A Cock and Bull Story (2005, Michael Winterbottom)

A Cock and Bull Story
Following from their turn together in the low-key but wonderful “Cruise of the Gods“, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden teamed up again to make this, a film inspired by Laurence Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy. Described in the film as the “first postmodern novel, before there was any “modern” to be “post” about, the novel is reputed to be ramshackle and wandering, with numerous digressions and changes in style, oddities and absurdities, with no obvious and clear plot but always interesting and endlessly amusing. Whether this is true of the novel, I cannot say but it is certainly true of this film.

It begins with an apparently straight retelling of the novel, with the slight “fourth wall” device of the narrator, Shandy, talking directly to camera about what is happening to the child portraying the young him. Then we get the confusion between the character of Shandy and the character of “Steve Coogan” playing him, obviously a comically fictional variation of the real comic actor of the same name and the character of Shandy’s father, also played by Coogan. “Coogan” and “Bryden” bicker about star billing and the representations of their characters and compete visciously (this element reprised recently for “The Trip” TV series, also directed by Winterbottom), and it is easy to lose track of whether / how much this represents reality and might be ad-libbed (I suspect very little) and how much is tightly scripted.

The other characters/actors get similar treatments, with fiction using fact in a dizzying and hilarious mix as Winterbottom’s film “A Cock and Bull Story” describes the fictional attempts to make a film called “A Cock and Bull Story” about the Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, only bits of which we get to see. The film within a film is analysed and found wanting – except it’s not, it’s another comic device, to describe the inadequacy of ever making a true filmic representation of a novel, particularly one so odd as Sterne’s. Later on, the film takes some utterly bizarre surrealist turns that remind me of Charlie Kaufman’s best stuff. It really is hard to do justice to this film as it is such a subtle and layered beast but watch it – with a bottle of wine to hand – you’ll need it.

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