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Cannes 2024: Megalopolis, Bird, The Damned, Meeting with Pol Pot

Whatever impulse prompted Francis Ford Coppola to combine elements of Virgil, Livy, Shakespeare, "Vertigo," "The Fountainhead," the career of Robert Moses, film noir, and science fiction into a single feature—well, it clearly wasn't the most actionable impulse. The extremely long-in-the-making "Megalopolis" has been on his brain for 40 years or more. The reportedly self-financed movie he unveiled at Cannes today in some ways resembles a proof of concept for a concept that no one ever managed to define.

But if Coppola hasn't made his vision coherent, that is hardly the same as not having made it watchable. No one with a taste for obsessive filmmaking could help but be dumbfounded (in the best sense) by what he has put on screen here. Directed, produced, and written (without much apparent regard for narrative shape) by Coppola himself, "Francis Ford Coppola's Megalopolis: A Fable," as the titles call it, is a completely uninhibited work. 

Expect comparisons to "Southland Tales," Richard Kelly's overflowing (and unfairly maligned!) folly from 2006. That film, though, had much more to say about the moment—the George W. Bush era—in which it was made. Coppola is after something more eternal. "Megalopolis" is set in "New Rome" in the 21st century (that's the third millennium, the movie reminds us). The city resembles New York with chicly contemporized Roman outfits and haircuts (although the City Hall subway station is modeled after a landmark that closed in 1945). Grand Central Terminal has been inscribed with a cautionary comparison of the American republic to Old Rome.

The central conflict in the film is between Cesar Catilina (Adam Driver), the unelected, Robert Moses-like chairman of the New Rome's design authority division, and Mayor Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), who in his previous job as district attorney unsuccessfully prosecuted Catilina after Catilina's wife disappeared. The unyielding Catilina is, in the words of his mistress, a TV reporter named Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza), "an obsessive-compulsive wacko." In an unfortunate echo, the character is closer in spirit to Ayn Rand's Howard Roark than to Coppola's Preston Tucker. He remains committed to building a utopian city out of a strange material called "megalon," said to be imperishable, unlike concrete. Cicero's daughter, Julia (a luminous if waveringly accented Nathalie Emmanuel), goes to work for him.

Catilina also has the capacity to stop time—which, as Coppola's dialogue rather baldly makes clear, marks him as a true artist, the control or capture of time being a common facet of filmmaking, music composition, painting, and so on. Coppola seems to see "Megalopolis" as his statement for the ages, and not just because of multiple references within the plot to the name "Francis."

Coppola is not merely in conversation with the auteurs of the past (Hitchcock gets shoutouts in a "Vertigo" dolly zoom and a newspaper headline), but also with all of literature. Catilina lapses into speeches from "Hamlet" and "The Tempest." He sarcastically asks Julia if she feels qualified to "plow through the riches of" his "Emersonian mind." At one point, Cicero complains that Catilina has misquoted Petrarch. 

For all this loftiness, though, Coppola has also made a movie that is proudly ribald and pockmarked with pop culture detritus. One of the city's treasured Vestal Virgins (Grace VanderWaal) performs at Madison Square Garden in the New Rome equivalent of a Super Bowl halftime show. A sybaritic banker, Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight), has the best seat in the house. (Voight is all wrong for a role that makes you mourn that Charles Laughton or Peter Ustinov isn't alive to play it.) Coppola puts Catullus's poetry in the mouth of Clodio, a character played by the noted classics scholar Shia LaBeouf. The period-collapsing dialogue can sound embarrassing. And almost as afterthoughts, the plot incorporates references to string theory, a Chinese satellite, and bionic limbs and facial grafts. Bear in mind that this is a movie in which people get shot with a bow and arrows.

While at times it feels like almost everything must have made Coppola's cut—which at 138 minutes runs much shorter than it feels—there are characters who feel shortchanged and soundstage sets that look underdressed. Every so often, Dustin Hoffman runs in and out of the movie, to not much point. Some of the crucial back story surrounding Catilina and his wife, and the ostensible mystery of her disappearance, is sketchily filled in—although Catilina's persistent devotion to her memory registers as a deeply personal touch. ("Megalopolis" is itself dedicated to Coppola's wife, Eleanor, who died last month.)

It may be that with its ever-morphing concept and reference points, "Megalopolis" could never be a finished film. It's hard not to watch the digitized special effects (there is also "special cinematography" credited to Ron Fricke of "Baraka") without wondering what the film might have looked like had it been made decades earlier, on celluloid, with Coppola collaborating with Vittorio Storaro and Dean Tavoularis, and in full command of the resources of the Hollywood system. But it's also hard to imagine any studio signing on to a project of such idiosyncratic monumentality. As in "Twixt" (2011), Coppola's most recent feature until now, the director even breaks the fourth wall at one point in an attempt to add an element of interactivity. At 85, the man who made "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now" is still pushing the medium to new places.

After "Megalopolis," I am at a loss as to what to do with Andrea Arnold's "Bird," whose central quirk is to start from her usual mode of kitchen-sink realism ("Fish Tank") and then to add an element of the surreal—namely, a character named Bird (Franz Rogowski), a mysterious, ethereal, skirt-wearing man who is looking for his parents. At times he even perches himself atop a building as if he were a bird. That seemed pretty weird this afternoon, but then the Coppola happened.

Suffice it to say that "Bird" is a slow-burning, well-observed movie about a 12-year-old, Bailey (Nykiya Adams), whose father, Bug (Barry Keoghan), seems so young relative to her that it's a shock when we first learn how they're related. But becoming extremely young parents is normal at Tyler House, where Bailey, Bug, and Bailey's half-brother Hunter live. Now Bug, finally transitioning into what he sees as a form of adulthood, is marrying, and Bailey fears that the fiancée and her child will freeload. Meanwhile, Bailey's other half-siblings live elsewhere with her mother. "Bird" is an unusual portrait of broken families that somehow, to some degree, maintain something like a common nest.

Outside of the competition, the festival has found two of the world's most adventurous nonfiction filmmakers turning to dramatization without quite leaving behind their old methods. 

In the denatured Civil War picture "The Damned," set in 1862, Roberto Minervini imagines what life would have been like for a party of Union soldiers assigned to patrol and protect uncharted borderlands in the west. (The film was shot in Montana.) The men, generally unnamed but recognizable by their attitudes and facial hair, are a mix of young and old, idealistic and embittered. Some are fighting for what they see as a divine cause, others for a paycheck. Sometimes the sound is mixed so that their voices aren't privileged above the harsh environment.

Like Kelly Reichardt's minimalist western "Meek's Cutoff" (but even more minimalistically), "The Damned" focuses on the hard work and the solitude of traversing untamed territory. The solders hunt, handle wagon trouble, pitch tents, and examine rocks. A 16-year-old fighter learns how to cock a gun. When, after about a half an hour of screen time, an unseen enemy suddenly starts shooting, the violence is shown only as a barrage of gunfire sparks and bullet impacts. Those on the other side of the firefight are never glimpsed, but the implication is that they've been dealing with the elements—and the tedium—of the wilderness just like our men.

The lack of incident, in short, is the point. (The last line—"it's so quiet"—could have been spoken during almost any scene.) The film is an intriguing departure for Minervini, although the abstraction that is central to its concept keeps it from the greatness of his two most recent documentary features, "The Other Side" and "What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?," which dealt concretely and specifically with issues of race, economics, and political action. "The Damned," by design, ponders a void.

The Cambodian-born filmmaker Rithy Panh survived the Khmer Rouge regime and has made its brutality and consequences his career subject. His best-known feature is probably "The Missing Picture," which was nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar.

"Meeting with Pol Pot" retains one of the conceits of that film: In certain sequences, it depicts its characters using clay figurines. But "Meeting with Pol Pot" is a dramatized feature. In 1978, the journalists Elizabeth Becker and Richard Dudman and the pro-Khmer Rouge academic Malcolm Caldwell were among the very few westerners allowed to visit Cambodia under Pol Pot. Caldwell didn't survive the trip.

Based on a book by Becker, "Meeting with Pol Pot" follows three fictional French journalists—Lise (Irène Jacob), Paul (Cyril Gueï), and Alain (Grégoire Colin)—on a thinly veiled version of that mission. It starts with their arrival in Cambodia, where they quickly discover that they will not get straight answers to questions or have any freedom in setting their agenda. Put up in cell-like quarters, they are taken on official tours, where they eat suspiciously plentiful food and see suspiciously quiet locals—at least until Paul, a photographer, steals away from the group and manages to snap pictures that contain evidence of starvation and murder.

But are the journalists, who know that they are only in Cambodia because they have official permission, complicit in being played? How do you practice journalism when a totalitarian regime has you at gunpoint the whole time? In asking those questions, "Meeting with Pol Pot" is in certain respects a conventional, message-driven historical drama (some of the expository dialogue is clunky). But the director's bolder choices—in addition to the figurines, he incorporates archival footage in counterintuitive ways—give it some sting.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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