As a critique of celebrity culture, JCVD has some apt, if slightly obvious, observations (one of the police chiefs sees himself as a supporting star in a Van Damme vehicle; in countering the action genre's tendency to represent Arabs as terrorists, the Arab characters - who comment upon this stereotype in the film - could not be further from villainy). In most hands, these ideas are simply platitudes, but the director, Mabrouk El Mechri, includes them with a touch light enough to allow them to register emotionally. More affecting, however, is his style in relation to Van Damme himself. Of these, the most remarkable is the film's opening sequence, which begins with an exquisite long take depicting the filming of a Van Damme action sequence, paired on the soundtrack with Curtis Mayfield's 70s classic Hard Times. No shot like this exists in any Van Damme film that I am aware of: unlike the fantasies of action cinema, which depict their attractions and stunts through the kind of invisible editing that hides the reality of their construction, and their dependence on real human bodies, El Mechri hear lets us see Van Damme as that very real body, at times comically unable to perform, at 47 years of age, the ridiculous feats his (largely disinterested) diegetic director is asking him to perform. The shot, for me, in summing up what turned out to be the major theme of the film, was incredibly moving, moreso than any of the younger Van Damme's "feats" likely would have been.
In some respects, this opening long take is the best thing in the movie. Perhaps this is because it sums up poetically what the rest of film sometimes communicates through a more prosaic rhetoric. In fact, at one point Van Damme himself becomes a rhetor. In a temps mort during the robbery, Van Damme sits with the other hostages. Suddenly, a crane, with the camera attached, raises Van Damme into the air, and the viewer, is reminded (if indeed it has been forgotten in such a reflexive film) that this is a movie, and Van Damme is a movie star. What follows is more surprising: a seven-minute sequence in which "Van Damme himself"addresses the audience, and pours out his heart on a variety of topics (stardom, obviously, but also America, his movies, violence, mortality, among other things). As Van Damme himself has suggested in a press conference about JCVD:
The movie is in French, so I don't know if it's going to be that big. It is going to be subtitled, so the German people or the American people or the Japanese people will not see the same...but they'll see the feeling! They'll see a feeling, because when I talk up there it doesn't make too much sense except in my crazy head. In it, this is something real. (Qtd. in Christoph Huber, "Time & The Hour: For the Melancholy Mastery of Jean-Claude Van Damme," in Cinemascope 36, Fall 2008, 37).
El Mechri clearly loves Van Damme's films. Even though I do not share the same love, I understand what he, and Van Damme in this quote, seem to be getting at. The narrative sense of films like Van Damme has made are not the reasons they are beloved by audiences. (Are they even beloved by audiences? El Mechri seems to think so, and perhaps they are in Belgium. Certainly films like them are beloved nearly everywhere). This is a film which mounts its appreciation of Van Damme through a critique of the star culture which has apparently sold him short, and, further, does this through a feeling rather than a narrative sense (it has a narrative, of course, but it's less compelling than the film's remarkable attractions, two of which are the opening long take and the soliloquy I've already mentioned). At one point in the film Van Damme's action pictures are defended as "pure," and this, I think, is not a defense of their stories, but rather of their spectacular stunts and attractions (surely one of the attractions of Van Damme is the fact that he did his own stunts), of the authentic display of the body which lies buried in the visual sleights of these films. JCVD has merit because it locates in the arduous physicality of these attractions a genuine desire to connect with audiences; it is thus no mistake that Van Damme's seven-minute oratory is capped with the "Muscles from Brussels" showcasing his spectacular physique for the camera. But at the same time the film is aware that such gestures turn Van Damme into an object: the film constantly places the Muscles into situations that call for his action persona to kick into high gear (indeed, many of the sequences in the bank feature Van Damme "practicing" his famous high kick for the hostages and one of the robbers) and then denies us the attraction it would seem to promise. The film, and the star, seem to be asking us to understand the idea of the action attraction before giving into it again: to pair heart with head.
In turn, JCVD's own flaws can be measured through the extent to which it pairs, and at times fails to match, its obvious heart for Van Damme with a head. In other words, not everything is thought through: the inclusion of Mayfield's Hard Times, for example, while a great aesthetic pairing to the groovy opening sequence, opens up questions about the link between Van Damme's travails and the trials of African-Americans in the 1970s that nothing which follows answers (it goes without saying that I don't think this parallel holds any water anyway; I think El Mechri is just riffing off of Tarantino's po-mo love for similar music from the period). More appropriate, aesthetically and thematically, is Marie Mazziotti's cover of David Bowie's 80s hit "Modern Love," which plays over the film's closing credits. Like Mazziotti's cover of Bowie's over-polished, but deeply felt, original, JCVD finds real heart in what at first seemed to be empty artifice.