Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Megalopolis: Coppola’s latest is like Succession crossed with Batman Forever and a lava lamp

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It took Francis Ford Coppola 40 years to make Megalopolis, and while stumbling out of its first screening at Cannes yesterday I felt like it might take me a further 40 to work out what it is.

During the film’s lengthy gestation, as the now-85-year-old Coppola scraped together the $120m budget from the profits of his vineyards, Megalopolis reportedly shape-shifted a number of times. And the final result does feel like something that has been stretched, wrung and kneaded to a degree where straightening the thing back out again would be impossible, and also largely beside the point.

There’s a lot of story in it – it follows a muddled struggle for power among the elites of New Rome, a parallel version of modern-day New York City – but while a plot summary would be a novella, it also wouldn’t explain much. Like Coppola’s 1982 neon-drenched musical One From The Heart – the previous film of his that Megalopolis most closely resembles, if it resembles anything at all – this is a full-body sensory bath movie, and what it means is indivisible from what it feels like to watch it. Something clearer? OK, try this: imagine Succession crossed with Batman Forever crossed with a lava lamp.

The tumult in New Rome’s high society orbits three main figures, the main one being Adam Driver’s Cesar Catilina, a brilliant but arrogant architect who can psychically halt the flow of time, and has invented a versatile new building material that may or may not be infused with the soul of his dead wife. Vying for power and influence with him are Giancarlo Esposito’s Frank Cicero, the city’s old-school (and increasingly unpopular) mayor, and Jon Voight’s Hamilton Crassus, the senile head of a banking dynasty who controls the city’s purse-strings. As classicists will have twigged, these three are modified versions of their Roman namesakes – and Coppola’s script draws countless more parallels between the ultimate fate of that ancient empire and America’s present moment at history’s crossroads.

Some are astute, others bonkers, most both. Take the vestal virgins, Rome’s celebrated priestesses of purity: these are brilliantly reimagined as Taylor Swift – or rather Vesta Sweetwater (Grace VanderWaal), a blonde country-pop songstress who wows the crowds at the coliseum halftime show, before weathering a scandal involving a deepfaked sex tape.

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