Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

criterion logoTristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is Michael Winterbottom’s unorthodox adaptation of the unfilmable English literary masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, written by Laurence Sterne.  Staying true to the manic spirit of the book, the film flips back and forth between the 18th century story and the hapless efforts of the 21st century filmmakers attempting to shoot the classic.  Tristram Shandy (Steve Coogan) narrates the filmed story of his life from conception onward, with numerous digressions and unfinished thoughts, while actor Steve Coogan serves his professional ego behind the scenes against the increasing prominence of his co-star, Rob Brydon.  Crammed with literary jokes and dark humor, and aided by stellar performances by Jeremy Northam, Stephen Fry, and Gillian Anderson, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a clever, postmodern take on the construction of a film from an intricate, hilariously autobiographical novel.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 2K digital film transfer, supervised by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind and approved by director Michael Winterbottom, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • A Womb with a View, a new interview with director Michael Winterbottom and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon
  • Audio commentary with Coogan and Brydon
  • Helen Weinstein conversation with Winterbottom and producer Andrew Eaton for Historyworks
  • Extended interview with Steve Coogan conducted by journalist Tony Wilson
  • Deleted and extended scenes
  • Behind-the-scenes footage
  • Premiere footage
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Mark Kermode and cartoonist Martin Rowson

Highly popular during the release of its 9 volumes from 1759 to 1767, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is the comically unsuccessful autobiography of the fictional Tristram Shandy.  As described in the filmic adaptation by Patrick, the curator of Sterne’s home-turned-museum played by Stephen Fry:

The theme of Tristram Shandy is a very simply one.  Life is chaotic.  It’s amorphous.  No matter how hard you try, you can’t make it fit any shape.  Tristram himself is trying to write his life story, but it escapes him because life is too full, too rich, to be able to be captured by art.  And his father Walter tries to plan every aspect of Tristram’s birth, conception, childhood, and so on, and his plans all go wrong.  Walter puts it this way, “Did any man ever receive so many lashes?”  Walter is indeed the most unfortunate of men.  His life could be celebrated, but so too could all of ours.

The first quarter of director Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, depicts Tristram Shandy’s floundering, fourth wall-breaking efforts to recount the circumstances of his birth (that is, after an initial debate between actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan over the colour of Brydon’s teeth and the status of Brydon’s role in the film).  Tristram (Steve Coogan) attempts to convey the adversity of his life from birth (actually, from conception) onwards, but becomes caught in all manner of asides, digressions, and diversions.  His deviations take him to the previous false pregnancy of his mother Elizabeth (Keeley Hawes) that results in his being a home birth, his Uncle Toby (Rob Brydon) and the serious groin injury he experienced at the Siege of Namur, the complicating association created by his father Walter (Steve Coogan, again) between love-making with Elizabeth and the winding of the household’s clocks, the confused efforts of Walter’s servant Obadiah (Paul Kynman) to fetch one Dr. Slop (Dylan Moran) to attend to the birth, the marring of Tristram’s nose by the forceps of Dr. Slop, and the error in Tristram’s naming due to the forgetfulness of Elizabeth’s maid Susannah (Shirley Henderson).  Chaotic and amorphous indeed.

The brilliance of Winterbottom’s adaptation is that it abandons the filmic reality of the novel and instead refocuses on the behind-the-scenes production of the film (roughly a 24 hour period mid-way through shooting), choosing to represent (even mirror) the novel’s struggle to narrativize a life by depicting the film production’s struggles to adapt an already unsuccessful autobiography.  Coogan (ably played by, again, Steve Coogan – triple-threat!), the film’s director Mark (Jeremy Northam), its screenwriter Joe (Ian Hart), and producer Simon (James Fleet) debate what to include to give the story meaning and make the movie commercially successful, while laden by the source material’s own problematic structure.  Their solution is resolutely Sternian – insert the Widow Wadman subplot from the novel back into the script, casting a bankable star (Gillian Anderson playing Gillian Anderson) to elevate the film, and reshoot an elaborate battle scene to avoid perceived problems with its production value.  At the same time, all manner of dilemmas and distractions intervene into the closed world of the production, which includes:

  • Steve’s girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Macdonald) arriving with their infant child and her polite expectations for some quality time;
  • Steve’s agent arranging an impromptu interview with a sleazy tabloid writer (Kieran O’Brien) to avoid a tell-all article on Coogan’s dalliance with a stripper;
  • Steve’s co-star Rob Brydon (coincidentally played by Rob Brydon) needling Coogan about his expanding role and fretting over having to act with Anderson, a figure of awe and sexual attraction for him;
  • Steve’s obsessive power play over his character’s footwear and the need to be taller than Rob, much to the chagrin of the film’s costumer;
  • Steve’s occasional attraction (and situational snog) with Jennie (Naomie Harris), the film’s movie-snob production assistant; and
  • A gigantic womb with a transparent window on the front that Steve is scheduled to perform within (naked, while buckets of water are thrown at him).

All of this takes us farther away from Sterne’s book, but closer to its ethic.  And by the time A Cock and Bull Story ends with cast and crew watching the final cut, it’s unclear what the final product resembles.  Anderson complains about not being in the film (despite 2 weeks of shooting) and the financiers ask where the battle scene went (Answer: it wasn’t funny).  When Coogan thanks Macdonald for working with him, is that a joke to send her off to wait outside while the film is discussed by the stars and production team, or is he actually suggesting that their relationship was a fictional event represented in the film they just watched?  Winterbottom’s film concludes with great uncertainty, but it is the unwieldiness of life that is the movie’s point.  And so, with Sternian absurdity, the depth of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is found in its thinness.

Of course, there’s more to the Sternian and the Shandean than a disruptive narrative.  The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is also typified by its self-conscious tone, various non-verbal features and graphic elements, genre-experimentation, and intertextuality.  A Cock and Bull Story embraces these aspects of Sterne’s writing in spirit while avoiding any pretense of fidelity after the initial 20-minutes or so.  The film mixes genres, blending realism/naturalism, mockumentary, heritage film, surrealism (love that dream sequence!), historical epic, and “movies-about-movies” into a cinematic in-joke.  This interplay becomes more explicit through its appropriation of other film scores, particularly Nino Rota’s music for (Federico Fellini, 1963), another film about complicated filmmaking, as well as others like Michael Nyman’s score for The Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway, 1982) and Erik Nordgren’s music for Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955).  And in much of the same way that Sterne references his own life and experiences through his characters, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story very much relies on the star persona of Steve Coogan for its conflicts, referencing Coogan’s reliance on his Alan Partridge character, his slow breakthrough into feature films and Hollywood, and his tense relationship with the press, partly derived from his own infidelities and scandals.  While these techniques are often cited as postmodern (a kind of self-aware homage that in Sterne’s day was simply called plagiarism), Winterbottom’s film still manages to root his meta-narrative adaptation in the strong humanism of the novel.  Sterne had fondness for his characters, and so does the film, even when it’s self-conscious and overtly manipulative.  When Coogan talks about the need to show Walter with his infant son so as to humanize him in the eyes of the audience and is then immediately depicted alone with his own child changing a dirty diaper, the scene obviously winks at itself but nevertheless does offer sympathy for Coogan as a complex character.

Speaking of Coogan, and before wrapping this post up, we should take some time to address our favourite scene (and widely accepted as the film’s funniest moment) – the “hot chestnut” sequence.  A Cock and Bull Story engages in yet another brief aside to review Coogan’s efforts to represent Sterne’s description of a character’s gradual discomfort from a hot chestnut that falls down his pants.  Coogan rehearses the situation in preparation of a meeting with film’s financiers.  He plays it slow and understated at first, then exaggeratedly pogoes around in comical distress.  He then seeks to access the reality of the predicament by having a colleague drop an actual hot chestnut down his shorts, resulting in Coogan crumpling in immediate agony and pleading for his friend to fish the offending nut from out of his groin.  It is by far the broadest joke in Winterbottom’s film and is hilarious, but this oh-so basic joke rests in that Sternian nexus discussed above.  The effort is undercut, as while Coogan wins over the financiers, he discovers that it is not an experience of any of the characters he plays, revealing Coogan’s lack of familiarity with the source material and his own vapidity.  It manages to hoist both naturalism and absurdity up on their own petard, undercutting each with the hilariously visceral experience of Coogan’s pain.  The sequence is inspired by Coogan’s actual presentation of the scene to the film’s real financiers (resulting in the film’s actual financing), but it is entirely acted for the movie (including Coogan’s reaction to the supposed “hot chestnut”).  Ultimately, the scene is a distraction, offering little in narrative advancement and providing yet another amusing dead-end.  As Coogan and Brydon discuss in their commentary regarding the film in general, one can see in this tidy, throw-away joke the levels hiding beneath the surface of the film that cover the arguable hollowness still farther below.

Anne Benjamin Pride and PrejudiceTristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story may be an unlikely candidate to access to a wacky “C” given that it is an HBO product, but we can dream.  The film could use a Blu-ray treatment to improve upon a merely adequate transfer on the current DVD.  Winterbottom’s films with Coogan (and Brydon) are among his best, and would be great additions to the Collection’s body of comedies that is in need of some contemporary variety from the indie American films that make up its post-millenial titles.  A Cock and Bull Story is a witty perspective on the cinema itself, something that any Criterion Collection cinephile should appreciate.  We’d like to see artist Anne Benjamin produce a cover treatment for a Criterion edition of Winterbottom’s film.  Her Pride and Prejudice print for the “Required Reading” exhibit at Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles reveals her comic knack for British period costume and ensembles, while her Annie Hall poster offers a more poignantly urban and contemporary view.  Between these two works is a wonderful cover design perfectly suited for the flighty experience of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.  We can’t help but imagine a cover treatment that focuses on Coogan suspended upside-down and naked within his “womb with a view.”

Anne Benjamin Annie HallCredits:  The cover summary is adapted from the very similar synopses provided on the North American and UK DVD editions.  The majority of the special features are taken from these DVDs.  Coogan and Brydon’s commentary is particularly enjoyable, wavering between the pair discussing the film (apparently sincerely) and the pair seemingly playing differing version of themselves from the ones portrayed in the film.  We’ve added the new interview to offer a perspective on the film with a decade’s distance from its production.  We’ve also tapped British film critic Mark Kermode to provide an essay.  Kermode was a fan of the film, is somewhat ambivalent to Winterbottom’s corpus of work overall (assessing the filmmaker as usually swinging starkly between brilliant and awful), and is always entertaining in his views and expressions.  British author and cartoonist Martin Rowson was chosen to also supply a booklet essay having himself adapted Sterne’s book into a graphic novel in 1997.

For those looking for a strongly theoretical consideration of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, let us recommend Kuo-jung Chen’s “A Cock-and-Bull Story? A Study of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Michael Winterbottom’s Film Adaptation,” Travis Prothro’s thesis “To the Boundary of the Zero: Postmodernism as Whimsical Tragedy in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and 24 Hour Party People,” and Adria Young’s thesis “Adapting Tristram Shandy.”

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2 thoughts on “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)

  1. Silver Screenings June 27, 2015 / 5:49 pm

    This sounds like a most unusual film, but the clips you’ve posted are compelling. I love that it seems to break all the rules.

    Thanks for posting this review. I never would have heard of this film otherwise.

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