All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, Jean-Luc Godard said, stealing/borrowing DW Griffith’s axiom. What, even to make a multiverse movie?
When Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness started being eclipsed by Everything Everywhere All at Once last year, critically at first, with the box office catching up, Jamie Lee Curtis was all over the twittersphere saying how proud she was of their “little movie”, which was made for a fraction of the Dr Strange budget.
Remember those posts as you watch Backwards Faces, a debut movie by director/writer/producer/editor/publicist Chris Aresco which somehow wrangles a multiverse movie out of a girl, a gun, a guy and a single room. Shot in black and white and with no special effects, it’s not just a remarkable achievement but a fantastic film, ingenious, smart, funny, fast moving and ingenious (it’s worth saying twice).
The set-up is super unpromising. A young woman called Sydney and a young man called Ken are sitting back to back in a room on a bed. Sex has been had. It has not been good. Ken, it seems has shortcomings, or short comings to be more specific. Sydney had kind of hoped for more from this one night hook-up. Ken is still hoping for more – he likes her.
Which is possibly what prompts him to make a vainglorious boast about having written the screenplay to a film they both know. Sydney asks him if his name is on the credits. Not as such, Ken replies, because the guy who wrote it got the idea off me. What, the exact literal idea, she asks. Well, kind of, he continues, continuing to dig himself into a hole.
And then, sensing he needs to say something decisive to inflate a deflating ego, Ken goes for a bigger claim. That bathroom of mine, he says, is actually a portal into a multiverse of infinite worlds, where every possible version of you and I work through the endless consequences of our every thought and action.
In one of these multiverses, he goes on, you aren’t the university student who has just been caught cheating and is now in big trouble. Sydney had possibly forgotten she’d told him about that.
As Sydney prepares to get the hell away from a weirdo who knows more than he should, Ken enters the bathroom and comes out a different Ken, or so he says, in a dressing gown given to him by Sydney’s mother. This is news to Sydney. As is the revelation that “Ken” has been in a relationship with some version of another Sydney for some years.
Traversable wormholes do indeed exist in Ken’s bathroom, or they do in this brilliantly ingenious (third time) film, a screwball comedy of smart writing and smart delivery set all in one room. I’m tempted to reach for the name of Woody Allen, and then I hesitate, remembering that that isn’t quite the accolade it once was. But Allen is the right direction to be reaching, because Aresco’s screenplay is clever and it ranges wide – from entropy and relativity to Schrödinger’s cat, concepts of right and wrong, personal accountability and masturbation. From the the deep to the flippant and back again.
In a film segmented off into discrete chunks of a morning going about its business, it’s the burbling synth score of Nathaniel Meeks that marks off the episodes. It becomes increasingly important as versions of Sydney and Ken negotiate the logic of their situation (in other words, I’m not giving away any more plot).
That score really adds a lushness to the austerity of DP Jake Gorr’s simple, clean and matt-finish shooting style, adding an ambience of film-making lushness which the film would get away without. Aresco borrows comedic ideas from all over the place, including the likes of Airplane! and Abbott and Costello and relies on his performers to get the rapid-fire deadpan delivery right. Actors Andrew Morra and Lennon Sickels come at the screenplay like table tennis players, batting dialogue back and forth over the net.
Er, that’s all – a great idea, done extremely well, with ideas, jokes, likeable performances. It’s not big but it is clever. Don’t expect Multiverses of Madness or Everything Everywheres and you might like it as much as I did.
Backwards Faces – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
I am an Amazon affiliate
© Steve Morrissey 2023