks, the movie makes you pay attention to Van Damme, and to what he can and cannot do. Over the opening credits, there’s an amazing long sequence shot, filled with special effects and digitally composited add-ons, in which Van Damme makes his way down a street, dispatching bad guys right and left with gunshots, with kicks and karate chops, or by banging them down with various props; he manages along the way not only to dodge bullets, and drag along somebody he is rescuing, but even to douse a flamethrower (I can’t remember quite how; I will have to watch the shot again). The sequence is so shamelessly over-the-top, and so extended, that it becomes absurd, or sublimely ridiculous: sort of the movie equivalent of really bad, but compulsively addictive, methamphetamines. Finally, the credits over, Van Damme reaches a door, and steps inside; at that point, there’s a cut, we see the cameras that were filming the scene; an exhausted Van Damme remarks that, at age 47, it’s hard for him to do those long single takes the way he used to.
In 1991 or thereabouts, Kathy Acker told me that she thought Van Damme had the most gorgeous and perfect body of just about anyone on screen. Today, it isn’tÂ that he is decrepit — he looks pretty good, and pretty solid, for somebody his age (he is considerably younger than me, and about 10 months older than Obama) — but he is no longer young, and he clearly doesn’t have the looks, or the moves, that he used to. Nonetheless, everyone loves him because he is a star; everyone wants to take a photo with him, or to see him demonstrate his trademark drop kick. The young Maghrebi men in his Brussels neighborhood video store even give him extra props for being the only big action star who hasn’t demonized Arabs or Muslims as bad guys. But all that is really in the past; now he’s short of money, and short on career options. He’s even lost a hoped-for comeback movie role to Steven Seagal (who has even agreed to cut off his ponytail in order to get the part). This sense of hapless failure, combined with the general (unfair) impression that Van Damme cannot act (that his young body was the one and only thing he had going for him), gives an atmosphere of haplessness and decay to everything that he does in the film.
The plot, of course, is a mere (and largely implausible) contrivance, as it so often is in B movies.Â Van Damme goes to the post-office/bank to see if he can get some money; he inadvertently stumbles into a holdup in progress, and is held as a hostage, along with the other customers and employees. But the robbers force Van Damme at gunpoint to be their public voice, appearing in the bank’s window and negotiating by phone with the police; they make it appear to the outside world as if he were the one holding hostages and demanding ransom. And so it all becomes an international media spectacle, with Van Damme’s celebrity as the focal point. Basically, everyone thinks he’s gone beserk due to his recent career setbacks. The international TV crews are there, as are Van Damme fans thrilled to think that he is apparently doing his action-movie routine in real life. Van Damme’s American agent and lawyer both dump himÂ in disgust; his parents show up, and tearfully beg him to give himself up without hurting anyone. Meanwhile, inside, Van Damme’s action chops are useless when faced with guns; instead, he’s the voice of sweet (albeit weary) reason, trying to reassure the other hostages, and to defuse tensions. He suggests alternative actions to the robbers, trying to avoid a massacre; and he also plays mind games with them to some extent, trying to turn them against one another (and finally succeeding to a degree).
But real life isn’t anything like an action movie. And so Van Damme can’t really do that much. This is emphasized, precisely, by the film’s numerous self-reflexive, meta-cinematic turns. Action is scrambled, and repeated from different perspectives, and out of chronological order. Movie fantasy scenes of Van Damme’s drop kick are interspersed with scenes where we see how ineffectual he actually is. The whole movie is shot in ultra-widescreen, and its general look is overlaid by a washed-out patina (I do not know what filter, lighting arrangement, or digital effect is used to generate this): this gives JCVD an overall feel that is difficult to describe: perhaps I could call it “gritty realism,” but with the quotation marks indicating that it is more the abstract idea of being gritty and realistic, than something that actually is gritty and realistic. I mean that this abstraction, this distancing, is the movie’s deliberate effect. There’s a curious dislocation operating everywhere: it indicates that, even when we are seeing Van Damme outside of his movie persona, as he “really is,” this reality cannot shake itself free of the impotent aura of his stardom. Van Damme can never be just “himself”; he can never return to being plain and simple Jean-Claude Camille FranÃ§ois Van Varenberg.
All in all, then, the movie offers a melancholy take on celebrity, as well as allowing Van Damme to deconstruct his whole career, and the movie business that gave him that career. The high point of the movie is another single long take, in which the background of the beseiged bank, with robbers and hostages, falls away, and Van Damme addresses the camera directly, for something like six minutes, with a film-studio platform as his backdrop. He speaks fervently and emotionally of his life, and of the state of the world, at one point nearly breaking down in tears. His monologue is filled with existential anguish. He recalls that he was not brought up in luxury, and says how thankful he is to have seen his dreams come true, and how sad he is that so many people do not live to see their dreams come true. He recalls his many marriages and divorces, and says that there was love in every one of these relationships, even if they ultimately failed to work out. He speaks of love and loneliness, and the sad state of the world, and of how, even for someone as fortunate as he has been, there are always failures and disappointments.
This scene is remarkable, and affectively powerful, not just because it comes up when we do not expect it, and ruptures the realist frame of the film. But also, and more importantly, because of the way that it mingles sincerity with the utmost artifice. Van Damme steps out of the frame of the fiction (even of the fiction that this is his “real life” rather than a turn on a movie set) in order to deliver a genuine cri de coeur. But at the same time, the very things that guarantee the monologue’s “authenticity” — its inordinate length, its direct address, and the earnestness with which Van Damme speaks out, and faces up to the pitiless eye of the camera — all these also foreground themselves as artifices, because they are a self-conscious demonstration. Van Damme is showing the world that he can act. He emotes, he turns the emotions on and off; he shows us the virtuoso range of his persona. He proves to the world that he is not just “the muscles from Brussels,” but also somebody with a heart and a brain, and with strong dramatic chops. In other words, the effectiveness of his performance hinges entirely on our not quite taking it seriously, but instead taking it as a performance, as a masterful display of technique.Â We are being forced to believe, not in what Van Damme actually says, but in the way he says it, and beyond that in his power of fabulation. So one watches this scene with the same fascinated sense of delirious over-the-topness, as one does the sequence shot during the opening credits.
To my mind, this means that JCVD is an honest and affecting film — precisely in the way it includes its own artifices in everything that it avows. (This is also why I think that it reaches further than The Wrestler, which lovingly explores the artifices of wrestling, but does not quite extend this exploration to itself, or to its own medium). And because of the film’s conviction, its trust in its own artifice, and because Van Damme is at once so resourceful and so hapless and helpless, because of the way he has made this film that pulls out the rug from under his whole career — because of all this, we must imagine Jean Claude Van Damme (as Albert Camus said we must imagine Sysiphus) happy.