Terry Gilliam ought to, by rights, be exempt from criticism — he’s done enough great work and suffered enough appalling misfortune and interference to merit being left in peace — a mighty Prometheus regularly torn apart by vultures ought to at least be spared mosquito bites. Noble as these sentiments are, I’m not going to abide by them, since when was the life of the film blogger a noble one? I would place THE ZERO THEOREM abaft TIDELAND (2005), belonging in that category of undiluted Gilliam films, unscarred by tragedy or disaster (of the external kind, anyway) which nevertheless feel a bit insubstantial.
Beautiful, lively and as eccentric as you could ask for, TZT is also somewhat familiar — I remember at the time of THE FISHER KING, Michael Palin remarking that it was a little disappointing when someone as wildly original as Gilliam repeated himself even a little — he was thinking of the Black Knight — and in this case the disappointment is a little greater since quite a bit of the movie derives from BRAZIL, and even a key image that isn’t in Gilliam’s 1985 masterwork is actually the source image Gilliam had for that film — a man on a beach with a song playing. There’s a dream girl who is also real, and floats nude in the sky at one point, there’s a threatening fat-one-thin-one duo, a needy manager, a limp desk jockey hero, vast bureaucracies, plagues of commercialism, weird nuns, sideways monitors, tubing, homeless persons as set dressing, and a multinational cast that gives the movie an Everywhere quality. Welles’ film of THE TRIAL hovers somewhere between the director’s eye and his viewfinder.
Gilliam also has to contend with the generation or so of filmmakers influenced by him — when Tilda Swinton turns up, chuntering through a wig, false teeth and an extreme regional accent, it irresistibly recalls SNOWPIERCER, whether or not Gilliam’s film did it first.
And what do you do when your best film, BRAZIL, has since come true? Gilliam has suggested suing Dick Cheney for plagiarism, but that doesn’t solve the artistic problem.
Freshening the mix somewhat are the dayglo colours, which give the movie a unique, painfully intense look, and a vein of porno sexiness/sexism which is at times difficult to make sense of. Well, in fact the whole movie is difficult to make sense of, whether because Gilliam has obfuscated the narrative with excess decoration, or because it never was clear, is impossible to say. So the pleasures have to be snatched from incidentals, or rather the incidentals become central — David Thewlis’s desperate bonhomie, Melanie Thierry’s accent (putatively French but seeming to have made a tour of every major European country and a few of the municipalities), and the way Matt Damon’s suits always match his background precisely. Also the ways in which Christoph Waltz’s home has been adapted from a church.
Most of the film takes place in that church, which is the film’s solution to the problem of a low budget. Apart from having to confine itself to its quarters, and a slight tendency to repeat its computer animations on Waltz’s screens, it never betrays signs of cheapness. But a film stuck in one place needs some other form of momentum to compensate for the limited ground covered geographically. We never seem to be getting anywhere, in terms of narrative, character, theme or anything else. This inertia means that the movie can actually end with a sunset and still not feel like it has a proper ending.