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Director coaxed Van Damme to shed his tough-guy routine

27 September, 2008


Katherine Monk, Kevin Griffin, Canwest News Service

When you choose to work with Jean-Claude Van Damme, you're not just working with the man, you're working with the baggage of an '80s action star best known as "The Muscles from Brussels."

It can be a lot to balance for a director looking to make a big first impression with his feature debut, and for Mabrouk El Mechri, finding the right tone to recreate Van Damme's screen ego became a two-year obsession.

"A lot of people, when you tell them you want to make a movie about Jean-Claude Van Damme, all they can see is satire," says El Mechri.

"Even Jean-Claude, when we had a meeting at Cannes, he assumed I'd written a spoof about him in order to get a new perspective. But that wasn't the intention at all," says the director of JCVD, a new film about the action star that's been buttering up film buffs since it premiered at Cannes in May.

A drama that features Van Damme as Van Damme, the movie appears to tread a thin line between fact and fiction, but the big revelation is it's not fact -- it's acting.

The film played Toronto earlier this month, and hits Vancouver's festival this week with a raft of positive reviews in tow suggesting Van Damme's acting career hasn't just been jump-started, its been reborn.

The key, according to critics, was Van Damme's ability to find profound pathos in the craggy nooks and crannies of his own persona.

"What I wanted to do was rediscover the man who stands in the shadow of his own image, and what that would feel like. To a certain degree, Jean-Claude Van Damme is a prisoner of what he became... and that interests me."

As an immigrant who grew up in the "wrong part of Paris," El Mechri says he was an early admirer of Van Damme's string of action pictures.

As a result of his admiration, El Mechri was a little taken aback when two producers approached him to take on a Van Damme screenplay that worked more as a comedy than a drama.

"I wasn't happy about the script at all. It was a spoof. But as a fan, this didn't work for me. I didn't want to see him as a clown in some Die Hard kind of send-up. To me, what was much more interesting than a shallow satire was the idea of a man trying to live up to himself. I knew it would be more difficult, especially for Jean-Claude, but in the end, we both accepted the challenge."

El Mechri says his parents never brought him up to be fazed by fame or celebrity, so when he finally met the man in real life he wasn't blinded by the limelight.

"The important thing was the trust we both shared. Jean-Claude Van Damme was understandably nervous and I, too, had some concerns. You know Jean-Claude didn't make it for his acting abilities. He's not known as an actor and this movie required him to really perform. I didn't know if I would be able to get a good performance out of him," says El Mechri.

El Mechri says he took away all Van Damme's emotional crutches on the first day of the shoot by forbidding any members of his entourage to walk on set.

"There was no way I was going to let Jean-Claude Van Damme feel like a star on the set. And what surprised me was how much Jean-Claude himself enjoyed leaving all that [nonsense] at the door. I think this was the opportunity he had been waiting for - it was his first real chance to show people what he could achieve as an actor."

JCVD plays the Vancouver International Film Festival tonight at 9:30, Granville 7; Sunday 4:30 p.m., Granville 2.

Canwest News Service

AT THE VIFF THIS WEEKEND

TRIP TO ASIA: THE QUEST FOR HARMONY

This documentary about the Berlin Philharmonic's tour of Asia focuses less on the music and more on the musicians who comprise what is arguably the most famous classical orchestra in the world, led by Sir Simon Rattle. The quest for harmony in the title isn't about some Buddhist-like trek by the orchestra but about the internal quest an orchestra goes on each time it performs.

We get to hear Rattle explaining how musicians had to learn that he was at his most serious when he made a joke. One musician talks about how he used to drink a beer to calm his nerves while an older musician describes his fear at retiring and not being able to make such beautiful music with an orchestra again.

In the Berlin Philharmonic, because the musicians vote to elect their conductor, musicians believe they are the guardians of the orchestra's traditions. Conductors may come and go but the musicians provide the continuity from one generation to the next.

Sunday, Sept. 28, 6:45 p.m. Granville 7; Monday, Sept. 29, 2:30 p.m. Granville 3.

-- Kevin Griffin, Vancouver Sun

C'EST PAS MOI, JE LE JURE! (IT'S NOT ME, I SWEAR!)

It's a common refrain among kids who have a habit of getting into trouble, but Philippe Falardeau's latest movie is hardly a run-of-the-mill coming of age story. Adapted from the novel by Bruno Hebert, this darkly comic tale follows the many misadventures of ten-year-old Leon -- a boy who fantasizes about suicide and spends his idle days destroying the neighbours' home. In short, Leon lives out the selfish, destructive dreams most kids secretly harbour in the hopes of getting more attention from mom and dad. The thoughts and actions are endlessly disturbing, but in the sure hands of Quebec director Falaradeau (Moitier Gauche du Frigo, Congorama), the tone is ominous but not stifling. For the most part, it's cryptically comic thanks to the flat but colourful production design and the excellent use of '70s-era interiors. A lingering little picture that makes the most of its young lead, this is one endeavour anyone would be proud to claim as their own. Screens Saturday 9 pm at Granville 4; Monday Sept. 29 2 pm at Granville 4.

-- Katherine Monk, Canwest News Service

MAGNUS

Estonia hasn't been a hotbed of avant-gardist filmmaking -- ever -- but thanks to this bizarre and strangely moving debut from 26-year-old Kadri Koussar, the little Baltic state that staged the "singing revolution" is now on the international cinema map. The story follows suicidal Magnus -- a handsome young man who sees no value, no meaning and no love in his own life and decides to check out. The irony is Magnus was supposed to die as a young kid, but now that he's recovered from a serious lung illness, he can do nothing but smoke and indulge in nihilistic activities. The upside to his downward spiral is the way it brings him closer to his dead-beat dad. A fat, drug-laden, prostitute-pimping mess, dear old dad tries his best to reach out -- but by his own admission, "I'm a little too f-ed up to do this father bonding stuff right now..."

These flirtations with connection keep the movie moving forward, but always in a bleak direction. Thanks to the dark humour, however, Magnus doesn't drown in self-pity -- it gives it a big hug. Screens Saturday 9:30 9:30 pm Granville 2; Monday Sept. 29, 11 am at Granville 4; Friday, Oct. 3, 1:15 pm VanCity Theatre.

- K.M.

JCVD

While it may be tough to imagine a tough guy like Jean-Claude Van Damme having a nervous breakdown before the cameras, that's essentially what we witness in Mabrouk El Mechri's impressive feature that stars the Muscles from Brussels as a washed-up action star trying to hold his life together. Stuck in a painful custody battle, and feeling the effects of so much stunt work as he pushes 50, Van Damme's character seems to reflect his own -- but don't be fooled. This is all performance, and Van Damme kicks the demon of his own alter ego to the curb with compassion and incredible vulnerability. Combined with El Mechri's heavy dose of film noir style and the Old World, European setting, the movie feels haunted by the ghosts within, as well as outside, the frame. Not even Sly Stallone managed to step back from persona in Rocky or Rambo, proving Van Damme can still kick higher than his competition. Screens Saturday 9:30 pm Granville 7; Sunday, Sept. 28, 4:30 pm Granville 2.

- K.M.

MY MARLON AND BRANDO (GITMEK)

An interesting hybrid between a real-life love story and documentary about the war in Iraq, My Marlon and Brando follows the nascent romance between Turkish actress Ayca Damgaci and Kurdish actor Hama Ali Khan after their on-set encounter turned into love. Eager to share a life together, the two seek a safe haven, but when the war in Iraq closes the borders between them, Damgaci feels like an emotional amputee. She needs her "Marlon and her Brando" and she's not about to let George W. Bush's foreign policy get in the way. Based largely on fact, the movie has an easy time finding real moments -- as well as showing us the real life consequences of war. Screens Sunday Sept. 28, 6:40 pm Granville 3.

- K.M.

Jean-Claude Van Damme








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