'Megalopolis' premieres at Cannes: First reaction

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'Megalopolis' premieres at Cannes: First reaction
“Megalopolis,” which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, is Coppola’s first movie since “Twixt” (2011), a little-seen, small-scale horror fantasy.

by Manohla Dargis

CANNES.- Late in “Megalopolis,” Francis Ford Coppola’s plaintively hopeful movie about — well, everything under the sun — a character speaks to the power of love. It’s a wistful moment in a fascinating film aswirl with wild visions, lofty ideals, cinematic allusions, literary references, historical footnotes and self-reflexive asides, all of which Coppola has funneled into a fairly straightforward story about a man with a plan. It is a great big plan from a great big man in a great big movie, one whose sincerity is finally as moving as its unbounded artistic ambition.

“Megalopolis,” which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, is Coppola’s first movie since “Twixt” (2011), a little-seen, small-scale horror fantasy. “Megalopolis” is far larger in every respect, though at this point it’s an open question whether it will reach an audience of any kind. The industry, never a welcoming place for free-ranging and -thinking artists, is in the midst of another of its cyclical freakouts. Business is terrible and the sky is definitely, absolutely falling. Fear, panic and timidity rule the day, as they generally do.

And then there is a recent report in The Guardian with anonymous sources alleging that Coppola tried to kiss female extras. The executive producer Darren Demetre has said, “I was never aware of any complaints of harassment or ill behavior during the course of the project” and described the contact as “kind hugs and kisses on the cheek to the cast and background players.”

I thought about these allegations every so often while watching “Megalopolis,” particularly during one of the bacchanals that punctuate the story and especially when yet another semi-covered breast waggled onscreen. I didn’t find the breasts scandalous or remotely offensive; for one thing, the movie is a speculative fiction about a city that more or less looks like New York, if one modeled on ancient Rome. There the city’s wealthy citizens scheme, the poor suffer and a visionary architect, Cesar Catilina (Adam Driver), dreams of a “perfect school-city” in which everyone can become who they were meant to be.

The movie follows Catilina pondering his mortality atop what looks like the Chrysler Building. After gingerly crawling outside on a ledge, he gazes over the city and raises a foot in the air, then freezes as if contemplating the abyss. This apparent to-be-or-not-to-be moment initiates a story that finds him wrestling with imponderables, having anguished meltdowns and trying to realize his utopian project using a building material he has invented as he navigates assorted hurdles. Among the most persistent is the imperious mayor, Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), who has a beautiful daughter, Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), a party girl who can quote the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius by heart.

The plot thickens quickly as characters enter and exit delivering lines that, by turns, sound like everyday speech (well, almost) and as formally structured (and antiquated) as Shakespearean prose. The performance styles are similarly varied though rarely do they align with the kind of natural-seeming psychological realism that’s so familiar. There’s a heightened aspect to many of them; every so often, Driver tips into old-school Method-esque intensity while other actors push in separate directions. You can almost see the quotation marks hovering around Aubrey Plaza’s wonderfully sly performance as a TV celebrity called Wow Platinum, while Shia LaBeouf goes full-on court fool as Clodio, Catilina’s cousin.

It admittedly took me awhile to get accustomed to both the dialogue and the performances, which while not exactly alienating did feel destabilizing. I soon got into Coppola’s groove, though, and stayed there more or less, despite my exasperation with his stubbornly old-fashioned ideas about women and men and my deep skepticism about technological determinism. Even so, while I have my doubts about Catilina’s vision, Coppola’s own pleasure in playing with a digital toolbox is fun to watch. Unsurprisingly, the results are often striking, like the image of Catilina and Julia kissing while precariously perched on metal girders that are floating high above the ground or the picture of a futuristic city whose flowing organic forms recall the work of the brilliant architect Zaha Hadid.

From the moment Catilina appears atop his world, his foot frozen above the void and seemingly ready to take a great leap, it’s clear that “Megalopolis” — a dream that Coppola has been dreaming for some 40 years — is no ordinary movie. It too is a great leap, a formally and visually audacious experiment that feels like the work of a filmmaker who, rather than repeating himself ad infinitum or resting on his countless laurels, remains excited by moving pictures and their infinite possibilities. I don’t think “Megalopolis” will be for everyone, but art rarely is. In 1895, the film pioneer Louis Lumière apparently said that the cinema was “an invention without a future,” a comment that’s been repeated in one way or another ever since; in 2024, and against all odds, Coppola dares to insist that it has one.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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