‘Megalopolis’ Review: Francis Ford Coppola’s Mad Modern Masterwork Reinvents The Possibilities Of Cinema – Cannes Film Festival

‘Megalopolis’ Review: Francis Ford Coppola’s Mad Modern Masterwork Reinvents The Possibilities Of Cinema – Cannes Film Festival

“When we leap into the unknown, we prove that we are free,” says Cesar Catalina, the futuristic architect at the beating heart of Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis (to give it its full title), a mad eco-sci-fi blockbuster some 40 years in the making. Catalina says it several times, and it’s one of the more succinct aphorisms that he spouts in a script that is stuffed with seemingly random literary allusions from the likes of Petrarch, Crassus and Marcus Aurelius to Goethe, Shakespeare, H.G. Wells and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Watching Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and eating cheese afterwards would be the only way to replicate its fever-dream grandeur, a series of stunning images, carried along by the loosest of plots, that pontificate on the self-destructive nature of humankind, the only species capable of civilizing itself to death.

True to the advance gossip, Megalopolis is something of a mess — unruly, exaggerated and drawn to pretension like a moth to a flame. It is also, however, a pretty stunning achievement, the work of a master artist who has taken to Imax like Caravaggio to canvas. It is a true modern masterwork of the kind that outrages with its sheer audacity. In the early 20th century, the French shook their umbrellas at this kind of thing, and it will not get a soft landing in 2024, since it commands you to bend to its vision.

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Not everyone emerges unscathed — you might well wonder what the hell Jason Schwartzman thinks he’s doing in it, or whether Dustin Hoffman called his agent to negotiate a quick exit — and, indeed, it’s hard to focus on the quality of the acting with all the sturm und drang going on around it. But Coppola has made the film he set out to make, ragged edges and all, breathing much-needed life into the so-far lackluster Competition in Cannes.

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Catalina, played by Adam Driver, is the Chairman of the Design Authority in New Rome, an unsubtle rebranding of Manhattan, in the very late 21st century. He is a brilliant artist, blessed with the ability to stop time (seriously!), but he’s also a walking contradiction, a man of the future weighted down by the past. To the annoyance of Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), Catalina already has begun work in the housing projects of New Rome, pulling down entire blocks to regenerate the city using a new building material called Megalon.

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Cicero hates Catalina, having prosecuted him unsuccessfully as DA for the murder of his wife, and vows to bring him down. But what Cicero doesn’t know is that his daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), a pill-popping party girl who hangs out in debauched nightclubs and strips for the tabloids (“MAYOR CICERO’S WILD DAUGHTER BARES IT ALL!”), is about to fall under notorious womanizer Catalina’s (admittedly mystifying) spell.

Catalina, meanwhile, when not mooning for his literally lost love (the wife’s body apparently never was found), is carrying on an affair with Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza), a TV presenter specializing in financial news and “giving you the score from the trading floor.” Platinum is bored of being a mistress and wants — needs — to be half of a power couple. But which half? It’s a question she’ll get round to answering later on, when she pursues, and marries, the elderly Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight), head of Crassus National Bank, in a show of vulgarity — involving chariot racing, wrestling and a virginal teen pop star called Vesta Sweetwater — that takes place at Madison Square Garden.

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As well as Cicero, Catalina is fighting a rearguard action against his cousin Clodio (Shia LaBeouf), a degenerate dandy reputed to be sleeping with his sisters. Clodio is a measure of how far Coppola is prepared to go with the decadent empire metaphor, giving LaBeouf a very long lead in a gleefully anarchic performance that would be much too big for any other movie. But Clodio becomes a significant provocateur in the intrigue that follows, milking the populist middle ground between Cicero and Catalina like an unholy mix of Steve Bannon and The Joker. Although it’s hard to imagine Bannon saying, “Revenge tastes best when you’re wearing a dress” — while wearing an actual dress.

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Coppola does all this while riffing on his previous movies in ways that are surprisingly subtle, the machinations of a feuding family being the most obvious overlap with the Godfather trilogy. There’s a little bit of Tucker, in its portrayal of a beleaguered artist, and a refinement of the work done in his recent low-budget, digital films (Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt). The lion’s share of callbacks, however, come from two of his most artificial films, One From the Heart and Dracula, and their old-school, in-camera alchemy. Although its concerns are from the real world, nothing here is remotely realistic, and the golden vistas of Rome are as glorious and fake as the movie itself, which so broadly advertises itself as a work of meta-fiction that Catalina even gives the entire “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet.


The film’s commercial prospects are being loudly discussed on the Croisette right now, but if Coppola’s not that fussed about making his money back, why should you be? Megalopolis represents a rare kind of event movie that reinvents the possibilities of cinema to the extent that, halfway through, there’s a very audacious gimmick that tears down the fourth wall in ways younger filmmakers can only dream of. Coppola breaks many of the cardinal rules of filmmaking in the film’s 138 minutes, but it upholds the most important one: It is never, ever boring, and it will inspire just as many artists as the audiences it will alienate.

Title: Megalopolis
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Adam Driver, Nathalie Emmanuel, Aubrey Plaza, Jon Voight, Shia LaBeouf
Sales agent: American Zoetrope
Running time: 2 hr 18 min

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