While the world, at least parts of it privileged enough to have easy vaccine access, is just starting to peel itself away from lockdown and reflect on the loneliness of the past year, artists have been trying to make sense of it all for months now. The virtual Sundance Film Festival back in January 2021 was already surprisingly stacked with COVID-themed movies, with “How It Ends” making headlines for being shot entirely during quarantine, while Radu Jude’s “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” won Berlin. Now a different festival (namely, Tribeca) gives us another taste of this pandemic-centric exploration in film form, this one hailing from Paris.
Shot in one miraculous unbroken take, the adventurous and hypnotic “Roaring 20’s” by Elisabeth Vogler (a pseudonym for the filmmaker who prefers they/them as pronouns) is about today, and not the prosperous and glittery Jazz Age that followed a different pandemic a century ago. And while it’s pitched as a love letter to the City of Love, this constantly on-the-move, daringly experimental film of sun-kissed sidewalks and casual rhythms feels like an ode to any urban area or individual who chose to make a life amid the chaotic hustle and bustle of a city.
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Vogler’s off-the-cuff characters emerge from seclusion to stroll through their town in the summer of 2020, waxing poetic about life by the Seine and exchanging jokes and stray thoughts. In so doing, they suggest connections with the films of Richard Linklater as well as the words of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”: “…in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” Such scenes just might elicit a sensory taste of audiences’ own metropolises, prompting viewers to contemplate the countless random connections they were too busy to pay attention to in the normal, pre-COVID days they took for granted.
What feels most joyous in “Roaring 20’s” (with a misplaced apostrophe in the English title, originally named “Années 20”) is that none of Vogler’s two dozen characters seems to take anything for granted in it. The actors who portray them range from those with a substantial résumé (like Noémie Schmidt and Alice de Lencquesaing) to newcomers with a lone IMDb credit. The characters they play don’t really matter as much as what they have in common, which is a renewed sense of freedom, an unspoken but palpable adoration for urban life defined by crowds, cafés, architecture, public transportation and above all, walking. That sense of blissful, recommenced independence is so pronounced in the air that you momentarily forget there is also a deadly virus somewhere in it. In that regard, the first sight of a face mask carefully stretched over mouths and noses as a pair of the film’s personalities descend into the Paris metro feels like an electric shock that summons you back to reality.
When masks are off-screen however, most of the film’s vignettes feel gloriously ordinary, save for one where a strange hypnosis takes place in public by the Louvre and another where a gloomy bride spots an abandoned baby in a stroller. We meet artists that dissect the meaning of the word “black,” a famous actor having second thoughts about his future, giggly young girls stealing makeup, couples in love, exes who unabashedly confide in each other about their newfound sexual habits, hitchhikers, bikers, misplaced wanderers … and more.
They all cross paths with one another swiftly, picking up the narrative momentum where the previous character leaves off and running with it. Needless to say, the entire ecosystem here is impressively and seamlessly choreographed. But Vogler’s real triumph is elevating their chosen (and at first sight, admittedly gimmicky) one-shot method to a technique that seems necessary, even inevitable for “Roaring 20’s” — not an easy feat unless you are “Birdman” or “Russian Ark.”
Still, it’s hard to make a case for “Roaring 20’s” as a compulsively watchable movie in its entirety. Parts of it drag as the concept predictably overstays its welcome. And by the end, it seems as if the writers have succumbed to the lazy impulse of bringing the entire cast together for the finale, just to neatly wrap up their experiment — an unnecessary indulgence for a movie beautified by its commitment to spontaneity elsewhere.
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