Karim Belkhadra

JCVD (2008, Mabrouk El Mechri)

JCVD might be the ultimate vanity project. I’m not sure if there’s any intention in Van Damme trying to rehabilitate his image–his fans will be his fans no matter what, something the film touches on–but it’s kind of spectacular in its purity. Van Damme’s a well-known punch line, a leftover from the 1990s, and he knows it. What’s strangest about the film is that self-awareness. Van Damme gives a good performance as “himself,” even if his movie personality is a little different (more affecting but generally true) than the real Van Damme.

It’s a rouse–there’s a long aside, which starts on shaky ground because of its presentation (and what’s a theatrical aside doing in a rather cinéma vérité film) but eventually comes around because Van Damme’s actually really good delivering it. He kind of loses it at the end, but due to the presentation technicalities, not his delivery. But part of JCVD is accepting the rouse, participating in it. It’s Van Damme laughing at himself, but not so much, because he’s one of maybe three people who could make a movie like this one.

Nothing I’d read about the film actually prepared me for its actual content. JCVD drops a cheesy action movie star in the middle of a real bank robbery. That Van Damme’s in his native Belgium where everyone loves him–regardless of this detail’s veracity, it’s constantly amusing–turns the unlikely situation into Dog Day Afternoon. The dynamics of the bank robbery are what set JCVD apart. It’s a movie situation handled in an anti-cinematic manner. The bank is awkwardly laid-out, so it’s hard to know where people are located, not the ideal for the hostage drama. The dynamic between the robbers–one idolizes Van Damme, another is seriously disturbed, none are very smart–provides a lot of drama to the film, which lets Van Damme sort of be.

Van Damme’s bad day–a failed custody hearing, money troubles, career woes–all comes off as a little contrived. It’s effective because of El Mechri and his approach. There are frequent small cuts to give off the vérité feel; they work, even if they’re somewhat suspect. And Van Damme’s willing to mock himself, his image and everything else. But he’s mostly laughing at the audience, because the film’s positing its Van Damme could never do anything like this film, this singularity in a career otherwise exclusively straight to DVD, but here he is doing it and succeeding at it.

In the end, Van Damme doesn’t actually pull it off. He tries to though and makes the grade for effort. It’s strange to watch him act in the last scenes, because he’s trying real, real hard, but he can’t attain the sublime. But it’s fine acting and the film’s full of it. But since he’s the whole show, it’s hard to talk about anyone else.

If JCVD were a coda, it’d be a coda to a career undeserving of it, but it’s not a coda. Even if it’s unable to achieve the singularity it’s going for, it’s still distinct.



Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri; written by Frédéric Bénudis, Mechri and Christophe Turpin; director of photography, Pierre-Yves Bastard; edited by Lako Kelber; music by Gast Waltzing; produced by Sidonie Dumas; released by Gaumont.

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD), François Damiens (Bruges), Zinedine Soualem (the man with the bonnet), Karim Belkhadra (the watchmen), Jean-François Wolff (the thirty-one-year old) and Anne Paulicevich (the clerk).

La Haine (1995, Mathieu Kassovitz)

Someone told me to see La Haine about six years ago. I don’t know why I never got around to it then. Later, in college, I saw some of Kassovitz’s Café au Lait and I remember having some major problems with it. La Haine doesn’t have any major problems, maybe just a significant, minor one, having to do with predictability.

La Haine kept reminding me of Scorsese, but not a film he’d ever made. There’s a Taxi Driver reference that put me in that frame of mind, but the one night pacing of the film reminded me of After Hours. Both films do it well, but have nothing else in common. The acting might be the strongest part of La Haine. I finally understand some of Vincent Cassel’s appeal (he’s really good in this film and I imagine the problem with him in anything else I’ve seen him in is the English). Still, he’s nowhere near as good as Hubert Koundé, who reminds of Sidney Poiter the way Mark Ruffalo reminds of Marlon Brando. The third lead, Saïd Taghmaoui is fine, but he’s the closest thing the film’s got to comic relief (though I kept wondering what I’d seen him in–The Good Thief).

For the majority of the film, Kassovitz doesn’t preach. He has a birds-eye shot moving through the projects that isn’t preachy, he has these lovely unresolved tensions between the three characters–he has a guy seeing a cow–and never gets preachy about it. I don’t even know if the predictability is meant to be preachy, but when you open with a voice over anecdote from one of the characters, there are limits to how much it can matter, how often you can refer to it. The experience of watching the film cannot be summarized into this anecdote… and Kassovitz tries to fit it in and it fails. He went from being gentle to clanking garbage can lids together.

Regardless, it’s an excellent film and it actually has me queuing Café au Lait, which I never thought I’d do….



Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz; director of photography, Pierre Aïm; edited by Kassovitz and Scott Stevenson; music by Assassin; production designer, Giuseppe Ponturo; produced by Christophe Rossignon; released by MKL Distribution.

Starring Vincent Cassel (Vinz), Hubert Koundé (Hubert), Saïd Taghmaoui (Sayid), Karim Belkhadra (Samir) and Edouard Montoute (Darty).

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