Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Directed by: Sam Esmail
Starring: Justin Long, Emmy Rossum, Kayla Servi, Eric Winter
We movie watchers are accustomed to a certain structure when it comes to a film’s plot. Beginning, middle and end, that’s the formula we expect, and why shouldn’t we? These three parts provide context and help mark the passing of time, they give us something to build up to and a definitive moment on which to conclude. Director Sam Esmail’s Comet doesn’t so much play with this traditional format, as to completely ignore it, resulting in a cinematic work of art that’s as beautiful as it is bewildering.
Set in what’s presumed to be a parallel universe, the story follows Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) and Dell (Justin Long) over the course of their six-year relationship. Told through fleeting scenes that travel back and forth through the years, we witness the strangely perfect couple as they meet, co-exist, break up and reunite.
Esmail’s debut feature is an incredibly ambitious and divisive film. It’s a high-concept romantic drama with elements of dark comedy that exist as a series of random moments rather than a cohesive narrative. In fact, it’s almost impossible to piece the scenes into chronological order, something that might frustrate the less patient watcher.
It feels as if Esmail is attempting to force cinemagoers to consider feature films in a less conventional way. At one point Rossum’s Kimberly muses over the nature of time-based art, perfectly capturing the essence of the movie in a single scene. “Movies, music, plays – it’s all time-based art. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end, and you have to see it from beginning to end. You’re restrained to that time line, that way of experiencing it.”
Given a traditional movie structure, Comet would likely have ended up as a cliché-ridden romance about star-crossed lovers in doomed alternate universes. Structured as a series of memories weaving in and out of each other like a fantasy, it feels original and poignant, almost as if it’s a piece of visual art intended for an installation. It deserves to be viewed at an outdoor cinema, projected into the night with a blanket of stars sparkling above.
If you’re able to get on board with the unusual edit – where scenes literally shake and crumble into each other – there’s a lot to enjoy about Comet. It’s an exquisitely shot movie; Eric Koretz’s cinematography is simultaneously delicate and jolting with its soft focus and off-centre framing. If only more films were this brave and inventive.
Rossum and Long also put in two very strong performances as the young and damaged central couple. Long’s deadpan delivery makes Dell a likeable and earnest character despite his outward narcissism, whilst Rossum lights up the screen as Kimberly, bringing a heart-warming vulnerability and warmth to the role. The quippy interplay between the two masks the occasionally pretentious script and their emotional connection has the power to conjure a tear or two when the credits roll.
Since its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year, Comet has garnered mixed reviews. The varied response is understandable too; it’s incredibly difficult to derail that desire for a concrete beginning, middle and end. I loved the fleeting nature of the story but still had to stop myself from attempting to piece together a logical timeline for the couple’s relationship. Dreamlike, poetic and quietly devastating, this is the type of movie that will sweep you away if you allow yourself to go with it.