A star-crossed romance that often feels cosmic and intimate within the span of a single scene, “Comet” rhymes images from five different eras of a relationship that begins during a meteor shower and may or may not end more than half a decade later. It carves out a space for itself between the drawn-out conversations of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, the jumps between a turbulent couple’s honeymoon period and their eventual decline in “Blue Valentine,” and the whimsical dream logic of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” And it’s as appealingly strange, funny, and melancholy as those components suggest.
Dell (Justin Long) and Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) first meet at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles for a celestial viewing party. Long before they’ve shared their first kiss, we’re transported to a later, less blissful point in their union. Feelings have evolved, the dynamic has shifted. It’s like watching a flower wilt before it’s even begun to blossom. This nonlinear conceit is jarring yet seamless; the temporal leaps make visceral sense even and especially when first-time writer/director Sam Esmail takes his time revealing their exact narrative significance. One scene bleeds into the next with an affecting blend of tumult and grace, emphasizing that these two are bound together even at their lowest points.
Told mainly from Dell’s perspective, the assured debut deals in wish-fulfillment and denial in equal measure. Dell is a pessimistic intellectual whose sardonic wit disarms Kimberly over the course of their first night together and eventually contributes to their unraveling — the same qualities that draw them together are later responsible for tearing them apart. Long and Rossum have visible chemistry together, the moonlight in their eyes making it seem as though their story may actually have been written in the stars. Their back-and-forth can’t help feeling precious at times, but even this could be forgiven as a necessary evil when charting the best and worst moments of an on-and-off love affair.
The two are also self-reflexive at times, with one conversation hinging on the temporal aspects of film, theater, and music. Kimberly finds time in general and durational art in particular deeply dissatisfying, preferring the all-at-once experience of a medium like painting. Just as she wants life to be free of time’s overarching influence, Esmail seeks to unstick “Comet” from it — to show Dell and Kimberly’s beginning, middle, and end not sequentially but all at once. Though he’s hardly the first to take such an approach, the poetic care and quiet playfulness he’s put into crafting the movie is striking. Esmail places a seemingly small story on a large canvas, pairing arresting visuals with Daniel Hart’s lush score to create the most sensorily accomplished romance in recent memory.
Dell’s ruminations on the overlapping nature of dreams and memories — not to mention his eventual inability to distinguish one from the other — are key to making emotional sense of all this. At certain points, he’s unsure if he even wants to know the difference between the two — what if the dream is better than the truth? (Well-read and not afraid of showing it off, you half expect him to come out and quote the end of Caliban’s wrenching monologue from The Tempest: “…when I waked / I cried to dream again.”) “Comet” unfolds with the vivid haziness of such a dream, its every rich detail tinged with bittersweetness.
By its end, the movie bests “Upstream Color” with many of the same qualities: It’s heady and thought-out but with a clearly defined emotional center that doesn’t leave the viewer cold. There’s an actual pulse and beating heart to “Comet”; it feels vibrant, alive. All of this made it the first world premiere at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival to register as an event unto itself, not only in terms of the theater full of people who showed up to see it but the hushed-yet-excited atmosphere it created among them — the kind of experience that extends beyond the screen.