(Written by Allison Brown)
It has always been a dream of mine to go to Paris. Roaring 20s portrays a summer day in 2020, set in real time during the pandemic, in the life of a superfluous cast in this hot spot. The film is shot as one continuous piece, choreographed by Elisabeth Vogler, jumping from one set of characters to the next as they naturally cross paths. It begins following a talkative assumed ride share driver picking up a passenger who doesn’t feel like chatting. Despite being set in the peak pandemic summer, no one is wearing masks, nor social distancing. He tries to hypnotize her in a parlor trick that throws her into a state of panic and confusion, only to be hopefully resolved by seeing her brother.
As she calms down and they walk toward his car, the camera shifts focus to another duo: two women of different skin colors discussing race and art. It is at this point where the pretentious direction becomes clear. As we begin to hear street music played in a big band style, the camera pans to two men chatting on the water. One noted quote “these are crazy times” digs its heels deep, and is easily my least favorite repetitive line to hear throughout this pandemic. They make mom jokes, talk about mortality, and one man mentions that he’s quit his job.
By this point, 20 minutes in, this feels like one of those pharmaceutical commercials where a ball gets thrown between random people and individuals offer up why the drug has changed their life. We don’t spend enough time with any of these characters to truly become invested; none are fully formed. The way this is presented, it almost feels as if we’re watching a reality show with a cast of unremarkable characters. It takes 26 minutes for the film to finally show characters putting on masks as they head into the Metro. Perhaps mask advisories in Paris were less strict than the United States in summer 2020, but it seems incredibly strange for a pandemic-set movie to take this long to truly display its premise.
When we finally move to a younger woman running in a trendy tie dye top, the unofficial uniform of the lockdown, I am actually interested in this character and where she is going, as she runs with urgency. She meets up with her friend and unabashedly shares her shoplifting loot while repeatedly spouting cliched, gen-z lingo like “totally savage.” The writers of this script, despite being born in this era, seem totally disconnected from this demographic. It is as if they just threw in Doja Cat lyrics to hit home the Gen Z girl’s identifying factor, in case it wasn’t already obvious. Just when I had hopes that we would find a likable character, it becomes clear that she totally lacks a moral compass.
At a certain point, I have become utterly speechless as to the obscene level of souless people portrayed. These include an oddball woman asking literal children and a baby for drugs, and a creepy middle-aged female with a drawn on mouth and dirty yellow stains on her generic, blue mask. None of the landscape shots are particularly engrossing (and we only really see them via a motorcycle ride), but the soundtrack provided offers a level of cinematic experience. Another segment that ends with a man putting on a traditional hard mask (creepy and completely blank with two slits for eyes) comedically reminds the covid-scarred audience that medical masks are not the only masks that exist, as we have been conditioned to see.
A duo of men, one of which is named Gary, veer off to discuss religion, amongst other things, as a juxtaposition to the earlier race conversation. It is interesting that these characters are finally being given names, as the film has avoided this for most of the runtime. Gary and his cousin discuss French culture for the first time the entire film. All of a sudden, the film shifts to Gary’s cousin, who is black while he is white, running from the police that he hears. He says, “they kill everyone here…you’re not free.” It feels as if this scene solely exists to allude to the Black Lives Matter movement, and capitalize off it.
For a film presented as a snapshot of the COVID-19 era, this work seems to completely avoid portraying accurate safety regulations. It throws in hot topics seemingly to check off a list without offering well-formed commentary. I was interested in Roaring 20s in the hopes of experiencing a slice of Parisian life, but the self-involved conversations of those we follow could have taken place anywhere. If anything, it just shows how awful these spotlighted characters are, and paints France in a dark cast. It seems to grapple far too many characters, and perhaps would have been more successful focusing on half of the stories we were presented. Director Elisabeth Vogler’s intentions in making this film were to allow the audience a window into all different walks of life (and crisscrossing strangers), but I feel like it completely missed the mark.
Roaring 20s premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, June 12th.