Do not take the title of Sam Esmail's debut feature literally. Though its plot starts nominally with the observation of a meteor shower, "comet" is the favourite word of one of its characters. It serves as well as one of the many inscrutable "open sesames" sprinkled throughout this fragmented hipster romance that shifts, non-linearly, between the various stages of the relationship between Dell (Justin Long) and Kimberly (Emmy Rossum).
Comet starts at the end before rewinding all the way back to the beginning and then jumping all over the place between: Dell is knocking on Kimberly's doors five years after they met, and as she opens the door he remembers their meet cute at a queue to get inside a Hollywood cemetery to watch that meteor shower. And then, as Mr. Esmail jumbles the chronology and juxtaposes different moments of the relationship (a transcontinental phone call with Dell in NYC and Kimberly in L. A.; a Paris trip for a friend's wedding; a train journey where they meet by accident), Comet dissolves into a swirling choreography of gestures, plans, and dialogues that underline the chasm that separates both personalities and the desire they have to make it work as a couple.
"Choreography" is the correct word because the ebb and flow of the film suggest a clearly thought-out process of juxtaposition and contrast, each different time frame called forth through a word, a sentence, an image, a memory that echoes and resonates through the relationship. The key explanation behind the concept lies in one of the conversations that make up the bulk of the tale: the role of time in art. Some arts (music, theatre) are time-based, that is, they start, take place and end during a specific time frame; others, like painting or sculpture, are just there, outside any duration.
With Comet, Mr. Esmail is trying to create a narrative where any moment could be representative of the whole and exist outside the traditional sequence of a motion picture. Anything could be the beginning, the middle and the end, and the constant shifting of planes means you can never be aware of what is memory and what is fact, or even if anything in it is merely an imaginary projection. This is suggested not only by the opening card that invokes "parallel universes" (watch for the twin suns in a few of the plans) but also by a few of the transitions between time periods, like a sudden, unwilling change in channel frequency or the ejecting or connecting a separate hard drive. And then you ask: is this one love story, or five love stories in different universes?
Factor in Daniel Hart's anthemic score and Eric Koretz's often skewed, off-centre camera set-ups and saturated colour schemes, and Comet starts reminding of what could be a modern romantic comedy as disassembled by recluse DIY filmmaker Shane Carruth from a script by a ghost crew of dialogue-heavy mumblecorers like Andrew Bujalski or Lynn Shelton. It's that off the beaten path, and that intriguing - one of the most idiossyncratic and formally unusual offerings from the American independent scene in a long time.
Cast Justin Long, Emmy Rossum
Director and screenwriter Sam Esmail; cinematographer Eric Koretz (colour); composer Daniel Hart; designer Annie Spitz; costumes Mona May; editor Franklin Peterson; producers Chad Hamilton and Lee Clay; production company Fubar Films in association with Anonymous Content
Screened January 31st 2015, Lisbon (DVD screener)