(now that I’m actually getting to the reviews part of my festival dispatches, I’m going to my annual 4-star ratings system, in honour of Roger Ebert, and if anyone knows if he made it to the fest this year, please give him my best. I’m also assuming that anyone logging into this blog has access to the tiff08.ca website and the film summaries contained therein so I’ll be skipping plot overviews for the most part.)
Reading over my past few entries, it’s embarrassingly obvious that I’ve been really negative this year. Yeah, there have been some hitches, but I’m willing to posit that one reason I’m so out of sorts is that my regular TIFF body rhythms are off. I’m pretty sure that every other year I’ve attended the festival I’ve attended a screening on opening night. This year with my backup tickets my first film wasn’t until Friday afternoon. So I was living in an emotional temporal stutter until I finally settled in for…a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie? Well, yes and no.
If there exists a more self-excoriating film project by a major movie star, I have yet to see it. JCVD isn’t a joke. It’s not a take-the-piss approach to an actor’s image, a self-referential inside-Hollywood elbow in the ribs ode to a star’s image that comes off as manufactured and contrived as said star’s mainstream efforts. Nor can JCVD even be described as a comeback vehicle, as its goal is something different and almost unsettling: therapy.
The centerpiece of the film is a five-minute unbroken shot in which the drama freezes, the eponymous star floats up through the ceiling and, among unattended grip equipment, breaks the fourth wall to lay himself bare for the audience. No, not in a “Very nice, Mr. Keitel, now please put that away.” sort of way, but in an unsettlingly emotional purge, a paean to a career that tumbled from some relatively impressive heights to straight-to-DVD purgatory. Addressing the camera/audience directly, Van Damme unloads blame for his decline on himself, the business, himself, the pressures of stardom, himself, his own lack of willpower and himself again. He actually cries in this scene, and it doesn’t get a laugh, nor is he going for one. One wonders how many takes were required to get the shot in the can; if it was a first take I wouldn’t be surprised.
The fact that the monolog is delivered in French helps immeasurably. Actually, that could be said about the film as a whole—sample any of Van Damme’s “classic” actioners and one realizes that even a master thespian couldn’t put lipstick on the pig that tried to pass as expository dialogue (No Retreat No Surrender's "So. It is you. The son. Is it not?" still cracks me up). But here, freed from the constraints of The Prisoner ripoffs, illogically paradoxical science fiction and the toxicity of Rob Schneider, as well as using his native tongue. JCVD gives his first genuinely terrific performance, top to bottom. It’s all in the subtleties: asides that are anything but sly, resignation, fatigue…even in one of the few scenes in English, a custody battle flashback, his body language is priceless. If nothing else, only the most churlish critic could fault the star’s acting abilities here. Comparisons to Stallone’s work in Copland (for much the same reasons) are appropriate.
JCVD isn’t a perfect film. The sepia-toned photography is beautiful and evocative, but a little goes a long way to negligible effect. That to-the-camera shot goes on for about a minute longer than it really needs to (or maybe that’s the point). And the production might have shelled out a bit more for a proofreader to snag those typos in the subtitles which, I should point out, were white against white about 20% of the time. But overall, JCVD is a daring move by a star with nothing much left to lose and is all that much more powerful an experience as a result. (***1/2)