Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Madly Captivating Urban Sprawl of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis”

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The subject of “Megalopolis,” Francis Ford Coppola’s first feature in thirteen years, is time. The movie begins with an image of a large city clock, and Coppola repeatedly invokes time’s relentless forward march. Yet the very nature of the movie, which is by turns aggressively heady, stubbornly illogical, and beguilingly optimistic, is to question our understanding of time as a finite resource. It muses about how we as people—designers, builders, inventors, artists—might succeed in circumventing time and bring about a utopia that resists the natural slide toward entropy.

Coppola’s protagonist is a controversial architect and designer named Cesar Catilina (Adam Driver), who has the ability to pause time. “Time, stop!” he says, and everything freezes: people, cars, the clouds in the sky, even the crumbling of a public-housing development that was being demolished on Cesar’s own orders. But his supernatural powers are limited. Eventually, he must allow time to start up again, with a reluctant snap of his fingers. (The film is laden with references to Shakespeare, Emerson, and Sapphic poetry, but the temporal gimmickry reminded me, irresistibly, of the late-eighties sitcom “Out of This World.”)

Once time resumes, every passing moment brings human civilization closer to ruin—a catastrophic collapse foretold by the fall of Rome. In fact, the film takes place in a city called New Rome, though it is quite visibly New York, with recurring shots of the Chrysler Building and the Statue of Liberty. (The movie was filmed, with much visual and digital trickery, in Atlanta; the cinematographer is Mihai Mălaimare, Jr.) New Rome abounds in classical motifs: Doric columns prop up buildings adorned with Latin dicta, and a remarkable number of citizens wear gold laurel leaves, even the ones who aren’t riding chariots around a mock Colosseum. The plot, a laborious but lively enough contraption, comes to us straight from the Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 B.C. Cesar is an update of the politician Lucius Sergius Catiline; his chief nemesis, Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), stands in for that other Cicero, the famed consul whom Catiline sought to overthrow.

The movie’s full title is “Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis: A Fable,” but Aesop might have blanched at Coppola’s weakness for overexplanation. He has made a declamatory epic, in which the actors recite as much as they perform, and meanings are not suggested but superimposed, with baldly allegorical intent, over thickets of narrative. Cesar believes that New Rome’s future rests on the construction of an experimental city, Megalopolis, which will be fashioned from a miraculous material called Megalon. By all appearances, Megalon’s chief property is a pliability that enables it to be molded into giant, trippy structures, which resemble flowers and mushrooms; picture a Frank Gehry-designed “Alice in Wonderland” and you’re halfway there. Mayor Cicero resists such costly, high-flown futurism, which prioritizes beauty over practicality. “People don’t need dreams—they need teachers, sanitation, and jobs,” he snarls at Cesar. No points for guessing whose side Coppola, now eighty-five and still one of the great dreamers in American cinema, is on.

Most of the other major characters are delineated by their symbolic function. The face of economic excess is Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight), a lecherous old schemer and the city’s wealthiest man. The role of unchecked ambition is handily filled by Crassus’s troublemaking grandson, Clodio (Shia LaBeouf). The venality of the media is embodied by a financial reporter, memorably named Wow Platinum, who is played with acerbic mischief by Aubrey Plaza. (“Fuck your stupid Megalopolis!” she yells at Cesar, perhaps trying to get ahead of the film’s reviews.) There’s more: an old murder investigation, an assassination attempt, an election campaign, night-club revellers posing on a unicorn, an outré fashion show, and a sex scene containing the unimprovable line “I want to fuck you so bad, Auntie Wow.”

Amid this debaucherous sprawl are sustainingly poignant pleasures, starting with the presence of Coppola veterans such as Laurence Fishburne and Talia Shire (the director’s sister), in small but striking roles. There is also the significant character of Julia Cicero (Nathalie Emmanuel), the mayor’s daughter, who ultimately joins Cesar’s cause, first as his employee and later as his lover. Tellingly, there are also Cesar’s mournful visions of his late wife, who was such a luminous life force that Coppola has bestowed upon her the name Sunny Hope—a groaner, perhaps, but one I couldn’t bring myself to groan at. I was too preoccupied thinking about the death, in April, of Eleanor Coppola, the director’s wife and longtime creative partner, to whom “Megalopolis” is movingly dedicated.

When Coppola brought “Apocalypse Now” to the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, he famously declared, “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” It was a testament to the film’s extraordinary scope, scale, and verisimilitude, but it also spoke to the temperament of a filmmaker defined by outsized ambition and ego. Now, decades later, his latest movie has also premièred in competition at Cannes, and I am tempted to test out a similar formulation: “Megalopolis” isn’t just about time; it is time—at least in the sense that the film, more than forty years in the making, comes to us as an astounding repository of the past.

Coppola first conceived of “Megalopolis” in the early eighties, hoping to follow “Apocalypse Now” with something comparably epic. But the project was scuppered by the critical and commercial failure of “One from the Heart,” in 1982, after which a series of escalating personal and professional crises kept “Megalopolis” on the backburner for decades: actors came and went, and 9/11 forced a serious rethink of the material. Coppola ended up financing much of the production himself, selling off part of his wine business and reportedly putting up a hundred and twenty million dollars of his own money.

Such is the past of “Megalopolis,” whose future looks equally uncertain. In Cannes, where the movie is in contention for the Palme d’Or—a prize that Coppola has won twice, for “The Conversation,” in 1974, and “Apocalypse Now”—its fortunes have seemed to shift by the hour. A recent piece in the Guardian detailed anonymous complaints from the film crew about Coppola’s unorthodox techniques; more troublingly, some alleged that the director had behaved inappropriately toward women on the set. (Coppola’s team has issued a denial.) As for the movie’s box-office prospects, no one expects Wow Platinum numbers. A global IMAX release has been announced, but, as of this writing, the movie still lacks an American distributor.

This is not the first time a Coppola vessel has risked being dashed by the free-flowing waters of art against the unyielding rocks of commerce. But what is inescapably moving about “Megalopolis,” and what throws even its strangest excesses into meaningful relief, is the degree to which it has evolved into an allegory of its own making. Coppola has made a defense of the beautiful and the impractical, not just as principles of urban design or meaningful living but as art-sustaining forces in the cinema itself. This picture may find him near the end of a long, embattled career, but the mere fact that it exists, in its breathtaking and sometimes exasperating singularity, feels like an expression of hope.

The Rome-New York allegory, with its blunt collision of ancient and modern, creates its own aura of temporal dislocation, as do many visual and atmospheric peculiarities. Some of Coppola’s devices—three-way split screen, fadeout iris shots, spinning newspaper headlines, and the like—belong to an earlier era, as do such design flourishes as Cesar’s dark fedora and the Art Deco touches in his studio. At moments, the artifice seems to bend in two directions; when Cesar and Julia ride in an exposed outdoor elevator, the buildings we see passing behind them seem to be a C.G.I. background, but they also call to mind one of those Old Hollywood rear projections. Here, as in a vertiginous sequence in which the pair walk on suspended construction beams, New Rome barely looks real, but that doesn’t feel like a mistake. In Coppola’s view, the city is a gloriously teeming abstraction, the stuff of dreams, open to endless possibility and reinterpretation.

Midway through the Cannes press screening of “Megalopolis” that I attended, a light suddenly appeared in the theatre, illuminating a man speaking at a microphone in front of the screen. I assumed that this was a temporary fix for a scene that was unfinished, but a representative for the film later told me that the moment was entirely deliberate, and that a live actor will appear at future screenings of the movie. How this could work for a commercial release, especially when it comes to streaming, will be a matter for the distributor and maybe TaskRabbit. Still, it was a quietly spellbinding moment, a rupture in the usually taut membrane between the bright fantasy of the screen and the dark reality of the theatre. For one instant this cinematic vision of the future, steeped in the ghosts of the past, spoke to us, hauntingly, in the register of the now. ♦

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