Roman Coppola’s CQ names its subject right off the bat. Paul (Jeremy Davies) narrates a black and white film he’s making, all about him. This is my bathwater going down the drain, he offers, my passport, my strong French coffee, and my girlfriend’s shoes that I bought her. They don’t fit, he observes, as she slips them off and rubs her pretty feet, but she wears them anyway. “September 1, 1969,” Paul murmurs, so seriously, “Pieces of me, me in pieces.”
The subject of CQ, in other words, is Paul. Artist, coffee-drinker, American in Paris, young and arrogant, certainly, but also unformed, only pretending to know himself. “Everything is important,” he observes, as if it’s true. Paul’s capacity to concoct and swallow lies is not unusual, but it’s discomforting nonetheless.
Unable to see beyond himself, he’s increasingly unable even to speak with his patient girlfriend Marlene (Elodie Bouchez). She’s exceedingly practical, an airline stewardess who comes in and out of their apartment in her uniform, ever ready to declare her love (when she’s not rubbing her feet from those crucially tight shoes). “I’ve missed him,” Marlene tells his camera, willing to play along for a minute as she walks through the bathroom. She’s more right than she knows. Plopping herself down in his lap, she encourages Paul to think, even act, off camera. After all, she warns him, wise and baffled by his obsession, “Just because you film every visible thing in your life doesn’t mean you’ll understand yourself any better.”
Still, he’s determined to put the fragments together, to find order in his editing. Paul’s “personal” document, the film he believes is “honest” and groundbreaking, grants him access to daydreams where he’s the star of an interview session, all mics pointed his way. Paul, for all his ostensible lack of affect, is full of it, and quite taken with himself. This self-conception emerges from his time and place: he works as a film editor and second unit director on a Barbarella-ish SF-action film named Dragonfly. Part ’60s art cinema, part assault on the very idea of art, mostly hyper-kitsch, it’s a way to make a living, for the present, as well as a way to look toward the future.
Dragonfly is a gorgeous secret agent, played by the gorgeous actress Valentine (played by the gorgeous model-turned-actress Angela Lindvall). She’s hired by important men, who proclaim she will help defend “our way of life,” against a “radical” colony living on the moon, led by beret-wearing poet-philosopher-martial arts expert Mr. E (Billy Zane) has developed a new technology, a dangerous weapon; apparently no one on the set has quite decided how dangerous or what Mr. E will do with it. Suffice it to say that his encounter with Dragonfly results in wild, “’60s-style” sex (unfocused close-ups of body parts = art), and then she steals his weapon anyway.
Confused by his inability to organize his own life, even as a film, Paul is seduced by Dragonfly’s very white, very clean world, circa 2001. She wears white pleather, boots, a wide belt on her hips, and lots of tousled hair. In an early scene, when she receives her assignment from the nervous men (“She’s expensive,” mutters one; “Exasperating,” says another), but they all concur in hiring her, for she is the Best and that’s what they need in this time of crisis, the Best.
Dragonfly lives in a world where, once payment is agreed on, the money flies out of her computer, immediately transferred directly to her, so she can roll around naked with it on her bed. At the same time, Paul is struggling to get by, to keep his apartment (and Marlene’s leaving doesn’t help matters). To support his own “habit,” the film diary, Paul pilfers excess celluloid, determined to make a homemade, gutter-budgeted, gritty-truthed masterpiece.
The many pieces of CQ never quite cohere. That may not be an entirely bad thing, as a resolution could only be incongruous, given all that comes before film’s end. The fact that it’s named for the Morse code phrase for what it sounds like — “seek you” — suggests at once its own superficiality, too-cleverness, thematic concerns, and self-consciousness. Taking solipsism as subject and tactic, the movie digs itself into a hole that’s both fascinating and tedious, the hole that engulfs and shapes so much art, perhaps especially the vérité kind.
And so, Paul sits on his toilet and looks into his camera, confessing and complaining, contemplating the higher functions of art, the pursuit of sincerity and meaning and love. (That he ignores Marlene in the meantime isn’t lost on her, though he seems pretty self-servingly oblivious.) The difference between art and commerce, of course, is hardly clear or stable or even very substantial, and if Paul doesn’t see this, you can’t help but do so, as CQ references all kinds of previous history and art, from the aforementioned Barbarella to Danger: Diabolik to Jim McBride’s brilliant deconstruction of vérité’s essential pretentiousness and impossibility, David Holzman’s Diary. (The small art film can be just as selfish and dense as any commercial venture.) (Carson appears as one of the wide-angled interviewers in Paul’s I’m-a-star fantasy.) Roman Coppola’s picture is no less annoying, more awkward and glib, but includes flashes of brilliance. If ever a movie knew its limits, this is it.
Given that it is a first feature by music video and commercial maker Roman Coppola (he directed The Presidents of the United States’ “Peaches”), a young man related to too many celebrities, CQ is remarkably poised. Given that it’s a function of its protagonist Paul, it’s also predictably precious (his quest is romantic and large: he seeks truth, if not Truth). No wonder: he’s enveloped by about three and a half movies — Dragonfly; his own documentary; the love affair with Valentine that he imagines for himself (most often set in the film’s futuristic sets); and CQ. None of these movies is quite complete, and each slides in and out of the others, layered and seeping, to the point that Paul’s sense of fragmentation starts to feel unavoidable. The movie is about pieces making up a “me.” Sort of.
Modeled after the legendary cinematic truth-seekers of the ’60s and ’70s, Paul is also a bit self-delusional, imagining that he’s inherently more interesting than the other faux artistes who surround him. His director, the aging and lumbering lefty Andrzej (Gérard Depardieu), is prone to defend his work on political grounds: recalling his grander, younger days, perhaps, he fights for his right to make a visionary film, a “circle,” without an ending. “We are making cinema! We are making revolution!” he exults. But Andrzej’s voluble, money-minded Italian producer, Enzo (Giancarlo Giannini), decides against this tack. The film needs an ending, he declares, and Andrzej, for all his fervor and dedication, is out.
It’s hard to tell just how Paul feels about this turn of events (or more to the point, whether it matters how he feels). Standing above the argument, he’s observing two fathers, and he’s thinking of his estranged, biological one, Ballard (Dean Stockwell — and how scary is that, to have him for your dad?). Tossed between his two wildly “European” film-business fathers, Paul seeks out his U.S. dad, who delivers only more insanity and instability, more layering, in the form of a dream. In it, he meets a second son — “You were here too,” he assures Paul — a Vietnam veteran, someone, in other words, with history (though the war is long from over in 1969), guilt, violence, and masculine substance. What if I have another son somewhere, Ballard wonders aloud, another son who looks like Paul? And with that, Ballard has moved on, to another appointment, leaving Paul dazed and even less sure of anything than before.
What if? Paul’s own life remains unresolved, unfixed, at once too American, too violent, too youthful, and also too alienated from the Old World where he now lives. That it’s an Old World defined in part by new technologies — the Concord, cool little sports cars, and lightweight cameras (Paul gets a lovely one partway through his project, an Éclair 16mm) — only exacerbates the anxiety expatriate Paul is feeling. Small, worried, almost eager, he’s the kind of egoistic artist who might make something petty or great, but whose reward for it can only be troubling. When he realizes at last, that his mistreatment of Marlene, his lack of appreciation for her, is insensitive and wrong, he’s already made his film, which is all about her. Or rather, it’s about his obsession with her. Really, there’s no outside to this circle.