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The Man Behind the Muscles
Van Damme goes meta
by Molly Templeton
JCVD: Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri. Writen by Mechri, Frédéric Bénudis and Christophe Turpin. Cinematography, Pierre-Yves Bastard. Music, Gast Waltzing. Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Peace Arch Entertainment, 2008. R. 97 minutes.
It’s possible that you might want to have as little context as possible before watching JCVD; it’s possible that you might need to know a little something about the film for it to sound appealing. It’s not every day that a Jean-Claude Van Damme film appears at the Bijou, is it? But it’s also not every day that a Jean-Claude Van Damme film has more in common with Being John Malkovich than with, say, any other Jean-Claude Van Damme film.
In JCVD, Van Damme plays himself, mostly. An out of work, fairly down on his luck actor, Jean-Claude is losing his daughter in a custody battle and losing roles to Steven Seagal (who’s promised to cut off his ponytail; what could Jean-Claude possibly offer in kind?). He’s broke, he’s depressed, and when he heads to a Brussels post office to pick up a wire transfer, he finds himself in the middle of a rather screwy heist. Suddenly, he’s protecting the other hostages and acting as negotiator with the outside world, where he’s assumed to be the man behind the robbery.
It’s a tough position to be in.
But simply putting Van Damme into a position where he’s both in the real world and in the plot of a bad action movie isn’t enough for director Mabrouk El Mechri. JCVD is a playful look at fame and celebrity, and how they shape the perception of a person who’s just human, after all, no matter how we think we remember him from hot ’90s fare like Universal Soldier. This film is sepia-toned, drained of most color; it does a nifty little dance through its timeline; sometimes it thinks about being documentary-esque, only to veer off into a segment in which the film appears to skip in the projector and then reset, with a different storyline to play out. Occasionally it poses answers without questions in the form of black title cards, the first of which references the custody battle. Is the relevant question “Why is Jean-Claude so desperate for money?” Is it “Why would he not immediately fight his way out of the post office?” The movie doesn’t answer, but there might be a clue in a surprisingly sympathy-garnering scene in which Jean-Claude’s daughter explains that she doesn’t want to live with her father because her friends make fun of her when his movies come on TV.
JCVD doesn’t answer many questions, to be honest, but it does pose one good one: Would Van Damme have been a different star if he’d been given better material? Here, he’s funny, sly, ordinary, believable, even when he’s floating up above the post office set. From above and outside the film, he delivers a lengthy monologue that addresses his entire past, from learning karate to becoming a star to growing addicted to drugs. Van Damme weeps, even! It’s one of the moments in the film where it feels a bit like something’s gotten lost in translation, yet it still works, and not solely on sheer peculiarity. As an action hero, Van Damme seemed a muscle-bound blank. But as the center of a metacommentary on the various failures of his own existence, he’s something else entirely: a character, and one worth watching.
JCVD opens Friday, Feb. 13, at the Bijou.