Francis Ford Coppola’s chaotic film Megalopolis is a frustrating but beautiful experience

2 out of 5 stars

About three-quarters of the way through Francis Ford Coppola’s passion project Megalopolis, Cesar Catalina (Adam Driver) addresses the press during a conference. The screen becomes small, and, at Cannes (who knows if and how this will ever translate to a wide release), the lights go up in the room. An actor approaches the screen, facing the troubled genius to ask a question. Cesar looks down upon the man in the room and answers. The lights go down, and the actor takes his seat. It’s a bizarre but strangely enchanting moment. It’s representative of a filmmaker working to push cinema’s imagination in new directions but also one uninterested in the status quo. 

A mish-mash of Shakespeare, Roman theatre and American mythmaking, Megalopolis stands alone in the history of cinema. In the late stages of his career, Coppola has long been relegated to the sidelines as his filmmaking practice has become increasingly unorthodox and unconventional. For the past 30 years, Coppola has made various attempts to break out beyond classical narrative cinema, toying with the limits of the cinematic image to explore metaphysics — and been punished for operating within a system that rewards mediocrity and convention. It’s only thanks to the success of his wine business that he could self-finance the $120-million budget of Megalopolis, a feat matched only by early 20th century eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and his equally ambition (though often flawed) film projects.

In some ways, Megalopolis is indefensible. If the film were made by nearly any other filmmaker, it would never be in the Cannes competition. It would likely be a blip in the attention economy. But, it is made by Francis Ford Coppola, one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. It’s a sprawling and ambitious film that explores many of the same themes laid out by his best work, particularly the family dynamics and breadth of time of The Godfather trilogy. It is also an unbridled and unchecked collection of emotions and scenes that rarely come together to form cohesive ideas or images. 

Set in “New Rome,” Megalopolis is a gold-tinted battle for the future city that pits eccentric genius Cesar Catilina against the regressive status quo Mayor Franklyn Cicesor (Giancarlo Esposito). Their bitter rivalry heats up as the mayor’s daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel) is torn between them. The synopsis covers the plot in the vaguest terms because Megalopolis is sprawling at best and bloated at worst. It’s a movie that’s less about incidents than ideas. However, the film’s desperate tone means that ideas are rarely developed; instead, we hop from one subject or feeling to another, with barely enough time to breathe. Considering Coppola’s struggles to make films over the past three decades, it’s no surprise that the movie often feels like the accumulation of a lifetime of anxieties and questions. It’s a shame the film rarely offers any concrete or satisfying answers.

Adam Driver in Megalopolis

The prevailing feeling of distress makes for a melancholic experience. The movie is rapid-paced, paradoxical and frustrating but also incredibly earnest. While Megalopolis likely won’t meet any high expectations, it defies them in other ways. Coppola creates a film with singular vision, without any obvious cinematic comparison. In some ways, it’s like Fellini’s adaptation of Satyricon, a movie that left audiences bewildered upon its first screening at the Venice festival in 1969. Satyricon was far from the pleasurable cynicism of films like La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. In comparison, it seems decadent and debaucherous, testing the audience’s capacity for strangeness in its uncomfortable depiction of humanity writ large. Stylistic and emotional departures from the romanticism of their maker’s early works, both Satyricon and Megalopolis embrace exaggerated artifice as a way to explore humanity’s capacity for self-indulgent mythmaking as a means of avoiding death, all the while confirming that this ego-driven indulgence ultimately fails. Both films deal with not just the fallibility of the individual but also the failure and collapse of an empire. It’s an impossibly large subject that can hardly be contained within the limits of a single filmmaking project.

At its best, Megalopolis leans into this quality of disillusionment. It is fundamentally about a man of great talent and ability who feels time is escaping him. While he can freeze time, he feels this power slip away. Even a man with infinity at his fingertips cannot escape destiny: he cannot escape death. The most powerful man in the world will also die, and only through love and family can he find meaning. 

Megalopolis is not a pleasurable experience, but it’s not a boring one either. The performances are exaggerated and inconsistent, and the film’s visual style is bizarrely entrancing. With visual homages to The Night of the Hunter, Metropolis and Blade Runner, the movie is also deeply entranced in theatricality. The production design of several pivotal scenes mimics a kind of behind-the-scenes reinterpretation of urban environments as a sprawling stage. While some critics bemoaned its fakeness, it’s one of its greatest assets. It gets back to the root of filmmaking as a raw and unfiltered process. For fans of kitschy cult movies, Megalopolis undeniably channels the charged energy of a half-failed school play — it’s messy but also painfully earnest. 

Megapolis will not please most audiences, but dismissing it wholesale would be a mistake. In a world where corporations dominate the American industry, it’s a minor miracle that a self-financed film by Francis Ford Coppola can exist. It’s a rare work of art that is undeniably what its creator intended. As messy as it is, it only reveals how the current market offers so little room for experimentation from its greatest artists. It’s hard not to wonder how different this film might be (if it were to exist at all) if Coppola was not so crippled by industry pressures due to flailing box office results. Perhaps that’s at the heart of the film’s real failure: why must it be a $100-million+ project? (I wish people asked the same question of basically any major blockbuster; Coppola’s project is far more exciting and noble than anything Disney is producing, but why can we only imagine creative freedom by way of an enormous and unchecked budget?). Unintentionally, the question reveals how art rooted in capitalism is more restrictive than liberating. The result is a discordant, flawed and chaotic film, a frustrating but beautiful experience. 

Ultimately, Megalopolis makes me think of Edward Said’s comments on “late” style for artists: 

“What of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Megalopolis (directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

Megalopolis is scheduled for release in Montreal theatres in September. For more, please visit the Cannes Film Festival website.

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