Fantasia 2019 Review: ALIEN CRYSTAL PALACE Might As Well Have Been Made By Aliens
When I watched Alien Crystal Palace, I did so via an online screener, and thus had the benefit of being able to go back and rewatch parts of it afterward. Even so, I can barely tell you what it’s about. This movie - directed by singer and Parisian nightlife icon Arielle Dombasle - is a deliberately kitschy and yet opulent fever dream, a film only someone like Dombasle could have made. It’s not bad in the way that The Room or Verotika are, but it’s fucking weird for the same reason: Arielle Dombasle, like Tommy Wiseau and Glenn Danzig, is a singular personality with - importantly - roots that lie outside filmmaking.
The overarching story of Alien Crystal Palace is secondary to the more immediate goings-on throughout it, but it’s definitely an original one. It principally concerns a mad scientist’s plot to create the perfect “androgyne” human by alchemically merging together the souls of artsy film director Dolores (Dombasle) and heroin-addicted goth rocker Nicolas (Nicolas Ker). Bringing these two together ain’t easy, though, despite the best efforts of a trio of shadowy producers, since both Dolores and Nicolas are romantically and/or sexually involved with others, and both are caught up in a serial murder plot taking place concurrently. The Egyptian god Horus is also watching, and a surprising portion of the movie takes place in a submarine. It’s...odd.
Even that description doesn’t really do Alien Crystal Palace full justice. Dombasle directs with the wild fury of someone who knows exactly what she wants, even if her cast and crew haven't a clue what she's on about. Mixing von Trier-esque naturalism and drug-fueled video collage work, and countless unmotivated cuts, she creates a bizarre, artificial sense of pace where tons of things are happening, even if the story isn’t really moving forward. Sub-one-minute dance sequences pepper the running time. The scientist’s lab looks like Ed Wood decorated it, covered with sciencey shit like fetuses in jars. Visually and conceptually, it’s a melange of goth music, cheap sci-fi, new-age philosophy, and new-wave filmmaking.
This being a film by a multi-disciplinary dilettante best-known for her life as a socialite, Alien Crystal Palace is a profoundly narcissistic picture - and that’s a crucial part of its weird charm. The cast is populated nearly entirely by French musicians, artists, gallery owners, interior designers, photographers, and Asia Argento, as if Dombasle is showing off all the people she hangs out with. Every character is either costumed extravagantly or not at all, and the film’s multiple party scenes feel almost like documentary footage of actual exclusive Paris parties - which they might well be. All this creates a weird patina where the acting isn’t great, but everyone looks really unusual, and given the film they’re in, that kinda works.
Dombasle’s character Dolores deserves special mention in this respect, and not just because she's written herself as the female half of a perfect being. Nominally an art-film hero making an Egyptian princess movie, she’s barely ever seen actually directing. Constantly changing costumes, all of which feel ripped straight from fashion catwalk models, she spends the majority of her time posing, partying, hobnobbing, and having sex. At age 66, Dombasle is one of the most confident self-cast sex symbols in cinema history, doing things that few in her demographic have ever dared. Amusingly, in keeping with her male Hollywood romantic-lead counterparts, she, too, has an onscreen fling with a much younger woman. Nobody frames themselves like this in a movie unless they truly believe they're the most beautiful person alive, and Dombasle is so convinced of that, even I almost believe it after seeing her film.
All of this goes to say that Alien Crystal Palace clearly has profound meaning for Dombasle. The concepts being discussed - life, love, sex, gender, art, religion, metaphysics - are all big ones, and no movie this peculiar gets made without intense personal belief in the project on the part of the creative drivers. For outsiders, though, it's an almost impenetrable cavalcade of art-world celebrity cameos, garish visuals, and bewildering dialogue. Even the presence of a surprisingly down-to-earth police investigation (if still a high-fashion one, given the police's shiny, tight quasi-fascist uniforms) does little to ground this movie. It's floating on another plane entirely.
Dombasle’s first acting role on iMDb is an uncredited one in The Holy Mountain, and there’s more than a whiff of Jodorowsky in Alien Crystal Palace. It’d be tacky, unfocused, self-serving Jodorowsky, but it’s definitely the work of a similarly unrestrained mind. Put it this way: despite the presence of palaces, crystals, and (more or less) aliens, the title Alien Crystal Palace still basically has nothing to do with the movie - except, perhaps, as a description of any location in which this film could have been conceived. For better or worse, you’ve seen nothing else like it.