When a film like Prince appears out of nowhere, with its pseudo-incendiary electronic score and sophisticated examination of revenge, it revives hope for a pop-art cinema that’s not only capable of balancing enraged critique with playful, irreverent aesthetics, but also treats its characters like actual human beings rather than pawns on a chess board. Moreover, first-time writer-director Sam de Jong aligns himself with Brian De Palma as one of few contemporary filmmakers whose work plays as if in direct dialogue with another film. For De Palma, Obsession, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double are less the oft-accused rip-offs of previous Alfred Hitchcock films than rigorous reckonings with a burgeoning postmodern dilemma; not merely the “anxiety of influence,” to quote literary scholar Harold Bloom, but something more akin to outright agony, where questions of artistic lineage from the outside spool the proceedings within into a nightmarish phantasmagoria, the implications of which are still to be unraveled.
Comparably, Prince places Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive in its crosshairs with a vengeance, initially replicating that film’s pop electro tracks and neon credit titles as to seem borderline parodic. However, rather than Ryan Gosling’s suave, silent, Ken-doll “Driver,” de Jong plugs teenage Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri) into the proceedings and ponders what could ensue were he double-crossed by his friends, left for dead by some local gangsters, and given a chance for bloody restitution. Ayoub is Moroccan-Dutch, a detail that de Jong interweaves through the film with a mastery reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, where ethnicity is one of the film’s core interests, but remains at the periphery, sporadically commented on by characters as a source of anxiety and conflict, but seldom utilized or exploited for unearned pleas of significance. Prince is not about race, per se, but its comprehensive implication is that those fairy-tale myths involving princes and princesses are typically tainted with provisionary desires and impossible expectations that necessarily exclude people of color.
As Ayoub pursues Laura (Sigrid ten Napel), the local beauty who belongs to drug-running Vince (Vincent van de Waal), the young lad’s notions of masculinity as a posture derived from cultural icons becomes increasingly clear. He flexes and says he’s the “muscles from Brussels” and works out in his room a la Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. The mythology of the lone-wolf male, capable of rescuing a damsel in distress, isn’t simply questioned as dominant ideology, but outright condemned by de Jong’s increasingly hallucinatory aesthetic, though the filmmaker makes clear that he’s not interested in resorting to pop fantasy. Ayoub’s tumultuous but loving relationship with his mother and sister, for example, progresses over the course of several tense scenes, as does his relationship with a junkie father. When one character dies late in the film, it sets the stage for a funeral sequence that’s stunningly attuned to the sensorial pain of human loss.
In effect, Prince’s seriousness derives from how vehemently it opposes Drive’s outbursts of graphic violence. Though de Jong lingers on an extensive amount of brutish behavior, Ayoub is rounded in a manner that Refn would never dream of. The violence, for Refn, is what anchors the translucent cinematography and baroque mise-en-scène; he’s flattening characters and seeking a Kubrickian visual style that eliminates the possibility of social commentary. That becomes abundantly clear in Only God Forgives, but Drive, too, envisions terror as a blank slate, emanating from a flatness of affect that its hell-bent, hammer-time killer deterministically carries out. Ayoub, on the other hand, is given a choice. When he meets with Kalpa (Freddy Tratlehner), whose purple Lamborghini the film uses as a key, ironic symbol of cool, he’s handed a gun and told: “You drive.” The imperative would be a wink to Refn were it not such an outright middle finger, since it’s followed by Kalpa’s repeated asking and then chanting of “Who hurt you?,” which, by the point that he’s asked a dozen times, pummels any notions of auto-exposition.
Prince is equally a takedown of cultural cool, but it avoids overstatement. Note how Ayoub’s sister wears a San Diego Chargers jersey and a member of Vince’s posse sports a retro, Michael Jordan tank. These characters are fitted in gear not as a given, but as an end; when Ayoub gets a new pair of kicks, it impresses his friends, but de Jong imparts, through subsequent, climactic events, how an empty worship of iconography is the actual poison of Ayoub’s pursuits. He spends so much time trying to be a man through signifiers, that when he’s standing above those who’ve wronged him, a crown on his head and a gun in his hand, de Jong calmly affords the character a space for introspection, in which a bastardization of genre violence, removed from social relevancy, is revealed as the most dangerous iconographic obsession of all.