Zeina Durra’s “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” ponders with wry amusement the cool but troubled lives of wealthy Manhattan emigres dogged by the twin impulses of fame and paranoia, with love trying to squeeze its way into the middle. Any American-made film whose title is taken from a line in Godard’s “La Chinoise” and that draws from the deep well of Jacques Rivette (among others) already sets itself apart from the usual grind, but Durra demonstrates that she’s more than a quotation artist. Sales abroad should be brisk.
The film reflects the London-born, Gotham-educated Durra’s own international background and influences, featuring characters from a wide range of ethnicities and languages, all with distinctive sensibilities and attitudes that defy stereotype. At the same time, Durra’s subtle but unmistakably sarcastic sense of humor and taste shows she has no desire to cast her intentionally meandering tale as one urging cultural “understanding.”
For starters, as Durra introduces Asya (Elodie Bouchez), she’s viewed in a pixilated video image dressed in a mock Arab headdress and nude from the torso down, modeling for her own conceptual work deconstructing Western views of the Arab “other.” The blend of po-mo irony and feminist subversion is instantly in your face, setting a tone the film rigorously maintains.
Asya is a New York artist on the rise, surrounded by a group of friends and relatives being pulled in all sorts of emotional directions. Tatiana (a consistently amusing Karolina Muller) pouts that her fiance has gotten cold feet just before her wedding, and the sight of her despairing in her Oscar de la Renta gown is the film’s iconic image of this world of privilege and sadness.
This tension is highest when Asya learns during a lengthy all-night, bar-hopping party that her pal Faisal is being renditioned by the U.S. on charges of suspected terrorism. Asya’s life may include a parade of hip cognoscenti, young cosmopolitans, stretch limos, poodles and large studio lofts, but her concern for Faisal amid the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah attacks in Lebanon places the good life in a context that neither she nor those in her circle can ever quite reconcile.
The wrinkle in this messy soup of art, alienation, partying and politics is Asya’s encounter with med student Javier (rising Mexican actor Jose Maria de Tavira), who has an engaging ease and uncommon ability to spot Asya’s weaknesses, particular her tendency toward paranoia. He, too, knows political tension, having had loved ones victimized by kidnappers, but he somehow seems to be the right person in Asya’s life at the right time — even if, paradoxically, this is the worst possible moment for her.
Nothing is resolved in the film, but Bouchez and De Tavira are exceptionally paired, and attuned to Durra’s easygoing intellectual eros shorn of dramatics. Ensemble casting by Sig De Miguel and Stephen Vincent is aces.
Durra and cinematographer Magela Crosignani, shooting in Super 16, clearly love the light of the city, both outdoors and in, and have a refreshing disdain for closeups, as does editor Michael Taylor for match cuts during dialogues. Diegetic use of music is a pleasant departure from typical fare.