Losing the Plot

Photo: Courtesy of Revolution Films/Picturehouse

Cinema is a medium of control freaks (whose checks are cut by bigger control freaks), so here’s to the spring-heeled Michael Winterbottom. His edgy, intuitive films don’t always gel—last year’s grating hardcore-vérité effort Nine Songs put me off sex for a week—but few filmmakers display such capacity for discernment in the midst of disorder. He’s alive to his locales, his actors’ chemistry, and to all the freaky vibes on his sets. And he turns out to be the most natural director since Truffaut to make a movie about making a movie—especially a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book.

I’m getting ahead of myself—but that comes with the territory. In the delightfully unruly Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, Winterbottom and his screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, refuse to shackle themselves to Laurence Sterne’s impudently garrulous 1759 novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, with its flashbacks within digressions within digressions within tangents. Sterne’s faux autobiography depicts a writer’s inability to set down his life in a linear (or any other) fashion—it was, says a character in the film, “postmodern before there was modernism.” The movie, needless to say, ups these disjunctions exponentially.

Steve Coogan, who played the protagonist of Winterbottom’s tricky (but nowhere near this tricky) 24 Hour Party People, is Tristram; Tristram’s father, Walter; and the somewhat testy film and television star Steve Coogan, here attempting to juggle a number of predicaments. He must defend his share of screen time against the incursions of his co-star Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon); cope with an intrusive visit from his plaintive girlfriend, Jenny (Kelly Macdonald), and their baby son; work through his infatuation with a beautiful and erudite production runner (Naomie Harris), who is among the only people on the set to have read Tristram Shandy; and endure an interview with a smarmy reporter bearing photos of him and a lap dancer called Heather (based, reportedly, on an actual lap dancer in the actual life of the actual Coogan).

Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story is a hall of mirrors that doesn’t tease the brain (it’s easier to watch than to read about) so much as goose it into submission. There is room in this conceit for almost any in-joke imaginable: barbed banter between “Coogan” and “Brydon” (“This is a co-lead.” “We’ll see after the edit”); psychosexual anxiety dreams; and impish parodies of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, its Baroque symmetries diminished in these threadbare surroundings. Winterbottom goes in for Altman-esque hubbub and keeps the visual textures slapdash. He doesn’t appear to have sweated over how the scenes would fit together, but they do, somehow. As Tristram homes in gradually, in fits and spirals, on the story of his calamitous birth and his father’s unreadiness, as Coogan stumbles toward his own reckoning with fatherhood, as the adventurous but ungrounded director (Jeremy Northam) of the film-within-the-film stumbles toward the realization that Tristram Shandy is perhaps unfilmable, you let go of the last remaining narrative threads and ease into a state of postmodern grace.

The actors are in a nice place—poking fun at themselves without spilling into travesty. Fogged by self-absorption, Coogan makes you like him most when he’s most dislikable; he has a fool’s vulnerability. And despite his onscreen egotism, he practically hands over the picture to his co-star by letting Brydon do wicked impersonations of him. In the endlessly diverting menagerie, Shirley Henderson diverted me most. Best known to Americans as the D’Oyly Carte dipsomaniac in Topsy-Turvy and as the twittery Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films, she pulls off a theatrical coup: As Susannah, the Shandy maid, she is tender and yet fiercely protective of her mistress and her mistress’s son; as “Shirley Henderson,” she lolls around tipsily, her light dimmed. Winterbottom makes nothing of this, but like everything else in Tristram Shandy, it tickles.

Control-freakiness returns with a vengeance in Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, the Danish director’s dour sequel to Dogville. Once again, small-town America (another stark black-box set) becomes the stage for a Sadean exercise in social criticism, in which the limousine-liberal ideals of the heroine, the gangster’s daughter, Grace (last time Nicole Kidman, now Bryce Dallas Howard), are driven into the muck by the pervasive injustices of American capitalism—and by the viler aspects of human nature that flower under the system’s malignant gaze.

You would think that, having just ordered the massacre of an entire village, Grace would not be in quite the same place that she was at the start of Dogville, but Von Trier likes his targets waiflike and ingenuous. They’re so much more fun to violate that way. And, to be fair, Grace’s liberalism is rekindled by the plight of African-Americans—the inhabitants of Manderlay who, 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, still pick cotton for their white masters. The town’s courtly elder statesman (Danny Glover) explains that black folks wouldn’t know how to handle freedom. Grace, needless to say, regards it as her social responsibility to educate these good Negroes about democracy. She pointedly knocks down the fences that kept them in—but that also, she discovers, kept the dust storms out. Dig that freaky symbolism!

Although it’s a listless affair, Manderlay is less noxiously reductionist than Dogville, if only because Von Trier regards African- Americans as both pathetically weak, conniving nonentities and victims. But no matter where he begins, his dramatic compass drifts toward the same pole: the sexual humiliation of his heroine (How could Daddy let you do this, Bryce?), Fascistic mob rule, and David Bowie warbling “Young Americans”—this time over photos of blacks being lynched. But it’s hard to get too worked up over racial injustice when a director has the temperament of a Klansman.

Michael Winterbottom has nearly completed his next film—and it may be his most controversial yet. The Road to Guantánamo is the story of three men known in the U.K. as The Tipton 3: young Muslims who were rounded up in the West Midlands and imprisoned at Guantánamo for two years before being released without charges. It also looks to be a breakout opportunity for the young actor Riz Ahmed, a self-described “Londonstani” who seems to be following the Jamie Foxx career path. An aspiring M.C., he has a new single titled “Riz Is Coming/The Post 9-11 Blues.”

Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story
Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Picturehouse. Rated R.

Directed by Lars von Trier. IFC Films. Not rated.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com .

Losing the Plot