There’s a twist in The Plagiarists to rival anything in theaters this summer. It’s impossible not to discuss given the way the film actually hinges upon the revelation (it’s the rare film to actually merit a spoiler warning), but it’s also a pity to give the thing away. For any spoiler-phobes, the vibe of the film should come through when I say that its director, one Peter Parlow, doesn’t actually seem to exist.
[Ed. note: Uh, yeah, this story contains (mild!) spoilers.]
Written by experimental filmmakers James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir, The Plagiarists stars Eamon Monaghan and Lucy Kaminsky as Tyler and Anna, a young couple whose car breaks down on a snowy night. Tyler works as a cinematographer on commercial shoots but aspires to make his own movie, while Anna wants to finish her book but can’t decide if it’s a memoir or a work of fiction. They’re both aimless, but also both convinced they’re always right.
It doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, after that, when they have to privately confer over whether or not to accept Clip’s (William Michael Payne) help when he offers to put them up for the night. They, an affluent white couple, tell themselves their uncertainty doesn’t stem from the fact that Clip is black, but the fact that they’re having the discussion at all is telling enough. The only thing that really changes their impression of him is a conversation in which he relates, to Anna, a childhood memory that is so poetic that she’s stricken.
The next chunk of the film takes place several months later, and introduces the twist that makes The Plagiarists so interesting (it involves a very famous author), as well as bringing some clarity to the meaning of the film’s title. There’s some literal plagiarism at play, and the investigation of why it hits the characters so hard raises questions about authenticity, not just within the world of the film but on a meta level as well. Tyler, for instance, sings the praises of video equipment over digital; it doesn’t feel coincidental that the film is shot entirely on vintage Betacam news cameras. The enigma of Peter Parlow hardly feels accidental, either.
At just an hour and 16 minutes, it’s impressive that The Plagiarists manages to do as much as it does. The layers — which include questioning the authenticity of filmmaking, itself — only continue to reveal themselves as the film continues, and the deliberate editing only makes it more compelling. As raw as the footage looks, it’s edited gracefully. (You’d never know, for example, that Payne shot all of his scenes separately, and that Monaghan and Kaminsky were never in the same room isn’t immediately obvious; it’s only when you begin to consider why those scenes feel a little odd that the red flags start popping up.)
If there’s anything that threatens to derail the film, it’s that that relatively lo-res feeling extends to the acting as well. Payne, who is part of the funk music collective Parliament-Funkadelic, is wonderful, but Monaghan and Kaminsky are a little stilted in a way that only exacerbates the fact that their characters aren’t entirely meant to be sympathetic. Tyler is the dictionary definition of a mansplainer, and Anna’s eventual frustration says more about her own shortcomings than her perceived slights against her.
The feelings of frustration that it may prompt, however, bear more rewarding fruit than films like, say, Yesterday, which pose interesting questions but fail to deliver on them. The Plagiarists’ eventual meditation on whether a copy of something considered art can still be considered art, or still move people, lands on the positive side of the coin, and that conclusion feels warranted.
The deeper one delves into The Plagiarists, the more rewarding the film becomes. Jumping off of a twist, Parlow (if he exists at all), builds a film full of contradictions. Its score is, in fact, comprised entirely of stock music, and the background radio chatter comes from actual NPR reviews. For all that The Plagiarists’ parts are cobbled together from other sources, isn’t it still a work of art on its own? It’s hard to argue against it, even if some of its own characters would.
The Plagiarists is in limited release now.