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Dream Logic, and Why I Preferred CQ Over Inception

While everyone was so busy hailing Inception as a towering achievement and a cerebral action masterpiece, I was saying, “Yeah, it was a good movie, but I’m sort of disappointed.”

Yes, I was a mild voice of dissent, only because I felt Christopher Nolan’s approach to dream logic to be too cold and, well…logical. Don’t get me wrong, it was a well-constructed film and really quite clever, especially for a summer action-adventure. The dream layers were pretty inspired–I’m sure everyone’s awakened from a dream only to find out upon waking up again that they’ve gotten into another dream.

But it felt more like an exercise, a puzzle, a virtual reality simulation (yes, like The Matrix), forgoing the chaotic, surreal nature of dreams at their core.

I love films about dream logic, when done right. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will likely remain the best of them until the end of cinema, for its ragged feel, warm yet simultaneously off. If I was to wander through the folds of someone’s mind, this is how I would likely perceive it.

I also enjoy movies that, while not explicitly about dreams, operate on similar principles in a fuzzy sort of reality, like a half-remembered dream. My most recent favorite film of that sort is Lost in Translation, director Sofia Coppola’s ode to unlikely connections in Tokyo. It isn’t about dreams at all, but all throughout, I felt like someone could jostle me awake in some other film. Lost in Translation is serene and sublime, with a sweet, low-key weirdness at its core.

A lot of people saw Lost in Translation, but the same can’t be said for its spiritual predecessor–not Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, but her brother Roman’s 2001 feature debut, CQ. On the surface, it’s a movie about a filmmaker in Europe at the end of the ’60s, but in a way, it’s very much a movie about dreams of all kinds.

CQ takes place in 1969, revolving around young film editor Paul Ballard (Lost’s Jeremy Davies). Ballard is an American living in Paris, with a beautiful flight attendant girlfriend and a job editing a schlocky spy-fi flick called Codename: Dragonfly. He’s also working on his own film, a sort of cinematic first-person journal that frames much of the action here.

From the outside, CQ seems to be nothing more than a loving homage to the European genre cinema of the time, especially the films of legendary producer Dino DiLaurentiis (Giancarlo Giannini is spirited and scene-chomping as DeLaurentiis analogue Enzo DiMartini), films such as Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella. (Such is Coppola’s attention to detail that he’s even cast John Philip Law, who starred in both of those films, in a small role as a character in Dragonfly.)

Dragonfly is held up, quite simply, because it has no ending. The director, Andreszj (a bulky, blustery Gerard Depardieu) has an ending in mind, but it’s far too romantic and political for DiMartini’s broader tastes. Most egregious is its lack of action. When Andreszj’s revolutionary posturing grows too thick, DiMartini fires him, reasoning as well that the director has fallen in love with his star, gorgeous newcomer Valentine (model Angela Lindvall), who he had discovered at a protest rally.

DiMartini’s first choice to replace Andreszj is Felix DeMarco (Jason Schwartzman), a flamboyant young horror director in the vein of a Lucio Fulci or Mario Bava. Felix once worked as an assistant to Paul, but climbed the ladder much faster. Naturally, Paul is jealous, but resigned and ultimately happy to still have a job. Pretty soon, Felix drops out of the project after a car accident, and Paul is asked by DiMartini to finish the picture.

The first half-hour of the movie is pretty straightforward, and though Paul–an admitted daydreamer–imagines being interviewed by adoring French critics about his documentary, there isn’t a whole lot to distinguish it as being more than a period piece about film. But about thirty minutes in, something a little strange, and wonderful, happens. Paul has a brief meeting with his father, a lecturer touring Europe, played by Dean Stockwell. (Seriously, having Dean Stockwell, Giancarlo Giannini and Gerard Depardieu in your first feature is astounding, but then again, our director’s last name is…)

The first time I saw this scene, I kind of felt it held up the movie just a little. It’s a four-minute conversation between father and son, about–what else–dreams. Specifically, Dr. Ballard’s dream of meeting a man who looks just like Paul, and could be the boy’s brother. He confesses it’s a possibility, that he had dalliances before outside of his marriage. But Coppola doesn’t milk the scene for conflict; rather, it’s just an awkward, tender candor between father and son. Rather than derailing the film, I see it now as the pivotal point where CQ tips toward that fuzzy logic, because not long after, he starts to see Dragonfly where he shouldn’t…

As Paul’s relationship falters, he starts to get closer to both Dragonfly and her portrayer, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. But unlike the slightly misleading Netflix synopsis, none of this is presented as anything really resembling a thriller. Paul’s hallucinations and daydreams are puppy-dog cute instead of tense, but that’s fine, more or less. The only tension in the film, really, is between him and his girlfriend Marlene (Elodie Bouchez, alternately fiery and vulnerable), but there isn’t much doubt in the end as to whether they’ll make it. Paul is too guarded, and far too wrapped up in himself to notice Marlene desperately trying not to lose her patience with him.

And as he wrestles with an ending for Dragonfly, Paul imagines himself interacting with her, helping her escape from Mr. E’s moonbase, and using the villains’ secret weapon to freeze everyone on set. Meanwhile, he and Valentine share a quiet, if underwritten, attraction to each other. Lindvall’s part is very slight, but she has a smoldering presence as Dragonfly, and a winsome pull as Valentine.

Even when he isn’t dreaming, the film exists in a hazy state. There is a sequence where Paul travels to Rome to meet with DiMartini, and ends up celebrating New Year’s there. He walks through the city, encountering other partiers, bemused citizenry, and young lovers waiting for each other without the promise of reunion, simply faith. It’s a wonderful, charming set of events–warm, yet slightly off.

Though it is a movie about movies, CQ is less about the specific politics of the business and more like a collection of places and times meant to evoke a feeling of youthful insecurity and indecision, as well as a blissful trip through a subconscious engaged in working it all out. Even though it technically isn’t about dreams, it really is all about dreams, from the dreams we try to fulfill to the ones that brighten or plague our sleep, to the dreams people construct on film. And make no mistake, CQ is a lovely representation of such, a sadly overlooked film and a wonderful directorial debut.

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