Cannes 2024: Megalopolis


Immediately upon exiting “Megalopolis,” Francis Ford Coppola’s wine-backed passion project, I had a single, inescapable thought: I’m glad I got to watch Coppola’s “Chi-raq.”

For some, that admittedly jarring comparison will be a total turnoff. After all, for Spike Lee, a maverick filmmaker who’s always been in a daunting dance with major studios, “Chi-raq” was a major gamble that was initially (and in many corners still is) seen as a bitter folly. And while Lee’s film cost a tenth of the budget Coppola raised for his final statement, stylistically and spiritually they share plenty of parallels. 

A modern update to the Greek playwright Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, “Chi-Raq” immediately found controversy using Chicago’s South Side (particularly the ensuing bloody gang wars, which by that point were already making national headlines) as the backdrop for a musical crime romance starring Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes as opposing gang leaders, and Teyonah Parris as the leader of Black-woman army fed up with murder. At the time, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—who was more worried about the city’s reputation rather than damaging divestment and systemic racism—pushed back against the film, especially the use of the term “Chi-raq” (a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq). The city even threatened to withhold tax dollars from the production. The result might be among Lee’s angriest films, featuring verse and sex battles, bonkers staging, politically fervent demands: stop the violence; rework racist white power structures; rework the power imbalance curtailing the poorest, Blackest neighborhoods. 

Similar to any Lee project, the director made “Chi-raq” using his own rules and finding his own way around malicious politicians, while crafting a sprawling and tonally oddball film where nothing much makes sense except his disdain for the status quo. These were all spirits that inhabited what might still be his emotionally rawest film to date.

Coppola’s “Megalopolis” works on a similar wavelength. On its face, “Megalopolis” is a contemporary Roman story of two politically powerful foes—Cesar Catilina (Adam Driver) and Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito)—each vying for control of the city. Cesar is the scion of the empire’s richest family. He’s also a brilliant architect capable of stopping time, and is in love with Mayor Franklyn’s daughter (Nathalie Emmanuel). That’s the simple version. There is plenty more: Aubrey Plaza stuns as social-climbing TV personality Wow Platinum; Jon Voight crafts a surprisingly effective performance as Driver’s father; Shia LaBeouf is a rising political figure using the language of collective action to undermine the most vulnerable; Dustin Hoffman and Talia Shire tip their hats too. 

Much like “Chi-raq,” a good chunk of dialogue in “Megalopolis” is in verse, and emceed by Laurence Fishburne (an early Lee collaborator). It’s also just batshit crazy: Silent film references abound, there’s an overload of tryptic frames, and the humor and politics veer between hilarious and distasteful. At one point, a man came onto the stage with a microphone to speak to the screen. It’s also cacophonous, cheap, extravagant, and clearly bursting with ideas that Coppola has been saving for decades. But more than anything, like “Chi-raq,” there is a desire to prove the haters wrong by sheer force of will. There is life and vitality in all the decisions that work and the ones that don’t. Only Lee could have gotten a film as charged and as ambitious as “Chi-raq” made. Nearly a decade later, it’s special to see Coppola do the same. 

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