As if there wasn’t enough controversy at this 2023 Venice Film Festival, Joseph Schuman and Austin Stark’s blackly comic Coup! hits Lido screens to offer a hot take with regards to what’s happening in the US right now. One of the problems for film-makers hoping to tackle the elephant in the room in terms of the Trump presidency is that there’s still at least three years of courtroom trials and prosecutions to come before it can be addressed directly; last year, David O’Russell’s Amsterdam attempted to look back to the 1930’s for an antecedent, yet the kooky comedy trappings didn’t mesh with the serious politics for critics or audiences. But to deal with the present, we have to understand the past, and Coup! casts an eye back to 1918, where the Spanish Flu is in full swing and the inhabitants of Egg Island are living in fear of a deadly plague. This is the classic story of a grifting, charismatic interloper in a rich man’s house; from Blue Blood to Brimstone and Treacle, to today’s Parasite and The Menu, we’ve been down this road before, but Schuman and Stark make something fresh in a period setting by putting class conflict front and centre.
An elliptical opening establishes a little about a mysterious stranger named Floyd Monk (Peter Sarsgaard), who seems to have stolen someone else’s identity, but who and why? Floyd takes his place as the new chef in the luxury home of Jay Horton (Billy Magnussen), a pampered progressive journalist who practices the art of fake news in an early form; he writes gritty front –line dispatches castigating the authorities (ie POTUS Woodrow Wilson) for their response to the pandemic, then puts on comfortable slippers to enjoy the opulent shelter of his cossetted lifestyle. That makes Horton blind to a dangerous household revolution sparked by the chef on his arrival; Horton is no tough guy, arming himself with a badminton racket in a futile attempt to ward off the advance of the intruder.
‘This is not a riverboat casino,’ Floyd is admonished when he starts playing (card) games with the family and servants alike; Floyd pays no heed, sensing personal opportunity in the weakness of Horton’s rule, while Horton asks questions elsewhere. ‘His deceptions are costing lives; mine are saving them,’ is Horton’s defence for his dishonest attempts to shame the president’s actions, but the chef has other ideas about his own advancement. Despite his cartoonish appearance, looking like a Pixar cook with moustache and droopy white hat, the hedonistic Floyd cannonballs into the family pool and the splash catches the family unaware. ‘This is not a democracy, this is my home,’ Horton says angrily, but who exactly is the chef? A loner? An agent sent by the government? He’s accused of being an ‘insurrectionist’ by Horton in a way that strikes sparks in 2023, but is there some justification for Floyd’s one-man war on this rich, all-American family?
This isn’t a film for the haters, or those who want to whistle the moral as they leave the theater; Coup! deliberately resists any overt partisan messaging about today’s politics, and that’s a good thing. Revolution proves as contagious as the plague, and the rich are portrayed as just waiting for the barbarians to challenge their waning sense of authority. The big draw here is Sarsgaard, who projects the right devilish insouciance to make his character a worthy adversary, switching from comic ambivalence to deadly intent; Sarah Gadon excels in a supporting role as Horton’s wife Julie, and Fisher Stevens has a notable turn as Upton Sinclair, the real-life writer that Horton admires. Coup! offers a refreshingly open-minded satire on complacency and class, one which might well be of interest to the thinking audiences that 2023’s cinema should be cultivating.
Coup! is currently screening at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. I’ll add a trailer when I get one, but there’s a link to a clip on Deadline below.