MUBI is showing Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal (2002) in the United States from September 9 to October 8, 2016
The vast majority of forgotten films are, for the most part, uninteresting—neither excellent nor awful enough to really merit re-consideration. Far rarer are the obscurities that are practically bursting from the seams with imagination. And as its title might suggest (though not for the reasons you may think), Full Frontal is unmistakably the latter.
Mainly following a loosely connected group of Hollywood industry types over the course of a single day, the film frequently cuts to a film within the film titled Rendezvous, in which Francesca (Julia Roberts) playing a journalist named Catherine, is doing a feature on Nicholas, a struggling actor (who at one point raps on “the state of being a chocolate leading man in Hollywood today”), played by a popular actor named Calvin (Blair Underwood). Such layered confusion is just the beginning. Alternating between glossy 35 mm (for the Rendezvous scenes) and low-resolution digital video (for the rest), the film also looks to be a making-of documentary of sorts, with interview-like voiceover of the various characters frequently intruding over the grainy, fly-on-the-wall footage. There’s a loose narrative that eventually converges on a birthday party thrown for a producer named Gus (David Duchovny), but it’s probably clear that the story—nearly impossible to synopsize—isn’t really the film’s main concern.
Full Frontal—shot on a budget of $2 million in under three weeks—was a hard left-turn from famously chameleonic director Steven Soderbergh, especially after the critical and commercial successes of Traffic (2000), Erin Brockovich (2000) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Given the nature of the project—the loose, low-stakes narrative, minimal budget, rapid production and then-uncommon use of digital video (at least for feature films by major Hollywood directors)—it’s not hard to see why it was largely dismissed as self-indulgent fluff. (“Amateurish” is how Roger Ebert described the movie in his contemporaneous review.) Had Soderbergh set out to make a Los Angeles-set narrative film with an ensemble cast (like, say, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts), the film would certainly be an unqualified disaster. But he’s going for something entirely different. And the title—itself a cheeky reversal of expectations—is the first clue.
A self-described “synthesist” who distills his influences with the ease of the con-artists and showmen that populate his films, Soderbergh’s primary antecedent here, literally signposted with a poster of Contempt (another film about moviemaking), is Jean-Luc Godard. There’s the fragmented, elliptical style and layered structure. Then there’s the canny treatment of the raw cinematic material, here a conscious aesthetic inversion: the texture of 35 mm given to the movies, and the grain of low-res video used to draw “real life.” Broadly speaking, Full Frontal a film about aesthetics, or more specifically the phoniness of it; that is, it’s concerned mainly with the gulf between an object, its presentation, and interpretation, with the L.A. lifestyle (which includes a neighbor that perpetually wears a Dracula costume) providing the perfect backdrop. If that makes the film sound cerebral, that’s because its conception is so rich and multivalent. On a more immediate level, though, it’s just an endlessly inventive comedy (though the level of amusement does oscillate wildly throughout the runtime). This is, after all, a film in which an HR manager named Lee (Catherine Keener) abuses her employees by making them balance one-legged on a chair, and then having them enumerate African countries while repeatedly catching a beach ball; or in which an egotistical actor played by Nicky Katt (giving the funniest performance of the ensemble), has the title role in a production of The Sound and the Führer, in which Hitler is “just too busy for relationships right now”; or in which a magazine cover with the title “Brad Pitt Wants to Boil Your Bunny” is a tossed off, background detail.
The film's major flaw is that while individual scenes are often amusing, the film as a whole never quite coheres. The ideas are sound, but lacking a more focused perspective or worldview, there’s not much sense of accumulation, so the film often feels diffuse, threatening to devolve into endless riffing. (Soderbergh’s broad-mindedness and investment in the material, so often a strength in his other films, betrays him here.) In some ways, though, Full Frontal seems destined to be a forgotten project, not just because of its proximity to Soderbergh’s major critical and commercial successes, but also because it's unmistakably a transitional film. It’s notable not necessarily for what it achieved, but for what it allowed Soderbergh to do, and the freedom it afforded him, kicking off a string of more oddball projects—the television series K Street (2003), contributing to the omnibus Eros (2004), and his next low-budget digital feature, Bubble (2005)—that would prove important later on.
Arguably the most important aspect of Full Frontal, though, is that it was one of Soderbergh’s first significant forays into digital, which would become a defining element of both his later style and overall working method. While it’s not impossible to see his most recent films as, say, “from the director of Out of Sight,” it’s far easier (and more revealing) to trace them back to the group of projects that began with Full Frontal. There’s a direct line from Full Frontal to the likes of The Girlfriend Experience (2009), itself a Godardian stealth-essay packaged in ostensibly accessible material, or Magic Mike (2012), which uses its exhibitionist streak to tackle similar themes of aesthetics and performance (albeit within a more traditional narrative structure). And while the latter works are certainly more successful, it’s hard to imagine them existing without the former. In ways both frustrating and invigorating, Full Frontal is a forgotten work that nonetheless remains essential viewing. Maybe the title isn’t such a tease after all?