Cannes 2019: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review

Whatever you were expecting, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not it. Directed by Quentin Tarantino – although it could be mistaken for a Paul Thomas Anderson joint – it’s a mostly plotless, non-violent and delirious moodpiece anchored by a dazzling dose of audience-complicit sadism in the final 15 minutes. It’s also a film which reflects Tarantino entering what he has described as the final phase of his career, only planning to direct one more film, and one which complements Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory and Noe’s Lux Æterna as great, contemplative films about cinema from ageing directors at Cannes.

Premiering 25 years after Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or, Tarantino made a much-publicised (and maligned) request for festival attendees to refrain from spoilers in reviews – echoing the Russo brothers with Endgame just last month – but Once Upon a Time is decidedly not that sort of movie. Scattered, drifting, and elegiac, the film is an ensemble eulogy to something – a particular sort of magic that the 56-year old writer/director thinks has been lost from the world and which should never have walked out the front door. In that spirit – of hope, longing, and dreaming, it offers the olive branch of cinema: of wish-fulfilment and possibility, to ease the wrongs of the past. There is very little to spoil.

Set in 1969, at the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and at the dawn of the modern American authoritarian state, this is a film about change more so than anything else. Failing TV-show cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his hot-tempered stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) have slammed straight into the back-end of their era; photogenic macho-man images eclipsed by a new wave of suit-wearing producers and young, smooth-skinned talent. Dalton finds himself killed off at the end of every episode of TV he works on – the execs eager to usher in new faces, whilst Booth’s on-set antics and an anecdote about the suspicious death of his wife (echoes of Natalie Wood abound) make him a foreign invader in his own town. As Al Pacino’s producer character says near the start of the film, their halcyon days are over.

Once you forget about searching for narrative and succumb to what is essentially a rip-roaring sports car ride through the electrified night, Hollywood becomes one hell of a film. Lured into an REM-like daze by all the flashing lights and motion blur, wind whistling through your hair, the audience cannot help but succumb to a wonderful, intoxicated trance that has the hallucinogenic afterquality of a lucid dream. In this world, Dalton works on a Western TV-series, Bounty Killer, and rediscovers his talent. Booth, in the meantime, becomes involved in a certain remote commune on the outskirts of the city. If there’s a third lead, it’s Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate. Introduced alongside then hot-shot husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), the young couple exude fresh-faced possibility and happiness everywhere they go, as if by pheromones. Tate visits the cinema to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew – Robbie watching the real Tate. These three storylines play out pretty much separately, and without much forward momentum.

It’s here that the film gets a bit odd: faced with the knowledge that Tate would soon be brutally murdered whilst heavily pregnant, and that Hollywood (and America) would be irrevocably changed, the film takes on a tragic, at times spooky sort of foreboding. The weight of the dramatic irony on our shoulders can be oppressive, but rest assured the film loves and mourns its real-life inspirations, and doesn’t senselessly exploit them.

It helps that the film’s spectacular ending, unlike some of Tarantino’s work, is not violent for the sake of being violent or taking revenge, but violent in a way that feels naturally part of this story – of its plot and themes. Sure, revenge may come into it, but it’s more of a metaphorical sort: Tarantino avenges innocence, culture, cinema and Hollywood itself. The sadism may briefly reach operatic levels, and complaints will likely be levelled on the same grounds as they were for 2016’s Hateful Eight, but it feels justified if we are to agree with Tarentino’s thesis.

If Hateful Eight  was Tarantino’s most savage film – his most misanthropic and sadistic – Once Upon a Time is him at his most humanistic. Warmly funny and anecdotal, the film drifts along on its own summer breeze, treating all its characters with tender respect. This is a work by a filmmaker who has greatly matured in the last decade. All the characters could be thought of as human – you can imagine real people saying these lines. None of the dialogue feels self-consciously ‘cool’ or needlessly showy, there’s a lack of unrealistic violence and non-linear showboating. It is, in other words, a much more ‘adult’ film than those he has made which are restricted to a more ‘adult’ audience. It is also the only Tarantino film that is worth considerably more than the sum of its parts.

Most interesting stylistically is the choice to film real-world scenarios as if in a western. From the title – a direct reference to Leone – to filming the shoot of Bounty Law as if it was itself a Bounty Law episode; to the 20-minute sequence where Booth enters the Manson commune which looks and feels like the archetypal ‘stranger-arrives-in-a-small-town’ trope of hundreds of Westerns, this is a film which doesn’t so much flirt with genre as get it pregnant. Tarantino also embraces television conventions, filling Once Upon a Time with TV shows and implanting an episodic narrative structure into the films. In fact, he internalises the mythos and presence of Los Angeles itself and refracts it through the prism of film and reality. Hollywood feels so dream-like and strange, as it seamlessly blends the true and the invented, story and history, myth and realism simultaneously to create something new. It is impossible to imagine Hollywood as just a location, to understand it one must also understand its mythos and its characters.

DiCaprio and Pitt both play roles that could be considered somewhat meta – drawing from the reserves of their most known work. DiCaprio, despite being the ‘main character’ has less meat to chew on, aside from a spectacular sequence where an irate pep-talk turns his mediocre performance on Bounty Law into one that’s genuinely great. Yet one can’t help but think that Rick Dalton is really just a less brash Jordan Belfort in period costume (and what costumes!).

Pitt, instead, steals the show as Booth, drawing on both his established tough-guy image as well as the reserves of boyish charm and empathetic warmth he possesses in droves. The two most deliriously entertaining sequences in the film are gifted to him by Tarantino. Robbie, as bitterly noted in Wednesday’s press conference, doesn’t have as much to say as her co-stars, but more so than either Dalton or Booth, Tate is a metaphor. Her shimmering eyes, bordered by over-sized glasses, provide an oasis of youthful hope and innocence that Tarantino drinks from time and time again. She is, as has been said before, the soul of the film, and the character who best represents its ideas.

Projected in 35mm, the picture looks absolutely stunning. Lush, sub-tropical production design by Barbara Ling makes the vibrant greenery of downtown LA look like an Edenic greenhouse. The sheer amount of detail that’s gone into Tarantino’s recreation of 1969 is mind-blowing, and potentially one of the most lavish productions I’ve ever laid my eyes upon. Absurdly expensive and dripping in authenticity (although one suspects much is not actually authentic, what does it matter?), this is a fully fleshed, pulsating world that is so easy to succumb to.

Robert Richardson’s 35mm wonderfully softens the image, creating a filmic mist that wafts through every hazy frame, and adding motion blur that turns night-time drives into odysseys through a sort of city-lights version of the Kubrickian stargate. Together with its authentically dated typefaces and shot compositions (including a stunning crane shot straight out of Once Upon a Time in the West), the film looks and feels like something that’s been shot from a wormhole in an alternate universe. It remains to be seen how this will play on digital – we won’t know until August in the UK, but with its period feel and rainbow cornucopia of primary colours, I certainly hope that Sony provide a wide rollout of film prints for general release.

I said at the start of the review that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was not what you were expecting. It’s not. Whatever you hear over the next 3 months, I struggle to believe that the film will do well with a general audience. Slow, meditative, human, and ultimately meaningful, it’s mostly non-violent and non-profane, and will probably be Tarentino’s first film to receive a 15 Certificate on UK release. Those looking for fast-paced, operatic showdowns of ultra-violence and slick, profanity-laden dialogue are going to find very little of either here. This is the director’s most similar film to Pulp Fiction, but it bears far more similarity to something like Inherent Vice than his 1994 Palm d’Or winner.

Still, go for the ride. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ebbs and flows. It’s a film to be consumed by, and to get lost in, and one that quickly acquires a state of myth and half-remembered transcendence. It’s the cracked, shimmering vision of an old-time movie mogul in his twilight years who, after finishing the last dregs of his scotch, drifts off dreaming of better times as the ashen end of his cigar throws off its final defiant plumes of fragrant smoke into the miraging air. The possibility of the moving image has rarely felt so tangible, and yet so mythical.


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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