Written by:
Ben Stephens
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Sofia Coppola’s 2000 film The Virgin Suicides was a deeply sensuous, languid, and dreamlike work, which constantly teetered on the brink of taking itself too seriously, and yet was so steeped in the minute details of the time and the place where it was set, that it cast a beguiling, evocative spell. Her brother Roman, a couple of years later, has graduated from the world of directing music videos and delivered a film that, while very different from his sister’s in terms of theme and content, nevertheless operates on its viewer in a similar fashion. As their legendary father lurks in a quasi-retirement of Executive Producer credits and viticulture, emerging occasionally to direct such memorable gems as The Rainmaker and Jack, the new generation of Coppolas seems more than able to recapture the visionary energy he brought to his earlier work (not so much the stately gravitas of The Godfather I & II, but rather the nervy experimentation of films like Rumblefish and One From The Heart).

At the center of CQ is Paul Ballard (Jeremy Davies) an aspiring young filmmaker living in Paris in 1969, where he is simultaneously working as an editor on Dragonfly – a lavish, Barbarella-esque sci-fi movie – while agonizing privately over the form and content of a far more personal 16mm project he is shooting in the confines of the apartment he shares with his French girlfriend Marlene (Elodie Bouchez, so good in The Dreamlife Of Angels). Matters are complicated when a series of events causes Paul to be appointed to direct what remains of Dragonfly, pulling him into the over-the-top dream world of outer space just when his relationship with Marlene is beginning to falter.

Each genre is crystallized in the form of a woman. Paul’s wavering between Marlene on the domestic front and the glamorous and mysterious actress Valentine (Angela Lindvall), who is playing the role of intergalactic secret agent Dragonfly, neatly mirrors his artistic crisis: torn between fluffy euro-fantasy and navel-gazing cinema verite. Of course, what he really wants is intimacy and fantasy, and CQ is ultimately a charting of his realization that he can’t have both, artistically or romantically.

Coppola, who wrote the script in addition to directing, manages to pull off the rare trick of recreating not only the look of a certain era, but also the feel. Late 60s Paris is recreated not only by what the camera sees, but also by how it sees it, and how it is presented to the audience. Sure, everything down to the smallest box of matches has been painstakingly researched and Art Directed, but Coppola is able to capture some of the loose, breezy spirit of the nouvelle vague in his use of lighting, editing, and camera movement, all of which combine to make the film feel less like a retro in-joke and more like a genuine relic from the period, discovered in a time capsule.

CQ is also well served by its moody synth-pop soundtrack, another element it shares with The Virgin Suicides. Here, the French band Mellow sprinkles a similar layer of auditory pixie dust over Coppola’s images that their fellow countrymen Air did with his sister’s film. This is a very refreshing trend, since film music looked increasingly like it was on the verge of being completely sold out to studios’ marketing departments, who labor to cram as many radio-friendly hits onto the soundtrack of a given film as possible. However, with recent examples such as the Chemical Brothers’ music for Fight Club, Badly Drawn Boy’s soundtrack to About a Boy, and Belle & Sebastian’s score for Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, as well as the lyrical Moog-work espoused by the Coppolas, it seems we are seeing a welcome return to the idea that music might in fact do more for a film than give its promoters a list of band names to flash on the screen at the end of the trailer.

Any film that asks its audience to remain sympathetic towards a tortured wannabe artist as he vacillates between two women is going to need a pretty sympathetic lead actor, and Davies, with his intelligent, boyish face and furrowed brow, somehow manages to keep his character’s plight interesting, although perhaps a little too much of the film consists of him wandering around looking perturbed, with his hands thrust deep into his pockets. Bouchez eloquently shows her exasperation with Paul, while never coming off as a nag, and Lindvall (who makes her film debut here) makes for a beguiling futuristic sex-bomb temptress, although her strongest scene is a curious little moment of intimacy with Davies when she is in her street clothes, as they record pick-up dialog in a sound studio.

The smaller roles are very well filled, with the exception of a very over-the-top Jason Schwartzman, who plays his hot young director as a mix of Austin Powers and a young William Friedkin. In interviews, Coppola is almost touchingly unsure how he managed to assemble such veterans as Gerard Depardieu, Giancarlo Giannini, Dean Stockwell, John Philip Law, et al (ask your dad, Roman), but each of these veterans, with all of their associations and baggage, brings a degree of iconicity and self-referentiality that feels entirely appropriate, given the nature of the material. As Paul’s visiting father, Stockwell in particular stands out, despite only having one scene. He pulls his son out of the world of both his films and both his women for the duration of just one drink at an airport bar, but it is long enough to give CQ the breathing room that is lacking in so much of today’s cinema. It is a quiet little scene that does not need to be there, but it changes the center of gravity of the whole film.

Coppola has cheekily constructed his entire film to quite openly discuss the idea of what constitutes a good ending (Giannini’s studio boss even lectures Paul “There are two kinds of movies; those with an ending, and those that don’t have an ending.”) Whether CQ’s ending is satisfying or not is up to the individual viewer, but the rest of the film is so satisfying and intriguing, it is almost a shame that it has to have an ending at all.

– Ben Stephens

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