‘Grand Tour’ Review: Miguel Gomes’ Sprawling Travelogue Traverses Space and Time

How much can we expect cinema to be fully legible? If history, culture, and existence itself are not so easily parsed, why should the films we make about them be? Is navigating this chaotic life not defined by the both wondrous and wearisome waves of the world crashing over us?

If there was ever a film to capture this, it would be the spellbinding though scattered “Grand Tour” from director Miguel Gomes. His latest is an expansive, sweeping work that bends time, space, genre,and form. It is a wholly uncompromising experience that dances with mirth and melancholy. Proving to be evocative in one moment and unrelentingly exhausting in the next, it’s as gorgeous to behold visually as it is hard to completely embrace thematically. And yet, if you abandon yourself to it by the end as one character says, you can catch glimpses of something spectacularly sublime in the vast journey that it takes on.

Premiering in competition at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, the story from Gomes and co-writers Mariana Ricardo, Telmo Churro, and Maureen Fazendeiro almost itself becomes incidental. Though Gomes directed much of the film remotely while it was shot during the height of the COVID pandemic, this is not a thoughtful musing on that specific crisis as much as it is a frequently impenetrable exploration of time, place, and two people who also don’t particularly matter.

The first is Edward (Gonçalo Waddington) who has left behind the second, his longtime fiancée Molly (Crista Alfaiate), to set off across the world. The buffoonish British diplomat seems driven by the need to never stop moving, despite the many telegraphs that his fiancée keeps sending him urging him to do so. He will journey to Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon, Manila, Osaka, Shanghai, and more, with narration playing out over all of it until you start to think you’ve got a read on the whole thing. Then a midpoint curveball changes the game, although the shift too remains largely unimportant as it plays as a chilling note of life’s futility.

All of this is what the film is about in a broad sense, but such a strictly linear description of the progression is wildly insufficient to fully capture the many things that Gomes is going for here. Everything feels gargantuan in a rather unwieldy sense, as if these two characters are but mere pawns in a game neither fully understands. The shifting from black-and-white to color, as well as more modern footage to the film’s recreations of the early 1900s, serves this well, embodying just how much there is going on all at once at all times. While one hesitates to call it a satire, this approach feels like it is lightly skewering the superficial romantic story at the core of the film and the long history of cinema that uses various countries as nothing more than a backdrop. Despite the film gesturing towards a reunion between the duo, nothing ends up being so simple.

What tenuously ties the two characters together are the telegrams and the places they each go, though the experiences they have as they do so could not be more different. Edward seems almost perpetually somber whereas Molly embraces silliness, giving the most unique laugh you’ll ever see in a film. There is so much anarchic absurdity to life and the film, that such laughter seems like the right response.

However, just as one character is running away and another is running towards, the film is stronger when we shift to the second half with Molly. The juxtaposition of her experience with Edward’s makes everything feel more pointed and poetic. There is still much that remains abstract, as Gomes remains uninterested in making anything particularly explicit, but that is all by design. Despite our desire to make sense of what can be an impenetrable existence, the onward march of time cares little about what it is that we want from our lives. There is similarly a good chance many will desire more to hold this film together, as much remains frustratingly scattered in Edward’s portion of the film, but it still builds to an absolute showstopper of a finale.

Midway through the film, when Molly goes to get her future read by a psychic, she grows angry at what she is told. Only later do we realize this may be one of the few moments of clarity she actually gets in her life. It’s an audacious conclusion in a film that, while never lacking for boldness, benefits greatly from this final flourish. That it remains beguiling, both for the characters and the audience, feels baked into the experience. We may spend a lifetime grasping for something, only to find it always out of reach. Even if you look to the sky and see the bigger picture, it may be too late.

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