Director/Screenwriter: Roman Coppola
By Roderick Heath
Damn Francis Ford Coppola and his talented family! Even if, Nicholas Cage excluded, they’re preferable behind the camera to in front of it, they’ve still managed to brew many a sour grape into critical wine. Daughter Sofia, of course, survived being skinned alive a trifle excessively for her acting in The Godfather Part III (1990) to become one of the most interesting American directors today. Her older brother Roman came into the family business as an assistant director and editor and made his directorial debut with the barely seen CQ, which I’ve sought out since its release but only just caught up with. It was worth the wait and should have been seen back then. Where Sofia’s works are cool and poetic, CQ proves lush, ironic, and more openly referential. It’s also one of the unsung movies of the decade, a densely packed hour and a half that manages to sum up much of the beauty and the pain of being young and creative.
Paul Ballard (Jeremy Davies) is a young, up-and-coming American filmmaker who’s moved to Paris in the late 1960s and is currently employed as an editor on a pop-arty superhero flick, Codename: Dragonfly. But he considers his real work to be the confessional documentary he’s working on, which charts his daily travails and disintegrating relationship with his airline hostess girlfriend Marlene (Élodie Bouchez). Paul desperately wants to be an innovative, personal cinematic artist, and he perceives Dragonfly as time-wasting phoniness. Dragonfly’s director, Andrezej (Gerard Depardieu), is an aging has-been auteur who’s convinced himself he’s making a vitally relevant parable about the student revolutionary movement. He’s conjured a soppy anti-climactic ending where Dragonfly, the vampy spy-for-hire heroine, falls in love with rebel leader Mr. E (Billy Zane) and joins his movement.
Angry and disappointed, the film’s Ponti-and-de Laurentiis-esque producer Enzo (Giancarlo Giannini) fires Andrezej, who’s so upset he punches his fist through the screening room door. Enzo seeks a new director to finish the project. At first he settles on young whiz kid Felix DeMarco (Jason Schwartzman), who’s just wrapping up a vampire film, but when Felix breaks his leg in a car crash, Paul is elected to conjure a decent ending for the movie. CQ runs the risk of resembling a roman-a-clef about Roman’s old man, but in a smart twist on Roman’s part, Francis is far more embodied in the arch DeMarco, the wunderkind meteor rising from ’60s trash, than in the repressed, depressed Paul, whose story conjures not only Francis but also the likes of Michael Reeves and a time in which youth and promise became vital to the resuscitation of the cinema and you could get ahead simply by hanging about and doing your job well. In Paul’s mind, the divide between the two is initially insurmountable. And yet filmmaking attracts and demands artists whose visions blend the two in unexpected ways. Paul finds himself skewered with intense jealousy when he beholds the spectacle that is DeMarco—hip, confident, with a gorgeous starlet fiancé, the fact that he’s a wanker completely unnoticed by the cognoscenti—whereas Paul is pasty, introverted, and out of place amongst the beautiful people of the Euro-hipster circles he’s drawn into.
But CQ is really more about the idea of that milieu and its transient beauties, and like Sofia’s Lost in Translation (2003), it looks squarely at filmmaking as just another often-crappy job, the makers often wearied and confused, if still often fuelled by intense longings and ambitions that attract them to this work. Roman pays purposeful tribute to two very different strands of late ’60s cinema: where Codename: Dragonfly is patterned after flicks like Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966), and more than a dash of Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1967: Diabolik himself, John Philip Law, appears as an actor in the film within the film), Paul’s work in progress quotes cinema verité and Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1968). It’s that classic ’60s schism, the authentic and the phony.
Meanwhile, Marlene accuses him of hiding behind and in front of his camera, and increasingly resents his absorption with filmmaking when it becomes apparent that Paul won’t emerge until he’s proven himself as a talent. Marlene can’t wait that long, and flees their love nest. Paul rambles in confusion, unable to come up with an ending in three days, and the remainder of the shoot seems threatened by a lurking saboteur whom everyone thinks is Andrezej. But Paul becomes inspired by his growing fascination with the film’s starlet, Valentine (Angela Lindvall), an ingénue whom Enzo discovered at a student protest. Impossibly gorgeous and desperately desired by all the men, Valentine retains a remote veneer that hides her anxiety and loneliness; she’s as disaffected by the gap between her job and her lifestyle as Paul is, living in a squat with a mob of hippies, one whom, Paul finds, is engaged in exactly the same sort of cinema verité project he is. Finally, stranded in Rome after a pointless meeting with Enzo, abandoned by Marlene, and alone on New Year’s Eve, a casual encounter with a girl who’s waiting for her boyfriend to desert the army and come to her gives him the spark of inspiration for Dragonfly’s new finale.
CQ delves into how fantasies can often conjure and realise deep longings, as well as how truth must be constructed, how dedication to art can both hinder engagement in the real world for an artist and yet can be as vital as oxygen. The title is a pun on “Seek You,” a message Paul fantasises that Dragonfly is transmitting, and Paul is surely seeking something almost indescribable, unobtainable. Yet, as he peels the layers from his perceptions and dreams, he arrives at new truth. As he loses his grip on Marlene, who insists he remain grounded, Paul drifts closer to Valentine, who is delighted when the barriers between life and art slip away. When she and Paul use Dragonfly’s car to chase down Andrezej, who has stolen some footage, she excitedly kisses him in a moment of ecstatic consummation. In Paul’s ending for Codename: Dragonfly, the heroine is revealed to be a robotic stand-in for its builder’s real daughter, who is as equally smitten with Mr. E as the cyborg was. Paul finds a way to replicate his discovery of the real Valentine, an intensely private experience, in the structure of a silly fancy.
CQ is as self-referential as anything Charlie Kaufman has conjured (“Did you really think a car chase could end this film?” Andrezej demands of Paul right after a car chase) but far less obnoxiously so, as the edges of true and imagined narrative blur and coalesce. Amongst his father’s films, the closest exemplar to Roman’s work is his loopy breakthrough comedy You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), in which a similarly ill-formed young man chased a dream woman, except that where Francis’ film conformed to the traditional template of despoiling the image and setting the hero up with a more modest girl, Roman thankfully sidesteps the standard message, acknowledging that even good relationships must end when the two people don’t fully understand each other. In the final scenes, Paul has completed his personal project and is shepherding it to a festival: even if he’s still less famous than Felix DeMarco, his movie holds real promise, and he’s on the threshold of two new projects, which entwine in the film’s last shot, of Valentine frolicking before his camera, now shooting in colour.
Something both Roman and Sofia have certainly learnt from their father is a vital sense of cinema aesthetics: all their films are crisply conceived and visually gorgeous, and, unlike Francis in his archer moments, neither have yet gone for style for style’s sake. Appropriately, CQ’s reproduction of the style of the era’s pop spectacle films is uncannily, hilariously exact, and reveals how clumsy most efforts at retro-class (e.g. the godawful Austin Powers films) are. Dragonfly’s plush, futuristic apartment; white, leather cat-suits and goggles; Mr. E’s moon-base revolutionaries patterned after Guevara guerrillas; and model work that could have been transposed directly out of Casino Royale (1967) are a marvel. Certain sound effects, such as Dragonfly’s car and the tunnel setting that the film crew utilises, readily reference the American Zoetrope production THX-1138 (1971).
Davies was cast a few too many times as the pallid, neurotic alter-ego for indie auteurs, but he still pulls off the tricky job of finding the charm and passion underneath Paul’s flaky surface. Lindvall is affecting as the alienated and pining Valentine, and delightful as the springy Dragonfly. Zane is gamely self-satirising as the hammy gay actor who plays the debonair Mr. E. The older pros in the cast are uniformly terrific: Depardieu and Giannini are hilarious, and Dean Stockwell adds a gloriously spacey, yet compassionate appearance as Paul’s jetlagged doctor father, who comes to Paris for a few minutes to check how his son is. How much this resembles Roman and Francis’s relationship, we can only guess.