Ever since I saw Brazil thrice and Lost in La Mancha twice in one week when I was 16, I’ve always felt an envy and admiration for the insanity and insight of Terry Gilliam. He is a gleeful nutter and an obstreperous little shit, a cursed, delusional, 73 year old, a rat tailed, filmmaking mess of Quixote and Sisyphus. That said, he is a pretty singular figure in the world of film and his films are of a similarly singular quality. For the resistance they face in being made, the existence of every one of them is a small miracle and The Zero Theorem is no exception, made for a very small budget in very little shooting time with a remarkable cast and an equally remarkable though elusive concept. It comes as something of a disappointment then that, though design and visual elements satisfy, the lack of absurd humour and alienating protagonist fail to fire, making the film feel like an odd balance of classic Gilliam and self-homage.
From the opening image of a naked, bald man gazing into a black hole on a giant iPad, surrounded on all sides by vials of fluorescent liquid, plugged into great metal boxes, all situated within a giant, fire damaged church, Zero Theorem is unambiguously a Gilliam picture – the transient past-present-future, the ornamental antique futurism, the liberal use of a certain kind of twisting dutch tilt, and at the centre of it all, a protagonist at odds with the world around them, with the physicality of a silent film star and an air of existential incredulity. In all of this, the film exhibits a familiar Gilliamesque look, and parallels with Brazil in particular are inescapable. Budget and time constraints considered, the production design is ridiculously good, on par with the meticulousness and inventiveness of Brazil. Qohen Leth’s (Christoph Waltz) workplace – a hyperreal gaming arcade in a marble hall, Leth’s work – a mish mash of intense mathematics and 3D Tetris, and ubiquitous obscene advertisements (the Church of Batman the Redeemer is a particular highlight) are all incredibly evocative examples of Gilliam’s inventiveness in designing the universe. It is this approach that characterizes Gilliam’s visual style and makes the film enjoyable.
However, despite the distinct character of the visuals, the basis for the action itself seems to be on shaky ground, due principally to an odd script, with slapdash pacing and poor characterization. Pat Rushin, a creative writing professor who had no prior relationship with Gilliam, wrote the script with Gilliam’s voice in mind and at times it very clearly shows, the script feeling more like a Gilliam impression than the real thing. The clearest example is in the case of protagonist, Qohen Leth. Where previous Gilliam protagonists remain Buster Keaton-esque everymen responding to all the chaos and absurdity of the universe, launched at them by derisive writer/God-figure Gilliam, with relative incredulity, Qohen Leth is, from the outset, a man in the grip of genuine existential angst, unfiltered by humour or detachment. As a result, the interplay between light and dark that has characterised the tragicomedy of previous Gilliam efforts is sorely lacking, making way for altogether more brow furrowing than one might expect and makes the film far less funny as a result.
Supporting characters are largely archetypal and while consistent with the strict protagonist’s gaze that is the basis of the film, Gilliam’s archetypes work when they are funny or strange to the protagonist, which, in interacting with Leth, they generally aren’t. While Management (Matt Damon) and bucktoothed binary psychiatrist ‘Shrink Rom’ (Tilda Swinton) are generally amusing in their fixed, archetypal roles, the limits imposed on David Thewlis and Lucas Hedges as the idiotic colleague and the boy genius are frustrating but passable, while Melanie Thierry’s sex object Bainsley is just too much. Women are treated pretty terribly throughout, from Bainsley’s fetish object down to the pizza delivery woman, less intelligent apparently than the futuristic singing pizza boxes she conveys. Dominated by the male gaze throughout the film, women become little more than fodder for obsession or rejection.
When this leering, which is typical of most cinema, let’s face it, is coupled with introspection and the imaginary, we stumble upon a distinct way of looking at the world which I can only call the ‘male-navel gaze’. Gilliam’s inclination towards introspection and solipsism is realised in Leth’s virtual beach paradise. It is a fantasy world free of responsibility and consequence, and in various wide angle shots, the sun is shown hanging low, fixed in a postcard-like perpetual sunset. Leth principally occupies this space with Bainsley and it is only here that he can touch her as he wishes to. These free, passionate moments are shown in closeup with more consideration for sensory engagement than the sensory overload typical of the rest of the film. Without giving too much away, in typical Gilliam style, the fantasy world is shown to be the one that matters, the one where they cavort on the sand together as the sun hangs low. Leth’s real world decision to then cast Bainsley aside when he discovers she runs what, in the world of Zero Theorem, amounts to be a cam show betrays a very odd sensibility, a combination of this leering male gaze and immersion in the imaginary.
When Bainsley’s ‘website’ is shown first person on Leth’s giant iPad screen, Leth’s gaze, as interpreted by the audience, demands personal, physical exclusivity from a virtual reality. It is a leering gaze that is oblivious to its counterparts, and ultimately, also to the object of ‘affection’. It demands exclusive gratification on its own, wholly imaginary terms, contemptuous of any being outside itself and of any aspect of reality divergent from its own. Considering Leth’s eventual rejection of Bainsley comes because of her existence independent of his fantasy, the film’s overall thrust towards promoting the wonder of complete imagination is undermined.
In partnering the navel gaze with the purely male, introversion merges with a problematic approach to women. As such, Gilliam unwillingly problematizes the imaginary, the emotional basis for the film and pretty much, his whole oeuvre. Which I have come to love. Dang.
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