Transcendental Style in Film Redux: Jean-Claude Van Damme talks about JCVD

Christoph Huber

In the most transcendental moment I've experienced (and expect to ever experience) at the Cannes Film Festival, one morning after suffering through the competition press screening - I've already forgotten which film -, while getting in line for a much-needed coffee in the Palais des Festivals, suddenly a stranger appeared in front of me out of nowhere and, much to my surprise, stopped to enthusiastically raise two thumbs: “JCVD”, he just said, smiled, and moved on,

I was in awe. Could this be true? Finally, the recognition that Jean-Claude Van Damme was god and I was his prophet?

Well, as ever so often, things were not entirely as mysterious as they seemed. As the coffee intake slowly reactivated my brain I realized it had been no stranger at all, just estimable colleague Rob Nelson, whom I failed to identity through the haze of my sleep-deprived consciousness. Furthermore, he had just seen (and would publish a fine Variety review) of the film I'd been raving about in the previous days: JCVD, the designated comeback picture of Belgian action icon Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose hilarious trailer had caused an online stir in the previous months, and which had been shown only in the huge film market also taking place every year as the official Cannes selection unspools.

Seriously, though: This film - the second feature, it turns out, by hitherto unknown Mabrouk El Mechri - is far from the clever lark one might expect from the online glimpse. In fact its jaw-dropping mixture of fact and fiction left the entire official selection in the dust. In advance I was much ridiculed by certain serious colleagues, unable to take the very idea of a good Van Damme film seriously, for the eagerness with which I expected JCVD. In hindsight I not only feel vindicated, but claim that what El Mechri's smart (but really, and not at all in that ironic, postmodern way), funny and, in the end, deeply moving humanist masterpiece achives, makes all the claims for this year's Cannes selection “remarkable“ trend of continuing the fusion of the real and the staged look pretty puny. With the possible exception of Straub and Huillet in the “Quinzaine des Réalisateurs“ - who, as usual, were up to something completely else: their monuments are materialist - nothing could touch JCVD: this year's Golden Palm should have been awarded on the market.

Who is JCVD? Per writer-director El Mekhri's ingenious setup and played, with brilliant, mostly deadpan conviction by Jean-Claude Van Damme, he's an ageing action icon from Belgium caught up in a career low, a custody battle—and, by a series of ensuing accidents—in a bank robbery setup vaguely reminiscent of Sidney Lumet's (fact-based) Dog Day Afternoon. Opening with an impressive long take action scene (after the Gaumont logo literally gets a kick, cartoon style) that belongs to a film-within-the-film, the first punchline after its faintly Keatonesque failed wrap-up, is that “Van Damme“ declares he's too old for this at age 47. Indeed, while especially at the beginning the jokes pile fast and furiously, including loving bits about the previous career of the Muscles from Brussels (as well as an indelible and good-natured running gag about his peer Steven Seagal), a melancholy air emanates from this point onward, slowly accumulating until in the film's central set-piece - another long take, in one of the film's many ingenious uses of mirroring devices, designed as word to accompany the (opening) deed - it becomes overpowering: In this scene, one of the most incredible in all cinema, “Jean-Claude“ delivers a bare-it-all-monologue accounting for his life and ideals. Down to the poignant finale, there is much more (not least the incomparable “Karadin“) to this thorough investigation of what it means to be a star and, especially, what it means to be honest.

JCVD may riff on the impossibility of reconciliating the public and private persona, but in an interview - made possible by Moritz Peters from those redoubatble genre connaisseurs among Germany's DVD (and now also: cinema) companies, Koch Media - Jean-Claude Van Damme talked about his attempts to come to terms with that, about his career, about the new leaf that he hopes to turn with JCVD and about his upcoming auteur project, Full Love, which is scheduled for a 2009 release. The interview initially was scheduled to last half an hour, but it was a rainy day and the press meetings took place on the beach; so as things kept getting postponed, in the end there were only an intense - Van Damme's concentrated floods of words, in eclectic English, burst out before one could finish the question—seven minutes. Which, actually, is perfect.

JCVD: Ok, let's go, let's go!

KINO!: This extraordinary and touching scene where you seem to improvise for the camera, in one unbroken take that lasts four or five minutes …

JCVD: Seven minutes! It goes by so fast, I thought it was less long myself! In it I retrace some of my life - no, not even my life, but some of my thinking pieces. Say, we have point A-B and X-Z and now I try to find out what is in the middle, the thoughts that are dear to me. What I like about it is that you can see me play as an “actor“, trying to tell the truth, which is real acting, and then there, on the same shot being able to change, to create a certain bipolarity - and then to go back to what I was in those 40 minutes of film that came before … when I first saw the movie as a spectator I was shocked, I didn't know which way to go, which ones are the right guys. I went: Maybe that's the guy who's the right guy. From now on, because of this movie, it will be very difficult to do something that just goes back.

KINO!: So playing “yourself“ …

JCVD: The last few movies I had done previously, I had made my decisions too fast, it was a money deal, and shit like that. So I have to be careful now. Plus, I love the film business so much, and have been traveling so much, I think I've come to change to a certain extant. Some people can recycle themselves, two or three times. Me, I feel I've got a new life starting, and with this change of life comes a change of thinking. I feel more inside, not just looking from the outside. When you only listen to the noise of the outside, you get nothing really rich. But if you listen to the sound of the inside, you can do so much, because if you think and digest you can find out what you want to do in life. Because we all have something special, we all have something we are capable to do, but we all have to think … and because of my mis-education, I left school early, I was in a way obligated to ask myself what am I supposed to do in life. I never heard anything, but slowly something came up. And I like people, I love people. What is the best place to be loved? Because we all want to be loved, I am honest. And in the showbiz you can be loved to the max. I get lots of love from my family, my dogs, my wife and everything … I want more!

KINO!: In this regard JCVD seems a courageous choice, for certainly after this role you will be seen differently in the public eye …

JCVD: Hopefully, but 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 English people or the American people or the Japanese people will not see the same - or they'll not understand 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.

KINO!: The thing in the film about being broke …

JCVD: That never happened to me, because I gave all my money to my father, and he is a very, very down-to-earth guy, and he is so smart, he never took a chance in his life. In the sense of the logic of the casino, with the chance of 9:10 that you are losing. So I gave him my money, he made some good investments for me. I have total trust, that is fantastic, so thank god - even the parties were free for me! Although I really lost a lot in that divorce, but my ex-wife she's a pro, she's good. I still love her, but when you look at it, she's in, she married three guys, and all were multi, multi-multi … well maybe not multi-multi, but close to billions - except for me!

KINO!: You're upcoming project, which you will direct yourself, is called Full Love

JCVD: It will be different, something unlike anything I've done before. I am playing a guy who is not quite right in the head because of psychological problems when he was young. So he ended up living in Thailand, where he is driving a taxi. He has some friends in the states who are trying to help him, but he is creating all these problems. The friends don't know what's happening in his head, they think about something else. Some of them are going to die for him, it's not a good ending, it's different. There will be lots of fighting, well actually not as previously, no karate fighting or the likes … it's not about fighting, it's about aggressiveness. My character is aggressive because he is deranged. So I'm pushing some people, push them too far, so that they get to do something about it. The Thai cops get involved, and in Thailand when the cops go for something, they really go for it and the results are not funny. Also, this guy wants to save a woman, and she's not obligated to do that because she's got a problem in the past. In the end he'll see the truth, and then we'll get to see what I hope it's going to be: one chance in a million. But I want people to come out of the movie having seen something more real. I want to stay there in a way, in the area I explore with JCVD, I want people to say after this: Wow, I will come back and see this again, but I also want to see a follow-up on that. So it is about trying to produce a second zone which is as real as this zone here [gesticulates around at the beach where we sit]. I mean Scorsese - but he's a champion—he did that in Casino, that one felt one was there. But then Casino was such a good movie, and I am not a great director like him, but I mean I have to try … baddabim, baddabam! [the latter addressed at the person in charge of the schedule, who says: “last question“.]

KINO!: JCVD takes up your difficult relationships, to the press …

JCVD: Oh, but I don't see it as a rebuttal, I really think the press like me. Because if I fuck up, it's my fault, but I have a good relationship with people. When you get face-to-face and look people in the eyes like here. And anyway, as I said, I feel this film is the start of a new cycle, in every way. Well, except sexually!