While there are many cinematic examples of directors taking a behind the scenes look at the process of their craft, few are as sure-handed, personal, and entertaining as Roman Coppola‘s debut CQ. For someone who literally grew up in the movies with father Francis Ford Coppola and American Zoetrope reaching legendary status inside his house, inspiration was readily available through the memories and keepsakes acquired along the way. From the vanity of fame to the technological evolution of the industry to the almost forgotten practice of practical effects, Roman saw everything as indelible details to a world he willingly decided to inhabit as an adult. What better way was there to showcase his love than visual homage to his own filmic genesis? CQ is his grand introduction to the family business of make-believe.
The parallels between Coppola and his lead Paul Ballard (Jeremy Davies) are obvious. Both are engaged in their first real movie project while also delving into their psyches on a personal journey towards truth. Roman—while a prolific music video director—has spent much of his career in the shadows by co-scripting for Wes Anderson and providing second unit work for sister Sofia. There appears to be a pure joy in the process of moviemaking where-in he leaves his mark on the back-end just as Paul is happy shooting effects and cutting the trailer for his fictitious Dragonfly. The movies are a love affair for them—marriage or mistress depending on how honest they are with themselves. This is the life they’ve chosen, one equally rewarding and stifling as it consumes them.
It is an ingenious move by Coppola to then create three movies in one. We have the movie proper depicting Paul’s trials and tribulations wetting his feet in a 1969 Parisian love affair with cinema; the Barbarella-esque science fiction adventure helmed by Andrezej (Gérard Depardieu) about a sexy secret agent going up against a rebel force on the moon; and the grainy, overtly auto-biographical verisimilitude caught in black and white on a 16mm Eclair camera of Ballard’s life with girlfriend Marlene (Élodie Bouchez). Coppola therefore provides the perfect vehicle to understand his emotional motivations and trepidations concerning the business as well as the concept of art’s purity through the juxtaposition between memoir and blockbuster wrestling for control while reality gasps for breathe in the background.
There is a palpable strain on display throughout caused in large part by Paul’s inability to choose a path. He wishes to keep one foot in every facet of the life his idealist mind fantasizes exists, ignoring how his insecurity exacerbates the struggles found in each. Marlene wants to give him the undivided love and attention he yearns for and yet is too preoccupied to see. Dragonfly executive Fabrizio (Massimo Ghini) picks him to takeover the film after Andrezej is fired, but Ballard’s hero worship of alternate director Felix DeMarco (Jason Schwartzman) clouds his judgment with an inability to discern the guy’s a hack. Paul lives in a daydream where everything fits so he may escape the chaos of reality he’s too scared to face. If only ending his self-destructive nature was a quick fix.
One could say CQ is Roman Coppola’s own metamorphosis into a new period of existence. His name was officially branded onto a feature length production after years honing his craft and learning with a keen eye. Just as Paul wanders aimlessly through the contrasting spheres of life needing one brilliant idea to connect everything into an unforgettable end, Roman does the same with his numerous themes and tonal duality of the personal meeting the manufactured. So much of this young auteur’s past is depicted in each frames’ edges from the Eclair, a framed wooden door busted by Francis, and a gorgeous appreciation for cinema’s long and storied history. With costume and aesthetic alone he depicts a world post-lunar landing and Ché Guevara—one full of infinite promise and devoid of impossibilities.
And he does it with such contagious humor. Despite obvious love for B-list science fiction, watching the beautiful Angela Lindvall inhabit the brashly sexy Dragonfly retains the era’s inherent campiness just as Billy Zane‘s Mr. E. projects an overabundance of compassionate machismo. Barbarella’s own John Phillip Law hams it up for the screen in the film’s fiction while Giancarlo Giannini caricatures producer Enzo in Paul Ballard’s reality. There is an unyielding push and pulls between waking life and dream overlapping with brilliant effect until the action missing in Dragonfly appears on the set once their movie’s footage is stolen a day before completion. The matte paintings may be unfinished and riddled with color swatches in their faux 2001, but the excitement on the streets of 1970s Paris and Rome is electric and overflowing.
Paired with the fantasy of saving the world—or at least entertaining those living within its unending series of tragedy—comes the subtle reality of life unfiltered. Dean Stockwell arrives as Paul’s father to slow down and put things in perspective, Lindvall’s Valentine shows empathy and idealism wrapped in a soft-spoken package, and Bouchez shines as the lover forever scorned on the outside looking in. They are the rocks Davies’ eccentrically introverted artist can’t quite let ground him from coveting the over-the-top buffoonery Schwartzman’s DeMarco comfortably wears. His Paul wants so much to have it all that he’s never discovered what it was he actually wants. Only in the destruction of safety and the birth of the unknown can he reconcile needs with desires. Only upon completion can he accept he has accomplished something great.
CQ is definitely a flash of brilliance mixing unavoidably familiar tropes with steady filmic language inside a unique prism that’s Coppola’s own. With unparalleled humor and imagination Roman takes us on a journey into the wonders of space, cinema, future, and past. It’s a trip I would willingly accompany him on as often as possible.