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by nic wistreich | august, 2000


On a four-way split screen, four stories unfold simultaneously in real time, each following a character across Los Angeles in a complex love-quartet of infidelity and deceipt. Lauren Hathaway (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is an ageing Beverly Hills starlet, increasingly anxious about the faithfulness of lover Rose (Salma Hayek). Rose, an aspiring actress, is sleeping with movie executive Alex Green (Stellan Skarsgård) in the hope of helping her career. Alex, in turn, is married to Emma (Saffron Burrows) who has finally had enough of his philandering ways.

Mike Figgis originally planned to release Timecode on New Years Eve 1999, seeing it as a quintessentially millennial film. And filmed entirely on digital, exploiting the medium to shoot in one continuous take, with post-modernist self-awareness and an arguably interactive interface where the viewer becomes editor, Timecode is an ideal overture to 21st century filmmaking.

Figgis is one of the leading practitioners in the use of sound with film; scoring and writing most of his films over the past decade. In Timecode, although the music is less noticeable than in Leaving Las Vegas or The Loss of Sexual Innocence, Figgis shows himself as a cinematic conductor, keeping tempo over four stories and harmonising image, sound and narrative. Indeed, Figgis used sheet music to write the film's parallel stories, where each bar of 'music' represented one minute of screen time. Without any cuts or edits, rhythm is maintained by the mixing of sound, and the clever co-ordination of each of the four images on screen.

On this level, Timecode is one of the most dazzling and inventive displays of cinema technique in recent years. Not content with simply showing four stories at once, Figgis creates links and associations between separate stories by mirroring or copying images. In one sequence, a character in one story looks upwards off screen, to where key action is taking place in another story. At another point, one quarter of the screen shows a hand holding a mobile phone, two other quarters show people talking into mobiles and the fourth shows Lauren eavesdropping one of the phone conversations. In one particularly strong moment after Rose and Alex have consummated their affair, we see in each section of the screen the effects of this action - Lauren and Emma stand in the street betrayed, and unaware of each other's presence, while Rose and Alex take the other two quarters. It's a brilliant moment that emphasises the gameplay in this menage-a-quatre, highlighting the way actions can create a ripple of cause and effect.

The story is well paced and enjoyable to watch, although it descends into soap opera-style melodrama towards the end. Of course this could be a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Hollywood world that Figgis and collaborators have created - for the film is very much a comic look at the film industry. An executive at the film company the story is set around (Red Mullet Inc - after Figgis' own production company), criticises a battle sequence in the film they are working on, saying that 'the Buddhists aren't crackling enough in the fire, they seem to be popping'. Towards the end, a trendy European 'concept' filmmaker pitches to the company a film with four stories running concurrently in different quarters of a screen, only to be laughed off by Alex, decrying it as the most pretentious idea he has ever heard.

Given the ambitious nature of the project Timecode works surprisingly well. It is easy to get distracted and watch a sequence in one section that is less important than another, but on the whole the viewer's eye makes for a good editor, flicking between one story and the next without too much confusion. The story is a little clumsy in places, but by showing four at once, if one narrative gets tedious, you can simply watch another. So you get four films for the price of one, and a great taster of the potential of digital cinema to boot.

Director: Mike Figgis
Producer: Mike Figgis, Annie Stewart
Screenplay: Mike Figgis
DOP: Patrick Alexander Stewart
Production Designer: Jennifer Gentile
Costume Designer: Donna Casey
Cast includes: Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeanne Tripplehorn
Production Company: Red Mullet Films
Distributor: Sony
UK, 2000, 93 mins

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