Fiction, 76 mins
The Plagiarists is the rarest kind of film: the kind of film where after the premiere the writers (James N. Kientiz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir) are interviewed on stage and the director is nowhere to be seen. This seems fitting given that the film's plot and action are its words. Although The Plagiarists sets up a dramatic situation— a hipster New York couple (Eamon Monaghan and Lucy Kaminsky; appropriately obnoxious and sad) stay the night in a stranger's house (MIchael 'Clip' Payne from Parliament-Funkadelic in his first acting role; excellent) after their car breaks down — what propels the story is the couple's insecurity about authenticity and the manifestation of this through language. In this sense, the film is a strong portrayal of an aspiring young artist couple, as the banality of the characters' concerns tears the film away from a more conventionally exciting but less realistic direction.
But The Plagiarists also has to have a theme and the theme is this — how originality is not possible in a culture of mass production. The central act of the film is a story that Clip tells Anna, an aspiring novelist (not memoirist, she stresses). When she asks him about his childhood in Detroit ("How was that for you?") he launches into a poetic monologue about sledging that goes from feeling absurd to transcendent to absurd again, thanks to the grainy images of snow and stock ambient space music accompanying it. Later Anna realises that Clip was quoting verbatim from Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle. She submitted her own novel because of the inspiration she took from Clip, and now she feels cheated and even violated by him that night. The dialogue comparing Clip to Harvey Weinstein reminds you that this is a contemporary film, although it looks like it was made in the 1980s.
Directed by Peter Parlow, who was absent from the premiere and I am 97% sure is a pseudonym for a combination of the filmmakers present, The Plagiarists is shot on a 1980s news camera that is the same one Clip gifts to Tyler, a filmmaker, in the film. The film acknowledges this choice isn't original either: Tyler talks with great passion and naivety about Dogme 95, and their friend Allison makes some comment about people making films with outdated digital equipment since the 1990s. What's remarkable then about this surface uncertainty is that the look is one of the strongest aspects of the film. The images of unhappy Tyler and Anna feel watery and faint — as though the aesthetic literalises their own fears of being insignificant and disappearing. Also, by depicting them in this now fetishised medium, the filmmakers show Tyler and Anna to be victims of a millennial romanticisation of old technology — covered in a dirty glaze of their own nostalgic myth making.
The film is strongest when it deals with the emotions and contradictions of its characters, and weakest when it states its theme in a purely declarative way. There is of course nothing wrong with having a theme or making your theme clear but in The Plagiarists the theme commits the cardinal sin of misdirecting the story. We have two very solid blocks of structure — winter when the car breaks down near their friend's house, summer when they go back to that friend's house — which end and give way to a video essay that Allison sends to Anna. Over horribly shot footage of snow and icicles, she tells her not to give up on her literary dreams and that she should not be afraid of her boyfriend Tyler's medium being more relevant than hers.
The credits mention that part of Alison's monologue comes from a Guardian blogpost from 2013 titled 'Are books better than films?' which appears to have been written by a child. This is a pretty funny twist, but by treating this paranoid view of authenticity with such seriousness and sincerity — foregrounding it as the climax of the film —The Plagiarists is eventually more similar to its characters than it would care to imagine.
- Theo Macdonald