Allied (2016) by Robert Zemeckis
Review by Nathan Smith
“I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works.”
It seems like there's been a recent rallying against contemporary American movies that evoke the spirit of classical Hollywood cinema, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (which felt more to me like Spielberg by way of Fulci, but that's beside the point) and Robert Zemeckis’ Allied being the prime targets, with Clint Eastwood’s Hawksian late period on the side. A recent tweet by The New Yorker’s Richard Brody sums up this sentiment well: “So much of contemporary cinephilia is Make Hollywood Great Again, with all the reactionary nostalgia that the notion implies.” Yes, these types of motion pictures are often unduly loved by internet cinephiles for their aesthetic invocation of an earlier time in American cinema, but I’d like to posit that these films, specifically Allied, are doing something a little different.
Robert Zemeckis is one of the most unabashedly artificial filmmakers working in Hollywood today, which rubs a lot of audiences the wrong way. His work across the past decade has marched into the uncanny valley with utter glee; though his most recent films (Allied, The Walk, and Flight) mark a return to human subjects, he’s spent quite a bit of this century crafting technologically innovative but downright uncomfortable movies reliant on the powers of motion-capture technology (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, and, lest we forget, the magnificent failure of Mars Needs Moms, one of the few films from Zemeckis’ ImageMovers studio that he himself did not direct).
Though his latest film focuses on flesh, it’s similarly delighted by digital effects: its opening shot is of an obviously fake sand-dune-and-sunset vista, interrupted by the appearance of a parachuting Brad Pitt from the top of the screen. Plot-wise, Allied is basically one of those trashy airport novels that has a tacked-on historical setting to make people feel a little better about reading them, more Masterpiece Theater than Bridge of Spies. On a covert mission in Casablanca, Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), a French Canadian working for British intelligence, and Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a former French Resistance fighter, fall in love. They return to Max's adopted home of London and, amid the constant bombings of the Blitz, get married and start a family. As these things tend to go, all is not quite what it seems; Max is informed by higher-ups that his wife might be a Nazi double agent.
What makes Allied so fascinating is not just its deliberate and obvious employment of artifice in form, but its engagement with constructed surfaces as its very subject. Allied is all about the artifice not just of espionage, but of acting (and filmmaking) itself: the film is stuffed with numerous rehearsals, auditions, and bad accents that draw attention to its own exterior. Only the love is real.
As I mentioned, Pitt, one of the most American of American actors, plays a French-Canadian; Cotillard constantly points out his phony Parisian accent, and helps him rehearse it. The two play husband and wife; every kiss and loving gesture is a performance designed to satisfy the eavesdropping eyes of curious neighbors or the suspicious notions of German officers. Pitt and Cotillard both administer examinations to determine each other’s ability and veracity in their working relationship, him testing her skill with weapons, her testing his ability to keep sexual desire under control. Pitt tries to test Cotillard to determine her true identity, but he also suspects that the whole affair might just be an audition for an intelligence job behind enemy lines on D-Day.
Cotillard’s performance in particular is brilliant in how it shifts from scene to scene. In one instance, she seems innocent and wrongly accused; in the next, her tears seem like a mask for her true motives, and our suspicions are raised. She constantly questions whether Pitt (and the audience) can really see her, and claims that her success in the espionage industry is owed to “[keeping] the emotions real.” Cotillard's character has one undoubtedly honest moment: while giving birth during a bombing, she grabs Pitt and digs into his eyes: “This is really me, as I am before God.”
Cotillard is one of contemporary cinema’s greatest lookers, not in how she physically looks to us, but in how she looks at us, her eyes cutting through screen, celluloid, and DCP and connecting with our own. Her dynamic with Pitt is an interrogation of glances, a constant duel of the eyes that functions as a study in how power shifts from moment to moment within relationships. Cotillard points toward the movie’s own artificiality, and the artificiality of her character’s identity, through performance. It’s also worth mentioning that her wardrobe, which consists largely of embroidered silk nightgowns, floor-length skirts, and Katherine Hepburn slacks, is impeccable.
Zemeckis directs us toward his metaphorical narrative with a visual emphasis on mirrors and reflections, which problematizes our own point of view. I’m a sucker for the use of mirrors as symbols in the cinema; their appearance offers an immediate invocation of and reflection on the medium itself. These entangled thematics are lent additional weight by the extra-textual importance of Allied, namely its status as the film that led to the alleged real-life affair between Pitt and Cotillard, which may or may not have been the reason behind the break-up of a union once believed impenetrable: Brangelina, a couple with power and prestige so palpable that a new word had to be created to name their joint existence. After all, the elaborate ruse of tabloid drama and the star images involved are as equally artificial and performative as espionage or on-screen acting, and the inquiry of Pitt and Cotillard’s characters into each others' aptitude and identities recalls the emotional distance and suspicions triggered by extra-marital affairs.
Off-screen dalliances aside, Pitt and Cotillard’s on-screen chemistry is monumental, and the film’s sandstorm-set sex scene is maybe the best erotic overture in American cinema since Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. That link between this film and Mann’s work makes sense since, in its rigorous study of the deep cover that is cinema, Allied is basically Michael Mann’s remake of Casablanca; Mann also directed Cotillard in 2009’s Public Enemies.
In its setting, costumes, and plentiful sensuality, Allied might seem like an homage to an earlier heyday of Hollywood cinema. But the key to classical Hollywood cinema was “invisible style,” and Allied is anything but invisible in its acknowledgment of cinematic artificiality. Don't believe anyone who tells you that positive appraisal of Allied is neoformalist fascism/fetishism. Zemeckis’ intentionality in creating a film that reflects on its own surface sets Allied apart from the “reactionary nostalgia” that Brody and others might think plague contemporary cinephilia. If anything, Zemeckis’ negotiation with performative identity should offer an antidote to unproductive revivalism, not encourage it. This is really cinema, as it is before God.