Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Megalopolis’: What to Know

“Megalopolis,” the first film from the director Francis Ford Coppola in 13 years, premiered Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival. Self-financed by Coppola, the $120 million passion project has earned headlines about a reportedly chaotic shoot, allegations of misconduct and questions about the film’s commercial prospects.

But what exactly are we dealing with here? Now that I’ve seen “Megalopolis,” let me try to answer the questions you might be asking.

Any attempt to sum up “Megalopolis” will impose more narrative onto this movie than it actually contains, but here goes. Adam Driver plays Cesar Catalina, a visionary architect who dares to ask: What if a major city looked like an Iris Van Herpen dress? Like so many great men in movies, he is Haunted by Visions of a Dead Wife, but still finds himself falling for Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), the daughter of Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), mayor of the city that is sometimes called New Rome but that resembles New York.

Cicero, who despises Catalina for his reckless idealism, is one of many characters trying to bring the architect to heel. Other rivals include Clodio (Shia LaBeouf), a party boy turned politician, and Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza), a financial reporter determined to bed or plot against every powerful man in her orbit.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Despite the big budget, huge sets and scenes soaked in special effects, “Megalopolis” finds Coppola in the same experimental-filmmaker mode he employed for his two most recent movies, the indies “Tetro” (2009) and “Twixt” (2011). Few scenes are shot or edited in a conventional manner: Coppola employs split screen, projection techniques and artsy montage at will, and the pacing of any given sequence can change on a whim.

Sometimes, that anything-could-happen approach is beguiling: Midway through the Cannes press screening, a spotlight shone on a man in the front of the theater who asked questions that Driver’s Caesar would answer onscreen. At other times, though, it feels like the filmmaker is just throwing things at the wall and hoping that something will stick.

Coppola has been unable to find a studio buyer for the movie and it’s clear why: “Megalopolis” is likely to confuse and divide mainstream audiences. No two actors in this movie are on the same page about how to perform it, and the result is a mishmash of acting styles and big, misbegotten choices that had some journalists at the festival giggling in disbelief. The dialogue is either bluntly declarative or totally impenetrable, and Coppola often interrupts the action with shots of featured extras so prolonged that you can tell with certainty that you’re looking at one of the filmmaker’s relatives.

Though Coppola hopes to secure a wide release for “Megalopolis” that includes IMAX theaters, the film will pose a challenge for any distributor.

A report in The Guardian this week detailed what anonymous sources described as a chaotic “Megalopolis” shoot. They also alleged that Coppola tried to kiss some of the female extras featured in a nightclub scene. Asked about those accusations, executive co-producer Darren Demetre told The Hollywood Reporter that he was unaware of any harassment complaints made during the production, but acknowledged that Coppola “walked around the set to establish the spirit of the scene by giving kind hugs and kisses on the cheek to the cast and background players.”

Coppola himself has not addressed the accusations, though he’s expected to be asked about them at the film’s Cannes news conference on Friday. It may be notable that in “Megalopolis,” the protagonist is briefly embroiled in his own sex scandal: Catalina is caught in bed with a 16-year-old pop star, but he’s vindicated in the public eye when it turns out she’s actually 23 and lying about her age.

Well, the production design is pretty impressive. And there certainly are a lot of special effects.

Coppola is a five-time Oscar winner and I’m sure he will win admirers in the academy simply for financing the film himself and taking such a big swing. But it’s hard to imagine “Megalopolis” penetrating any of the major categories.

You and me both, reader.

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