May 31, 2002 | It's déjà vu all over again on megaplex screens this weekend. In Undercover Brother, director Malcolm D. Lee pays affectionately satirical tribute to '70s blaxploitation flicks. Meanwhile, over in CQ, first-time feature filmmaker Roman Coppola – son of Francis, brother of Sofia - digs even deeper into film history, to recall the spectacularly cheesy sci-fi misadventures produced in the mad, mod world of the 1960s.
CQ actually is a comedy-drama about the making of such a deliriously campy spectacle. Most of the film, which Coppola directed from his own screenplay, is set in Paris over a few weeks during the 1969-70 transition, and focuses on a glumly serious would-be auteur, American-born Paul Ballard (Jeremy Davies), who deigns to work as an editor on a futuristic action-fantasy titled Codename: Dragonfly.
What Paul really wants to do, of course, is direct. Indeed, in his spare time, he's filming a gravely artistic, 16mm black-and-white documentary about himself. He addresses the camera for impossibly long periods, explicating his mundane life and lofty ambitions with all the single-minded intensity of someone who sincerely believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that other people might be interested in his self-analysis.
Marlene (Elodie Bouchez), Paul's live-in girlfriend, is something of a pill – when she departs CQ, she's not missed -- but she hits the nail squarely on the head when she warns: "Just because you film every possible thing in your life doesn't mean you'll understand yourself any better."
Paul's desultory ramblings are dreary stuff, and they're made all the drearier by Davies, a one-note actor whose limp-dishrag performance infuses his character with a creepy sort of anti-charisma. Still, if you look beneath Paul's tedious pretentiousness, you'll spot a spark of the anything-goes adventurousness that flowered in cinema during 1960s (and faded by the end of the '70s). You can see even more of it in the seemingly deranged behavior of Andrezej (Gerard Depardieu), director of Dragonfly, who claims he can turn the frothy, sexy nonsense into a "revolutionary" statement.
Trouble is, Andrezej can't come up with a suitably exciting ending to please Enzo, the megalomaniacal producer played by Giancarlo Giannini as a cartoonish caricature of Dino De Laurentiis.
So Andrezej is booted off the picture, and briefly replaced by Felix DeMarco (Jason Schwartzman), a brassy young American film brat who looks a little like William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) during his '70s heyday, and whose latest movie resembles Roman Polanski's 1967 horror spoof, The Fearless Vampire Killers. (As you've probably gathered by now, CQ is the sort of movie that should come equipped with footnotes.) But when Felix is injured in an auto accident, Paul is offered the job of finishing Dragonfly on time and under budget. He accepts the job, proving that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only filmmakers who don't sell out are those who aren't offered irresistible deals.
If you're a movie buff with a taste for guilty pleasures, you may be highly amused here by the movie within the movie. Dragonfly, the saga of a sensuous secret agent who wages intergalactic war on hunky bad guys, is a highly amusing amalgam of such flashy '60s pop-art kitsch as The Tenth Victim, Modesty Blaise, Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik. Just to make sure we get the joke, Coppola hired John Philip Law, a featured player in the latter two movies, for a co-starring role as Dragonfly's boss. Better still, Coppola and his production team have taken meticulous care to faithfully copy the costumes, production designs, peek-a-boo sexiness and budget-crunched special effects of their source material.
You want to know which people sitting around you can tell what films Coppola is referencing? Just listen: They're the ones who laugh out loud at the sight of so much white shag carpet, or the strains of so much tinny Europop.
CQ takes a stab at seriousness by suggesting a blurring of lines between fantasy and reality: The longer he works on the schlocky sci-fi epic, the more vividly Paul imagines – or is he just imagining? – that Valentine, the beautiful model cast as Dragonfly, is falling in love with him. (Angela Lindvall is the beautiful model cast as Valentine.) Overall, though, the movie is nothing more substantial than a fitfully clever doodle. How much you enjoy it depends almost entirely on your degree of nostalgia for the styles of films and filmmaking that it lovingly recalls.