David Jenkins


Megalopolis – first-look review

Ignore the haters – this is the kaleidoscopic, enriching, Wellsian vision of a grand old master with nothing to lose.

The word “opus” feels custom-designed as a descriptor for a film such as Francis Ford Coppola’s self-conscious folly-to-end-all-follies, Megalopolis. It’s a rare bird indeed in that it’s a work of art that actively practices what it preaches, a celebration of unfettered creativity and farsightedness that offers a volcanic fusion of hand-crafted neo-classicism while running through a script of toe-tapping word-jazz that merrily dances between the raindrops of logic and coherence.

Even though it has now been seen by the public, the film’s blueprint, its code key, still remains buried in the brain of its creator, perhaps never to be revealed. It’s like an incomplete manuscript found in the dusty cupboard of a genius artist who never quite found the material to glue this thing together, to make all of its constituent parts stick. This is Coppola casting himself as the unknowable sage, Charles Foster Kane, placing himself in the snowglobe. He is trying to say the unsayable, construct a thesis from ideas that have yet to be formulated by himself or anyone else. Threads are left to dangle. Some ideas are stillborn. But this is a unique city symphony that pounces on the vast dynamic range of cinema.

It’s a film from the man who made The Godfather. And it’s a film from the man who made Dracula. And it‘s also a film from the man who made One From the Heart. And it’s definitely a film from the man who made Twixt. On a macro level, there should be no surprise when it comes to discovering what this film ended up being, but on a micro level there are images and ideas that are completely surprising and new. And very weird. And even its emotional register seems to be on a different scale to the norm. Humour is different. Violence is different. Sadness is different. It’s an expansion of reality rather than a reflection of it. Megalopolis is a work of high transgression, of aesthetic plunder and a sneak-peek through the looking-glass of possibility.

It’s about nothing less than the act of dedicating your life to create something of negligible value and obscure application, but then gleaning pleasure from the fact that people will adapt to it and find their own way to use it. What if films aren’t complete works of art, they’re just the matter, the material, the Megalon, that can be pressed and forged into something else entirely? Megalopolis is, in many ways, anything you want it to be.

Yet to a little context, the film plays like a mellifluous montage through the lives of various bickering powerbrokers in the crumbling utopia known as New Rome. The ancient and the modern coexist in the same frame, and this teetering empire is being held up by the pillars of commerce (John Voight’s horndog banking mogul Hamilton Crassus III, who looks like the old Dracula), innovation (Adam Driver‘s sylphic, anime-like celebrity architect, Cesar Catilina, who can also, btw, stop time) and politics (Giancarlo Esposito’s loathed, mealy-mouthed mayor, Franklyn Cicero).

Elsewhere we have Shia LaBeouf as cross-dressing failson and errant cousin to Caesar, Clodio Pulcher; there’s Aubrey Plaza as the gold-digging TV economist Wow Platinum; and Nathalie Emmanuel as party girl turned muse, Julia Cicero. Little attempt is made to flesh out the intrigue that exist between these warring parties, instead we just sweep through and are given a sense of the space in which they exist. The performances are very odd, sometimes coming across as a little stiff, and others almost too loose. But that all feeds in to the film’s aggressively eccentric MO, its ambience of pure freedom.

At this point, on the back of a single viewing, there’s not much more to say about the film, as a major part of its pleasure is the joy of seeing something that’s unlike anything else out there. To offer some completely banal and ill-thought-through cinematic reference points, it sits at a midpoint between Southland Tales and Inland Empire, while also nodding to Fellini and Lang and von Stroheim and Murnau and Tati and, and and… It is an epic outpouring from an artist who genuinely DNGAF whether you like or loathe what he’s done. In the wine industry, it’s what insiders refer to as “the good stuff”. I now need to catch my breath and ready myself for another ride.

Published 16 May 2024

Tags: Adam Driver Aubrey Plaza Cannes Dustin Hoffman Francis Ford Coppola Giancarlo Esposito Jason Schwartzman Jon Voight Shia LaBeouf

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