Tristram Shandy is the first postmodern novel, written before there was actually a modernism for it to be “post” to.
— Steve Coogan, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story begins in makeup. Steve Coogan, who will be playing Tristram in the film within the film, is seated before a mirror, his costar Rob Brydon just to his left. As women work on their faces, the men trade japes, entertaining the makeup artists by comparing roles, attitudes, and teeth. “It’s not what I call white,” says Coogan, glancing in Rydon’s direction while looking to see that the camera remains on him, the star. More “barley meadow” or maybe “Tuscan sunset.” In other words, yellow.
Brydon, however, has another concern. Amid the jokes about his 18th-century-looking mouth, he’s looking to define his role as in the film, which he sees as a “co-lead,” rather than supporting. Brydon is playing a version of himself in addition to Uncle Toby; Coogan a fictional version of Coogan, here equipped with girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Macdonald) and new baby, as well as an apparently unstoppable and mostly illusory ego disguised as sex drive: he’s a stereotypically insecure movie star, repeatedly gets entangled in one-off romantic liaisons, imagining his allure is a sign of his brilliance and oh yes, his value. His latest non-conquest is his assistant, also named Jennie (Naomie Harris),
Duly costumed as Tristram, Coogan walks to the camera and pronounces, “Groucho Marx once said that the problem with writing a book about yourself is that you can’t fool around.” Tristram means to challenge that idea, but then he can, he’s fictional, meaning, he possesses no material, checkable truth. And besides, he can’t have even heard of Groucho Marx. “Am I not the hero of my own life?” he asks, as if your acknowledgement might make a whit of difference to his tale.
And so… the film goes on to controvert various theories of writing and reading, production and reception. The reading process that involves the disclosure of apparatus — blank pages, drawings in a literary tome, direct addresses, self-references — is still a reading process, a relationship between consumer and text that shapes and resists and collides with context. Based on Laurence Sterne’s famously “unfilmable” novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, originally published in nine volumes from 1759 to 1767, Michael Winterbottom’s movie is a peculiarly brilliant bit of business. As Coogan and Tristram’s experiences and self-images seep into one another, and then seep again, into Tristram’s father Walter, also played by Coogan, and so established as the proper passer-on of genes and knowledge. As Tristram appears on screen to narrate his story, he also pulls back intermittently, pausing and regrouping (“I’ve gotten ahead of myself”), in order to explain (or at least act out) the mechanics of storytelling. Order, movement, sense: all become arbitrary, means by which the teller conveys and creates meaning.
This is, of course, the ingenious contention of Sterne’s novel as well, though the changes in storytelling devices do make the film something new again. Or at least something new-seeming. While Toby returns incessantly to a past (he’s obsessed with recreating the 1695 Battle of Namur, in which he was injured, in his manful parts. At the same time, the filmmakers — including director Mark (Jeremy Northam) — fret over their lack of funding and consequent inability to mount a battle scene that looks remotely “real.” The dailies reveal that what they have so far is paltry indeed, but Coogan can’t be troubled with such details: rather, he’s obsessed with his own manful imagery sustenance, namely the fact that Brydon appears taller in their shots together. And so Coogan demands taller boots, upsetting the wardrobe crew and posing problems for continuity.
The battle imagery is extended into Tristram’s birth scene, which starts and stops several times during the film. Though his mother Elizabeth (Keeley Hawes) asks for a midwife, Walter is enamored of Dr. Slop’s (Dylan Moran) innovative device, that is, a forceps that, as he demonstrates, squash a melon into splattery goo. Just so, the boy’s head will be damaged, he’ll appear dead as he’s born, and his survival will be miraculous. Or miraculous-seeming.
Playing Tristram’s father, Coogan the character is reminded of his own fatherhood when Jenny arrives on set with their six-month-old child. The visit occasions one of Coogan’s several briefly self-revelatory moments: he must deal with a dirty diaper and coax the baby back to sleep, wondering all the while where missing mum Jenny might be. He learns that she’s been monitoring him literally, with the baby monitor turned up while she chats with their movie-set friends off in another room (all are housed in a country estate, the grounds serving as location for the battle scenes, in cavernous stone-walled rooms with fireplaces and bookshelves). And so, it appears, he’s performing even when he’s not quite aware.
Finding himself quite capable of fathering — at least on the changing-a-diaper scale — Coogan also endeavors at this point to read the book on which his roles as Tristram and Walter are based (he complains of the lack of an index as he digs in, in search of pages that might inflate his part and deflate Brydon’s). As Sterne’s book is not so much about a young man learning lessons or even pronouncing them as it is about the process of reading — the reader’s lessons acted out — so too the film does not lead necessarily to Tristram’s or Walter’s or Coogan’s education per se. Rather, it instructs viewers on the vagaries of celebrity, desire, and self-love (Coogan must entertain a reporter who has wind of a recent incident involving a lap-dancer, an incident recalling a real-life situation for Coogan, that is, a situation not in this film but in tabloids).
Just so, the film crew’s major accomplishment with regard to financing is to secure a couple of days’ worth of service from Gillian Anderson, who arrives in time with much fanfare, to note her costar as he appears in one highly subjective fantasy sequence (his or hers): he’s Tristram in the womb, miniaturized. “I don’t know why I’m so small!” he cries out, as she and a coterie of crewmembers leave him encapsulated, their laughter fading as they leave the frame.
In moments such as these, Tristram Shandy underlines its interest in stories — handed down, retold, made up, undermined, reconfigured — as the means to institute selves. These selves last over time, change from location to location, and come round repeatedly and sometimes comically in intimate relationships. The Brydon- Coogan friendship is the film’s most mesmerizing and unresolved, and yet, also, its most convincing. (Stay for the credits, when they offer up Al Pacino impersonations.) Understanding, denying, and acting on the illusions of their connection, they embody and disarticulate the bonds that make selves seem whole. And seeming is what matters.