More than any other big director of New Hollywood, Francis Ford Coppola embodies the pathology of the auteur complex, and the toxic legacy of the auteur myth. Ever since Apocalypse Now, Coppola has been trying to regain this auteurist hubris in one way or another, but he doubled down in the new millennium, realising a loose trilogy of films about authors that collectively play as the inane endpoint of the auteurist fantasy. Tetro is the second film in that trilogy, and probably the most accomplished technically, but it features the most tedious, insufferable and narcissistic of all Coppola’s characters, even if it never quite reaches the navel-gazing nadir of Youth Without Youth. Vincent Gallo plays Tetro, an American expatriate living in Buenos Aires, who is visited unexpectedly by his brother Bennie, played by Alden Ehrenheich, after distancing himself from his family back in the United States.
Most of the film is told from Bennie’s perspective, as we gradually learn about Tetro’s tortured relationship with his father, and his tortured effort to produce a epochal literary masterpiece. In some ways, Tetro is how Rusty James would look if he grew up to be a douchebag, just as Tetro is an impoverished sequel to Rumble Fish, set in the same ponderous arthouse space, but without the same slick sense of style. In Buenos Aires, Tetro has found work as a lighting designer in a local theatre company, giving Coppola license to showcase every possibly lighting combination known to film, along with every stylised black and white composition imaginable. Every shot is deliberately and pedantically framed, while the soundscape is distorted so that every space – especially outdoor spaces – feels like a stage, drawing laboured attention to Coppola’s directorial “craft” at every conceivable opportunity.
The screenplay is just as contrived, since Coppola continues the “writerly” style that made the screenplay for Youth Without Youth so turgid and tortuous. None of the interactions here ever feels organic, especially when they centre on Tetro, who openly acknowledges that he has no interest in dialogue, unless it’s with his own genius and artistic aspirations. At one point, Tetro extols the power of free verse to Bennie – “it doesn’t rhyme, there’s no fixed number of syllables” – and Coppola seems to be using this as an analogy for his own style as well. The irony is that free verse is the poetic metre most attuned to the natural ebb and flow of the human voice, rather than the stilted sophomoric effort on display here. Even when characters are in the midst of the most dramatic exchanges, the script is too solipsistic to ever feel like dialogue – just an endless hall of mirrors that reiterate Coppola and Tetro’s auteurist aspirations, reflected in the interminable “clever” mirror shots used to anchor the narrative.
In other words, this feels like a student film, suffused with the same idiotic pretension as The Room, but divested of Tommy Wiseau’s visceral affection for Hollywood screen spectacle. Between late Coppola and late Gallo, there’s nothing here but navel-gazing, while Tetro is little more than a surly, pouty, self-appointed genius – another iteration of Dominic Matei, the modernist polymath of Youth Without Youth. Like Matei, Tetro’s magnum opus is written in code, full of odd symbols and reversed letters that transform him into the repository of an arcane auteurist knowledge that remains unavailable to everyone else in the film, and world. Unlike Matei, however, Tetro is an example of premature aging rather than eternal youth, often playing like a more pretentious Jack as he pontificates while leaning on his stylish cane.
That said, Coppola does seem a little more sceptical here about the power of this auteur figure, paving the way for the more defeatist auteurist voice of Twixt, his final feature to date. As the film proceeds, we learn that Tetro named himself after his father, Carlo Tetrocini, a brilliant composer back in the United States. When Tetro was young, his father told him that he couldn’t be a genius, since there was only room for one genius in the family. As a result, Tetro’s magnum opus is ultimately about his father’s inability to recognise his genius, much as Coppola’s later films have been primarily about his audience’s inability to recognise his auteurist complexity in the same way as his fanbase of the 70s. In that sense, Tetro examines how the toxic auteurism of the father begets the toxic auteurism of the son, as if Coppola were imagining himself as both father and son, looking back at how his own lurid obsession with auteurism has left him stranded in the present. No surprise, then, that toxic father-figures proliferate throughout the film – the main twist is that Tetro is Bennie’s father, not his brother, and that Tetro has reiterated, rather than resisted this toxic, auteurist fatherhood.
In order to try and escape that bind, Coppola shifts the action to Patagonia in the third act, not unlike the move to Sicily in the final part of The Godfather III, as Tetro, like Michael Corleone, tries to recover an authentic connection to his past. In this case, the catalyst is Tetro receiving a literary award in Punta Arenas, but he vanishes almost as soon as he arrives, and then only re-emerges in a very muted and limited way. Strangely, the most vivid scene occurs just before his disappearance – Bennie and twelve women sharing a hotel room for a raucous night of partying – but when Tetro goes missing they have to postpone their fun to search for him. Here, as throughout the film, Tetro is mainly a negative presence, an obnoxious void that reproaches every space and situation in the film for not living up to his self-appointed genius.
For a brief moment, however, this final sequence in Patagonia turns into a haunting elegy for cinema, as Coppola juxtaposes two very different types of image. On the one hand, the literary awards take place against a bank of television monitors that alienate Tetro even further from his work. On the other hand, Tetro has visions of a purer and more intermittent light source, from the play of sunlight on glaciers, to the sea of headlights in the final scene. This second light source, which channels the flickering of cinema projectors, casts a momentary sheen over the film, but it’s gone almost as quickly, as Coppola settles back into turgid exposition. For all the different genres he worked on his heyday, Coppola has a pretty limited range in his later years, and his fixation on tortured, pretentious, self-appointed auteurs reaches a dead end here, turning Twixt into a strange, stillborn epilogue to his career.