The Imperialists Are Still Alive! is set in a New York staggering from the events of 9/11, but stylistically, it’s straight out of the ’90s, when Whit Stillman was chronicling the minor travails of the wealthy and overeducated in films like Metropolitan and The Last Days Of Disco. Like Stillman’s self-described “urban haute bourgeoisie,” the characters in Zeina Durra’s feature debut are children of privilege whose painful awareness of that fact doesn’t stop them from saying amusingly obnoxious things. Unlike the UHB, they’re all expats who sport fetching hybrid accents and handbags they bought in France, and while they partake of the glamorous lifestyle Manhattan can offer, they don’t, and can’t, feel they really belong there.
Élodie Bouchez stars as a Jordanian-Lebanese-Bosnian-Palestinian-by-way-of-Paris conceptual artist who lives in a Chinatown loft and whose work runs along the lines of self-portraits in which she wears nothing but a keffiyeh. During a night out, she meets and starts a romance with handsome Mexican grad student José María de Tavira, and also learns of the possible rendition of her former Saudi lover. Bouchez’s budding relationship and bohemian life are juxtaposed against her growing paranoia about government surveillance and her concern for her brother in Beirut, whose life is endangered by Israeli aggression she monitors on bodega radios and via anxious cell-phone calls between parties.
Imperialists! is at its best when it examines the guilt, ineffectualness, and isolation Bouchez and her friends feel over enjoying the benefits of the U.S. while nurturing a sense of spiritual opposition—they know they’re having their cake and eating it, too. “I should have been a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières,” Bouchez wails at one point. Then she climbs into her friend’s Lamborghini and goes out for Middle Eastern food. She and her new lover share cultural and linguistic ties with the other immigrants making deliveries and driving taxis, but those connections are strained by the fact that they’re always the ones being waited on.
Imperialists! is less effective in aiming at the broad target that is the downtown sphere, in part because it’s never clear how we’re supposed to take the protagonist, who can be an aloof snob who sulks over gallery placement and what her proper “scene” and “type of person” are. The film is ultimately more interesting than engaging; Durra doesn’t yet have a grasp of the simultaneous warmth and needle-sharp satirical sense that infuse Stillman’s films. But she does have Stillman himself: The director has a cameo as a barfly who bobs up to Bouchez to the tune of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” drink in hand, still in search of the next cool scene.