Berlin Patrick Gamble

Berlin 2019: The Plagiarists review

★★★★☆

A pair of self-absorbed millennials are forced to confront the lack of originality behind their ideas in Peter Parlow’s The Plagiarists, a dramatic comedy that asks the questions; who has the “right” to access culture and who possesses the authority to speak on its behalf?

The film opens with an argument between aspiring memoirist Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and her filmmaker boyfriend Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) after their car breaks down on the way home from a recent getaway. Thankfully, a local man named Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne of Parliament-Funkadelic) comes to their aid and offers to let them stay in his house. Anna and Tyler are initially reluctant to accept, but as the evening progresses, and the wine begins to flow (a full-bodied red, aptly named Ménage à trois) they decide to stay the night and the conversation quickly turns to culture.

“Film is the only art form you’re not ‘allowed’ to consume” moans Tyler as he explains how cinema is routinely disregarded as an inferior art form. “You can watch a whole opera or read an entire book and no one will call you lazy.” What begins as inverted snobbery towards the art world quickly turns to facile criticism of Justin Bieber and a cloying admiration for the Dogme 95 movement. The pair eventually warm to Clip. Tyler due to the vintage camcorder collection he discovers and Anna after their host regailes them with an uncharacteristically poetic monologue about his childhood in Detroit.

Parlow shot the film with the same Betacam SP videotape Tyler discovers in Clip’s house. The result is a lo-fi visual style in-keeping with the film’s quest for originality, with authentic videotape texture creating the perfect canvas to observe the prejudice and privilege entitlement bubbling under the surface. It all sounds painfully hip, but there’s a comic absurdism at work here, with Parlow intentionally aping the sensibilities of the mumblecore movement to interrogate the motives behind its desperate search for authenticity. However, despite making his intentions clear, Parlow’s approach still manages to blindside the audience to some of his more inventive tricks, such as filming all of Clip’s dialogue separately to Anna and Tyler’s so they never share the same frame. The result is an eerie disconnect in the dialogue that points to the unconscious prejudices of these obnoxious white liberals.

The car is fixed the following morning and the pair eventually head home. The film then jumps forward six months, as Anna and Tyler drive to visit their friend Allison (Emily Davis). In the car, whilst reading a copy of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, Anna discovers that Clip’s adolescent anecdote wasn’t quite all it seemed, resulting in a heated dialogue about the meaning of artistic authorship, and the wrongful appropriation of someone else’s work. The topic of who can participate in the arts often ignores society’s racial prejudices and class assumptions, thankfully The Plagiarists’ perfectly judged mimicry of independent cinema illustrates the profound effect a lack of diversity has on the type of art that gets made.

The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble