Four play

Film - Jonathan Romney enjoys decoding this witty satire on Hollywood mores

Digital technology has become cinema's yardstick for measuring reality, or its absence. At one end of the spectrum, you have a digital cinema of pure illusion in which computer imaging can clone dinosaurs and rebuild the Titanic. At the other end, film-makers are using digital cameras - small, mobile and, above all, cheap - to gain a more immediate purchase on everyday reality (or so the rhetoric goes). Low-budget digital work isn't always about realism, as The Blair Witch Project showed. But what the new camcorder cinema can achieve is a sense of the moment. There's a special energy to be had from images manifestly captured on the hoof; in Mike Figgis's new film, Time Code, that energy is harnessed to the pleasures of game-playing.

Effectively, Figgis has made not one film, but four - four separate, continuous takes, each running for 93 minutes and each occupying a quarter of the screen. Together, they tell a story revolving around a film production office on Sunset Boulevard, involving a wealthy woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn), her actress lover (Salma Hayek), a philandering executive (Stellan Skarsgard), his wife (Saffron Burrows) and a cast of fools, neurotics, slimeballs and innocents.

Figgis's best joke is to introduce a precocious European auteur (Mia Maestro), who arrives with her rock-star boyfriend to pitch her latest movie idea: he raps; she babbles about Gropius, Leibniz and the need to move "beyond the paradigm of montage". Everyone is in awe of her, except Skarsgard, who denounces her as pretentious. The joke is that the film she is pitching is the one that Figgis has actually made. It does, indeed, sound like an impossible, even pointless, venture, and the first thing you worry about when the story begins - after a flurry of flickering credit-sequence embellishments - is that Time Code will be impossible to read. In fact, it very quickly becomes easy, and Figgis pulls a few strings to guide us - for example, providing geographic signposts to navigate by (such as the leitmotif of a huge pair of eyes on a billboard).

There are interesting formal effects of synchronisation, as the film falls in and out of different shapes: visual rhymes occur, such as two screens showing actresses in bathrooms, or three screens showing close-ups of women's eyes. To remind us that everything really is synchronised, an earth tremor happens every now and again on all four screens, as a sort of narrative time-check. Oddly, Figgis has done something of a disservice to Saffron Burrows who, largely occupying a screen separate from the main action, wanders dazed around town, embodying pained sanity in a world of fools, but not entirely capturing our attention; it is easy to drift away from this whole quarter of the film.

In particular, it is the soundtrack that guides us from one screen to another, as dialogue cuts in and out and the action shifts quadrants. This supposedly "unedited" film is, in fact, largely edited by the sound, which means that the viewer doesn't have much creative leeway in watching it; the DVD version, apparently, will contain all four soundtracks, for the viewer to switch between as fancy dictates. The interesting effect of the sound dropping out of particular scenes is to make you wonder what material was excluded, or why certain characters don't quite impose themselves: what's going on with the "Sikh nurse" (Aimee Graham) who mysteriously wanders in, and why does Holly Hunter fail to register much?

Aside from formal experimentation, Figgis pulls off a witty, if hardly unprecedented, satire on Hollywood mores (the film has its precursors equally in The Player and in the fluid backstage manoeuvres of The Larry Sanders Show). The form gives familiar content a new spin, especially where the characters' narcissism is involved - a by-product of the shooting technique is that playing a role consistently for 93 minutes, rather than in short takes, involves a different kind of self-awareness. This puts a special edge on Hayek's cold-blooded actress on the make, always playing to an imaginary camera.

Also extraordinary is the way Figgis occasionally just lets people be: for ages, he lingers on Tripplehorn in her car, eavesdropping on Hayek by hidden radio. No actress would usually have the luxury or the challenge of a close-up this drawn-out, especially if it is essentially an extended reaction shot. The film's looseness means that Hollywood actors who don't normally get the chance to play around really come into their own, improvising from Figgis's preliminary script structure: the scene-stealer, drifting in with wonderfully comic inopportuneness, is Julian Sands's visiting masseur: "I say to your tension, 'Veni, vidi, vici'."

Some American critics were a little grouchy about the film, dismissing it as lightweight, not really a hardline formal experiment. But Figgis's immediate purpose is quite pragmatic, using technology to escape the usual laborious and deadening film development protocol. He wants to make film-making into playing a game that creates its own challenges for everyone - cast, crew, director and viewer. Time Code is at once situationist prank, live conceptual theatre invading film's capital (Figgis started out in the 1970s with the performance troupe The People Show) and a sort of cinematic Mission Impossible. I can't imagine Figgis, or anyone else, wanting to go down this same road again, but Time Code is a gauntlet thrown down in a truly joyous spirit.

Time Code opens on 18 August

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - What are we doing to our children?