Records of post-9/11 Middle Eastern life have been virtually absent in Western cinema for obvious, if deplorable, reasons. Zeina Durra mercifully comes to the rescue with a sharp contemporary yarn sporting an appropriately alarming title: "The Imperialists Are Still Alive!" The first-time director's refreshingly credible portrait of a boho character with Middle Eastern origins rectifies the aforementioned canonical gap in a witty, naturalistic generational snapshot.
Durra's feisty protagonist, a conceptual artist named Asya (Élodie Bouchez), constantly battles the conflicting worlds of assimilation and xenophobia while drifting around a familiar chic Manhattan subculture. Her network of like-minded friends, a diaspora of young adults raised outside their cultural heritage, contributes to the unique sense of place that makes "The Imperialists" feel so genuine. In depicting upper class urbanites exclusively composed of non-American personalities, its story is quintessentially American.
Soon after the premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, critics immediately compared Durra's vision of privileged New Yorkers to the similarly fashionable bubble of the city-dwelling WASP types in Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan." The association testified to the movie's instant old school indie cred, right down to the grainy Super 16mm look. Asya and her well-heedled companions may indeed occupy a version of Stillman's posh "urban haute bourgeoisie," but their lives correlate more specifically with current events. Whereas Stillman vaguely situated his characters in a time "not too long ago" at the close of the debutante era, Durra roots her representation of the American other in a topical form of social alienation.
Asya lives comfortably but constantly worries about discrimination, and the movie inhabits her perspective. One of the only discernible vanilla character is Stillman himself, in a wordless cameo, hopping across the dance floor of a neighborhood bar in a failed bid to garner Asya's attention. His presence is like a rite of passage for Durra -- the duality of Asya's life, a safe haven haunted by news from overseas, brings an unmistakably modern touch to this slice-of-elite-life approach: Whit Stillman 2.0.
Asya's particular allegiances are difficult to categorize. Born in Paris from a Jordanian father and a Bosnian-Palestinian mother (a fact she repeats at least three times), she comes across as a cultural hybrid with no easily identifiable precedent. Her allegiances are tough to define, even in her art. The movie begins with one of her high concept photo shoots, in which she stands almost entirely naked in front of the camera, holding a gun and wearing only a scarf over her face. Later explained as a commentary on Iraqi prostitution, the image establishes a tone that's at once fundamentally absurd and unsettling, paving the way for Durra's ability to match her playful characterizations with underlying psychological dread.
The artist's attempt to radicalize her opposition to Middle Eastern oppression contrasts with Durras's own creative goals. Her screenplay implies an ideology by virtue of the story's limited perspective, but clings to naturalism rather than overstatement. At one point, Asya encounters a museum installation comprised of melted-down soldiers. "So literal," she moans, suggesting the intention of making "The Imperialists" anything but.
Concurrent with the movie's appearance at Sundance, Chris Morris's subversive British terrorist satire "Four Lions" became a major crowdpleasing hit at the festival (but, at the time of this writing, both "Four Lions" and "The Imperialists" lack U.S. distribution). Although Morris appeared to sympathize with his slapstick characters, he still essentially positioned them as pathetic figures. "The Imperialists" offers a far more progressive statement because Asya has nothing to do with such blunt clichés, but she lives in constant fear of them. In an early scene, she learns that her former lover Faisal may have been detained by a rendition plane while traveling to New York. But the mystery of his disappearance matters less than the reactions to it. "Was he a terrorist?" asks Javier, the genteel Mexican lawyer whom Asya begins casually dating on a whim. When Asya shoots back a decisive "no," Javier back-pedals into political correctness. "I didn't mean that," he says. Durra offers several of such understated exchanges. A critic for The Hollywood Reporter groused that the movie "rambles on," but that very tendency is central to its appeal.
The universe of "The Imperialists" not only seems real but highly personable, avoiding the pratfalls of reducing Asya's beliefs to one-note principles. Her art subverts the Western gaze, but in her life she jokingly indulges in it. (When Javier greets her with a tongue-in-cheek "Hola, terrorist," she breezily shoots back, "Hey, drug mule.") She embodies a defiant attitude that imbues her with fierce individuality despite a relentlessly ambiguous message. "It's not about religion," she says about her work. "It's about resistance."
Which begs the question: Resistance to what, exactly? The implicit irony of "The Imperialists" comes from its portrait of Asya enduring a self-imposed struggle despite constantly benefiting from the luxuries of U.S. freedoms. Granted, the outline for Asya's rebelliousness has a cause and a widespread history. Durras acknowledges the like-minded political anglings of Jean-Luc Godard's young Maoist agitators in "La Chinoise" (with her title, a line from the Godard film) and Jacquette Rivette's portrait of youthful Parisian bohemians in "Paris Belongs to Us," but these reference points function less as homage than reinvention. In the Durras version, the rebels are their own worst enemies. Imperialism lives on partly because they contribute to its continuing vitality.
criticWIRE grade: A-
This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. "The Imperialists Are Still Alive" hits select cinemas this Friday, April 15 through Sundance Selects.