An immigrant’s movie, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! follows Asya (Élodie Bouchez), a self-described “conceptual” artist who poses sober Iranian women with a rifle (and stocking-tucked pistol) in her Manhattan studio, on her rounds of uninspiring gallery openings, parties frequented by models toting clutch purses and gift bags, and clubs and secret bars populated by human waxworks. “Jordanian/Lebanese, Bosnian/Palestinian, born in Paris,” she habitually recites to pedicurists and taxi drivers inquiring about her lineage, an identity that solidifies when a onetime lover is rumored to have been detained for rendition by the C.I.A., and her Beirut-dwelling brother attempts to escape an Israeli bombardment. Commencing a romance with fellow nightlife denizen Javier (José María de Tavira), a blithe PhD candidate studying medieval law, Asya denies accusations of post-9/11 paranoia as she holds hushed meetings with Arab-American friends in stretch limos or storefront delis, or retreats to the kids’ room at a soiree to watch TV news of the Lebanon crisis; “It’s not about religion, it’s about resistance,” she briskly tells Javier.
Writer-director Zeina Durra’s debut feature has some of the texture of ‘70s New York cinema, with its blown-up 16mm grain and its balance of art-scene chic with melting-pot vernacular; a running gag has Asya receiving unsolicited advice from Latino characters, from her protective housekeeper to an amorous cabbie, to beware of Mexican lotharios like Javier. (Durra further summons the spirit of boogie-down Gotham by casting Karen Lynn Gorney of Saturday Night Fever in a bit role as a legal eagle who advises Asya’s circle to carry five dollars and an ID as a hedge against being jailed on a technical charge of homelessness.) Though the film’s wintertime setting and low-key dramatic arc keeps their passion grounded in hesitant naturalism rather than romanticized idealism, save for one sidewalk serenade, elegantly insecure Bouchez and fetchingly ingenuous de Tavira are an agreeable, improvisatory early-stage couple, making a postcoital trip to a trash heap to ditch a panicked Asya’s prop weaponry. But the enduring, quietly tumultuous affair engrained in The Imperialists Are Still Alive! is between a city and its international population, well-heeled or working-class, which remains edgily watchful in the new age of American suspicion and sanctioned xenophobia.