Oct 29 2012 11:00am

The Music From My Dream: Cloud Atlas

The term “poète maudit” was coined in the 19th century to describe a class of poet—among whom were Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine—who took drugs, committed criminal acts, and had interesting sex lives. The adjective “maudit,” which means “cursed,” referred to the tendency of these poets to die very young, at no point in their brief lives ever able to functionally connect to society and live the proverbial normal life. The term “maudit,” in reference to both les poètes maudits themselves and to the notion of being cursed in general, has been appropriated by some film critics recently to describe movies that, for whatever reason, are doomed to be misunderstood and overlooked, too strangely beautiful for this world, to never live on as classics of the form. Such a film maudit is Cloud Atlas.

In a way, the movie Cloud Atlas is even more a strange and singular thing than the book from which it’s adapted. David Mitchell’s novel is a gorgeously written, ingeniously constructed piece whose epic scope—six storylines taking place over the space of many hundreds of years—is slightly out of balance with its simple, concise endpoint: “Yet what is any ocean [the totality of human existence] but a multitude of drops [each human life]?” Obviously, there’s more to that oceans/drops metaphor than that, and the idea that human beings should be kind to each other because we’re all ultimately connected is one that more human beings would do well to heed, but ultimately Cloud Atlas is more a very good book than a revolutionary work of literature. The movie, in contrast, is a different beast altogether.

Mainstream film, and even most non-mainstream film, is narrative-based, and to such a narrow degree that there’s one particular dominant narrative mode, one that can be broken down (roughly, at times) into three major acts. So many movies’ stories happen totally sequentially that any departure from that at all is seen as radical, and a movie that departs from that idea as totally as Cloud Atlas does can seem almost entirely incomprehensible at places. Writer-directors Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski make no effort whatsoever to ease that incomprehensibility: they alter the book’s 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1 structure and chop up the narrative of each storyline with little regard for the events taking place, instead cutting from one to the next based on character beats.

If that sounds a little hard to follow, that’s because it is. The Cloud Atlas that Tykwer and the Wachowskis have made is less a traditional adaptation of the novel than it is an audiovisual essay on a close read of the text interpreting the novel’s theme of interconnectedness through the prism of reincarnation. The central cast of actors in the movie all play multiple roles—at times different races and/or genders—with the aid of elaborate makeup, often in the same role to the other characters as they are in previous incarnations: lovers are lovers more than once, villains are villains repeatedly, and so on. Once that conceit becomes clear, it’s interesting to observe, but there’s a long rocky period before clarity prevails.

This is the great dilemma Cloud Atlas faces. In order to have the slightest idea of what’s going on, one probably needs to have read the book; I was immensely grateful to have done so, in terms of being able to keep track of who was where and when and what was happening why, and how. At the same time, the movie is such a stubbornly idiosyncratic read of the book that even reading it multiple times might not be adequate preparation for some of the stylistic flourishes and even substantive departures. It is simultaneously and paradoxically beholden to its source material and a completely separate entity.

Speaking to Cloud Atlas strictly as cinema, it’s staged beautifully with great attention to detail, with some indelible images, for better and worse. The makeup, being the most noticeable visual effect, is alternately subtly perfect and distractingly horrible (some of the fake noses in the 19th century storyline are unbelievably bad; the controversial casting of Caucasian actors as Asian characters actually oddly works both thematically and practically, not only because Asian actors also play non-Asian characters). The music, as it should be with one whole storyline being about the composition of the “Cloud Atlas sextet,” is wonderful. And the actors, even if what they do doesn’t always work, all do a pretty remarkable job with their various roles, and have one successful one that outweighs the unfortunate misfires.

This is also true of the movie as a whole. Its opening sequence requires a tremendous amount of focus and patience, more than someone in the mood for light entertainment may be willing or able to give. Once that’s past, and the movie hits its stride, and its rhythms make it possible to engage with emotionally as well as literarily, it’s really a remarkable thing indeed. It’s a movie overflowing with ideas and ambition that’s sublime when it works and frankly a little embarrassing when it doesn’t. I kind of love it, but have few illusions that its fate is anything other than to be a film maudit, ardently defended by some and either dismissed or ignored by many. Any ocean, alas, is both a multitude of drops and of bitter salt.

Danny Bowes is a New York City-based film critic and blogger.

1. rowanblaze
I love the movie, though it was distracting at times, as my companion and I were taken out of the story by figuring who it was under all that make-up.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
I thought it was brilliant and beautiful. A ringing condemnation of slavery--both physical and of the mind.
It does require the watcher to pay close attention to what is going on and at the same time, let go and allow the various threads to run.
Obviously very different from the run of the mill movie and probably not for everyone. I expect that there will be a lot of "love it" or "hate it" reactions.
@1:When the credits rolled at the end, they showed all the roles each actor played and I was suprised at some--didn't even notice that some were the same person.
3. Palpatim
"In order to have the slightest idea of what’s going on, one probably needs to have read the book"

Thankfully, this was not the case for my wife and me. I saw the movie without having read the novel, and was able, after an initial period of exhilarating disorientation, to follow the threads of story fairly well. I enjoyed the movie immensely, and we look forward to seeing it again.

I do agree with #1 @rowanblaze that the make-up was a bit distracting.
Deana Whitney
4. Braid_Tug
Sounds like the critics will love it, and the masses who love comedy made for teenagers will hate it.
Sam Mickel
5. Samadai
I have never read the book, and had no trouble following along with the movie. The movie iself was great and enjoyable. I think I will have to pick up the book
6. Natenanimous
I absolutely loved it. I wasn't bored for a minute, glued to the screen for three straight hours. It was amazing and it moved me. But your review is very correct. It's much easier to follow the various story threads if you've read the novel first, but at the same time the movie departs from the novel in a lot of important details, and I think in the end the movie actually hits on the big themes more clearly and resoundingly than the novel does. The movie is almost certainly destined to be ignored, disliked for its overreaching ambition, or simply not understood by a lot of people, but what a gem for those who can focus on it, look past its issues, and appreciate it.
7. Tomasz
It was about as exciting as watching paint dry. Soylent Green Is People. What a suprise.
Scott Silver
8. hihosilver28
I thought that the movie was highly ambitious, but flawed. Still don't know exactly how I feel about it, and would need to see it again. I loved the Composer (1931) and the Neo-Soul (2144) storylines. Anyone else extremely distracted by Doona Bae's completely CG'd eyes at the end of the 1850s storyline? I wish they hadn't done that because it completely took me out of the movie.
Brooke Robinson
9. ShinySpecialOne
I am one of those who also had not read the book and yet didn't have a problem following it. It was beautiful, and though occasionally flawed (yes, some of the makeup effects were distracting), I was impressed with it in general. The music was wonderful, the acting was brilliant, the stories were compelling, and the themes of bondage, freedom, rebellion, love, betrayal, and justice were wonderfully handled. I say, "Bravo!"
10. Badass Sasquatch
I never read the book and had absolutely no trouble following it. I did, however, know that this wasn't a turn-your-brain off movie and went in expecting to follow a complicated story arc.

As far as the makeup went, I actually thought it lent itself well with the idea of reincarnation even if it was at times overly (poorly?) done.

This was a great movie and I plan on seeing it again.
11. ethan m.r.
For those saying they were "taken out of the story"--maybe this is something the movie wants to do? Maybe it isn't axiomatically a bad thing? After all, it goes out of its way to very literally "take us out of the story" over and over and over again--maybe it's trying to say something by this?
Bob Blough
12. Bob
Totally unusual, beautiful, at times shoddy (especially with some of the make up) but I am amazed no matter the faults to see see movie reaching for something othr than "just" another narrative. I loved the theme that all we do in this world - no matter how small, the good and the bad - serve to create what happens next for the world. So, an artistic and uplifting flawed masterpiece. Who have thunk it?
13. Geek Queen
I thought it was so-so. My main beef was that the movie dropped the ball on reincarnation. It's already hard to use this phenomenon in movies. Check out my brief review here:

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