As a model, filmmaker, musician actor, Arielle Dombasle has impressive form. As the latter, she has worked with a calibre of directors including Éric Rohmer and Alain Robbe-Grillet. As a director, her feature credits include Chassé-croisé (1982), Les pyramides bleues (1988), Opium (2013) and the documentary La traversée du désir (2009); across these films she has worked with screen icons ranging from Omar Sharif to Fanny Ardant to Jean-Paul Belmondo. The North American premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival of her latest film Alien Crystal Palace again carries the Dombasle signature; her credits include not only directing, writing and acting, but she also wrote the music.
The film is, to put it mildly, more of a sensory experience than an exercise in character development and complex plot mechanics; to explain the story feels like trying to describe the narrative logic of a lava lamp. A haptic celebration of camp, Alien Crystal Palace loosely follows a deranged scientist obsessed with bringing into the world a new kind of perfect being, marked by its defining androgyny. The secret to success is the magical, mystical unification of two figures; filmmaker Dolorès (played by Dombasle herself) and crisis-ridden rock musician Nicolas (Nicolas Ker). There’s also a murder mystery in there somewhere, a multi-lingual Asia Argento swearing and screaming in range of languages, and some neon-colored bikini-clad Cleopatra-like go-go dancers thrown in for luck. The film has something for everyone, assuming this definition of ‘everyone’ excludes those with even remotely conservative tastes.
Dolorès and Nicolas might be a man and a woman, but Alien Crystal Palace is aggressively queer, both in its diversity of sexual couplings (of which there are many) and its fundamentally camp spirit. Add to this a gleeful, near-parodic obsession with stardom and the film begins to shift towards a neo-Warholian sensibility as it brandishes its gleeful incoherence, flagrant disinterest in distinctions between high and low art and undisguised passion for bright, bold color and design.
Of these, the celebrity factor may be the one that raises the most eyebrows; the film’s on-screen credits alone read like a who’s who of some of the biggest names of European visual culture. French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud plays the Egyptian god Horus; superstar fashion designer Christian Louboutin makes an appearance as a film producer alongside renowned Austrian contemporary art gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac and famed French-Iranian fashion photographer and artist Ali Mahdavi.
As Leaud and the go-go dancing Cleopatras suggest, Alien Crystal Palace’s near-psychedelic regurgitation of Egyptian mythology through this post-Warholian lens indicates a conscious commitment to a specific kind of garishness that Dombasle has made uniquely her own. Alien Crystal Palace is not a film marked by nuance; with all the poetic subtlety of banging saucepan lids together it’s certainly not for everyone, but its sheer audacity and its delight in the act of filmmaking itself for those on its wavelength results in an almost transcendentally delirious experience.
To accuse this film of being overcooked is akin to describing the Eiffel Tower as pointy; it is so brazenly stating the obvious that it misses that this is exactly the point. In this sense, it’s a difficult film to discuss in traditional critical language, forcing one to move towards an emotive subjectivity so often pooh-poohed in orthodox review writing. But if there’s ever a film to demand a rejection of traditional modes of thinking, this is it; it is, to opt for the vernacular, a hot mess, but that’s where its delights lie. I love its color, its movement, its proud incoherence, its tactile eroticism and its full-throttle sensory assault, playing out on screen through a series frequently psychedelic and aggressively queer set pieces.
Alien Crystal Palace functions beyond binaries of good and bad film, of high and low art. Dombasle instead demands we marvel at the magic of the moving image itself; to be moved – confused, dazzled, awe-struck, infuriated – by the rainbow of sights, sounds and sensations she conjures.
Alien Crystal Palace plays the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal which runs 11 July – 1 August. More information at fantasiafestival.com