George Miller’s long-awaited sequel to Mad Max: Fury Road is a story about stories, a kind of meta-history, one that asks us to question the very role of stories in society. Centered on Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a student and teacher of narratology (real word), and her discovery of a wish-granting Djinn (Idris Elba) yearning for her own freedom, Three thousand years of nostalgia unfolds a series of interlocking stories to tell its story.
The short explanation is that the Djinn informs the narratologist that the Djinns love stories, that magical beings need them like air, they trade them like currency. And so, as he tries to convince Alithea to make the required number of wishes to free him, he uses tales to explain to the woman how he came into her possession, working his way through the centuries to what he popped up in his hotel room – notably the very one occupied by Agatha Christie as she wrote Murder on the Orient Expressone of the most important meta-narratives of our time.
His journey through time is that of desire. A desire for love, yes, but also for understanding, for camaraderie, for freedom. Alithea is wise enough to know that there are few tales of wish-fulfillment that don’t end with someone getting their reward. But does self-awareness negate the cautious aspect of all these narratives? If you know a wish will end tragically, can you avoid the tragedy? Has postmodernism completely freed the genie from its lamp and let those who wield it chart their own course through the world?
Maybe; maybe not. Again, it’s a story of stories, a horror movie’s kissing cousin about movies. But hey, I’ve always been a sucker for such stories and movies because deep down what am I doing here if not trying to discern why and how a story exerts a power, how it transcends words on a page and images on a screen into something bigger and more resonant – or why it fails to do so.
As such, here is what I will say: the power of Three thousand years of nostalgia firmly depends on your ability to subsume yourself at its level, at its vibrations. Can you surrender to a story that leaps from the Song of Songs – replete with mythical creatures and instruments – to the Large Hadron Collider’s unraveling of the mysteries of the universe in an effort to draw similarities between the Pride and Desire of Individuals Through the Millennia? Will the horns of a minotaur or the suggestion of sentient electromagnetic waves make you chuckle to the same extent?
If so, this might not be the movie for you.
But Three thousand years of nostalgia works, I think, because it examines a very fundamental premise, the idea that “we only exist if we are real to others”, as the Djinn puts it. Man is not a solitary creature; A hundred years of loneliness and three thousand years of nostalgia aren’t that different, really, especially in the hands of a follower of magical realism. Only by understanding each other – by meet in the stories of others – that we ourselves can be whole. Miller draws visual parallels between Alithea and the women in the stories the Djinn tells: she swallows her desire like Sheba before her; she reads the manuscripts with her fingers skimming the page like Zefir, a wife whose genius is ignored by the world.
The film relies on the performances of Swinton and Elba, given that we spend much of our time with them, largely cooped up in a hotel room together. (This is an epic that spans centuries and yet, oddly enough, reflects a very specific, very limited time of COVID-related filming restrictions.) These are tricky performances: Elba is weary of the world better than anyone, while Swinton hides an innate sadness just beneath a brash exterior. There have been whispers about the racial dynamics at play here; all I’ll say is that I’d pay cash to see a white reviewer use the term “magic nigger” in a one-on-one conversation with Elba.
I would be slightly surprised if Three thousand years of nostalgia finds a large audience upon initial release; it feels like the kind of movie that needs time to breathe and grow. But I, in turn, feel like it’s a knockout, a story that will join the pantheon of stories about stories in due course.