Narrative-averse portmanteau films are a tough nut to crack, yet not impossible. Richard Linklater made a name for himself in 1990 by hovering over a collection of Austin 20-somethings doing nothing in particular with “Slacker,” and it is this template that director Laurent Rochette seems to be following with her newest feature, “Roaring 20’s.” Yet where “Slacker” and others like it (“Coffee and Cigarettes” or even Linklater’s other stab at the genre, “Waking Life”) stitch their characters and segments together with common themes and recurring motifs, “Roaring 20’s” fails to connect its many dots, binding itself instead with a cinematography gimmick and little else.
Rochette keeps her camera moving in an unbroken shot throughout the roughly 90 minutes it takes to cover her 12 or so vignettes, each lasting anywhere from two to ten minutes. Unlike other anthology flicks like “New York Stories” or “Short Cuts,” “Roaring 20’s” makes no attempt to weave these scenes together within a larger narrative, allowing each to stand on its own before moving like a fly buzzing from one shoulder to another as they pass in opposite directions. Sometimes the different characters interact with each other for a moment, as if to hand off the film’s baton. Yet, just as often, it is random: as if the camera saw something interesting and decided to check it out.
Most of the segments feature pairs of people who discuss surface issues that devolve into deeper existential discussions. For example, a woman and her former lover talk about the latter’s failing relationship and his decision to start recording their intimate moments to post online. The woman expresses interest in watching a clip, then goes on to explain that she can’t orgasm in the moment, only later when remembering the intercourse, saying, “During sex, I’m hung up…I feel good when I’m alone. It’s like memory and recollections.” Later on, two teenagers discuss their cosmetics shoplifting hobby and squabble about what it means to each of them. For one, it is an activity that serves as a larger platform for their relationship (she doesn’t even wear make-up); for the other, it is all about getting the material goods for use or sale.
Right as these girls are about to dig deeper into the subject, a woman wearing a wedding dress asks them if they have any marijuana to sell, signaling the movie’s intention to shift to her and the lamentations she has about running out on her fiancé during their vows. It’s all a bit random, and while the picture moves well and never allows itself to get bogged down by any one person or set of people, it feels like something is missing. Some of the segments are interesting and even funny, like the actor/comedian arguing with his producer about how he wants to transition into contemporary dance as a permanently masked performer, becoming the “vehicle of a faceless revolution.” Yet funny and vaguely interesting is not enough here.
The transience of the picture lends itself to a broader character and setting tapestry. Yet, where other films of this genre use that approach to cast a wider net over shared issues of social isolation, interpersonal contrasts, or political anxiety, “Roaring 20’s” does so with a slipshod grab at anything profound-adjacent. There’s nothing to bind the runaway bride to the sex tape guy or the teenage thieves to them. The notion that time is running out and one doesn’t want to miss out on something “genuine” pops up a few times, yet this is such a generic and universal sentiment that it never finds any real footing within the always-rotating cast of characters.
If all this movie is saying is “life is short,” then it seems like a waste of many rehearsal time and camera set-ups. Yet even this interpretation falls apart upon closer inspection. Even if one wanted to thematically bind one guy having an exciting online chess match with another lady focusing on an ominous tarot card reading, it begs the equally generic and tired question: what does this all mean? The presence of facemasks sets this within a very specific time period, and landmarks like the Louvre and the Seine place it in Paris, yet none of these people or their conversations tell the audience anything unique about northern France in 2020.
What’s more, there’s nothing to visually stitch these stories or characters together, for aside from the one-shot approach, not a single thing in “Roaring 20’s” pops with any kind of visual flair or for any intuitive reason. One can’t help but think of how Jarmusch used black and white in “Coffee and Cigarettes” to highlight the interpersonal divergence between the various conversation set-pieces and how Rochette is missing such anchor points. Although it is almost certainly due to difficult lighting set-ups for an outdoor production bound to the single-take approach, the look of “Roaring 20’s” is largely flat. Which, to be fair, matches the overall effort, which is intriguing at first glance yet relies too much on a larger gimmick to elevate the material. [C-]