The recently unearthed 1970 political satire The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer concludes with one of the signatures of boundary-pushing ’60s and ’70s cinema: the freeze-frame of the protagonist with an enigmatic half-smile that says nothing, but hints at much. It’s a cryptic look that challenges the audience to guess what, if anything, lies behind the Cheshire-cat grin. In The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer, it isn’t just that look from protagonist Peter Cook that defies comprehension—it’s his entire being. He’s an enigma whose motivations and aspirations remain just as mysterious at the film’s close as they were at its beginning. Cook’s brutally unsentimental performance never asks for our sympathy or empathy; the equally chilly film follows suit. Its brainy hipsters couldn’t care less whether we like their film, or anything else, for that matter.
Cook, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Kevin Billington and John Cleese and Graham Chapman (both Pythons have supporting roles), stars as a man with a genius for inspiring confidence in others, though it’s untethered to any actual accomplishments or competency. Cook is simply a sharp-looking, confident-seeming man in a suit who looks like he knows what he’s doing. He’s an empty vessel on which others can project their hopes and fears, so there’s no limit to his potential. Cook soon ascends to the highest corridors of power with the help of Denholm Elliott, his former enemy turned right-hand man.
Billington lends the film an almost Kubrickian sense of ironic detachment. The film dares us to call its bluff, emperor’s-new-clothes-style, to concede that there’s nothing of substance beneath the too-cool-for-school swinging-’60s cynicism, hip score, icily impressive production design, alternately broad and deadpan performances, and sly satirical digs at the sum of British society. Yet in the eminently capable hands of Cook, Chapman, Cleese, and Billington, The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer gets far on attitude and cleverness alone. In spite of the talent involved, the film stands as no lost masterpiece, but rather as a sly minor satire that indelibly captures something about the sneering, smartass spirit of the glorious cultural era that created it.
Key features: None.