A strange case of artistic theft haunts The Plagiarists, a curious two-part film that combines theatre, literary theory, and lo-fi independent cinema. A rough and ready collage of discordant ideas tackling everything from the struggles of being an artist to the Airbnb economy to the differences between novels and film, its style neatly fits into the American mumble-core movement.
While original progenitors Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg have moved onto bigger and better things, their inspiration can be found in The Plagiarists, which is mostly dialogue-led with an improvised, off-the-cuff vibe. The concept is simple: married couple Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) are on their way back to Philadelphia when their car breaks down. Immediately, the friendly Clip (William Michael Payne), emerging out of nowhere, is ready to help, offering them a place to stay for the night before his mechanic friend fixes the car at a reasonable price. They reluctantly agree, setting into motion a bizarre series of events that shouldn’t work, but somehow make sense in this pretentious upstate world.
Reminiscent of Alex Ross Perry’s early work (especially The Colour Wheel), The Plagiarists reminds you that characters don’t have to be especially likable to be engaging. Looking like a hipster version of Jerry Seinfeld, Tyler, who works as a cinematographer, is a born contrarian; he will often play devil’s advocate just for the sake of it. It’s hard to see what Anna — a more thoughtful writer, planning to finalise her first novel — actually sees in him. His jokes, often rooted in sexism, tend to skirt into the realm of outright misogyny. Anna will call him out repeatedly, but nothing ever changes; it’s a routine they have.
It seems that the director is in on the joke, fully aware that his characters are pretentious blowhards. These millennials do feel realistic, as every decision they make is basically rooted around the same question: can we afford this? Contrast them with the African-American Clip, a relaxed man who believes that all problems can be solved with just a few drinks. Anna is particularly drawn to him, especially during a crucial monologue regarding his childhood that neatly cleaves the narrative in two. I won’t say anymore than that, but it will absolutely delight fans of Scandinavian literature.
Clip is a mysterious fellow. Who is the kid staying with him? Who is the random woman who comes over for sex? The two of them are eventually convinced, given the way their life turns out in the aftermath of that eventful night, that Clip has put a curse on them. Buried behind their fear of this man is an unarticulated racial anxiety that takes the form of weird jokes and wrongful assumptions. While the film doesn’t develop this theme further, its satire of white anxiety does give the viewer a lot to chew over.
There’s the sense that The Plagiarists is trying to do too much, where a more accomplished writer would’ve stuck to one or two core ideas. Still, its simple concept does work as a disarming method, slyly using its amateur vibe to comment on the rise of technology, the demise of literature, and how the medium and the message always seem inextricably combined. Dogme 95 is invoked (“Is it from Norway? Or Denmark?”), as is the literature of Karl Ove Knausgaard (annoyingly called “Clawsgard” by Tyler) and Steven Soderbergh’s debut film, Sex, Lies and Videotape. These references aren’t just for mere show, and are actually woven into the plot and medium itself, revealing a much knottier and smarter film than originally seems. Too niche to ever break out, it will do very well in Manhattan’s finest arthouse cinemas.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.