Coup! (2023)

Coup! has its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

The events of Joseph Schuman and Austin Stark’s Coup! take place in the America, towards the Great War‘s end in 1918, but it could equally, mutatis mutandis, be set today. The obvious point of comparison is the Spanish flu which is working its way across America’s East Coast, spreading panic, mask-wearing, shortages, lockdowns and, at the periphery, deaths. So far, so COVID – but the film is also, as its emphatic title suggests, concerned with an appropriation, or at least an attempted appropriation, of leadership, and that might be thought to resonate with the events of 6th January, 2021. Of course, a century ago,  revolution, inspired by events in Russia, was coming from the Left rather than the Right, and here a proletarian war veteran is seeking to bring down a wealthy patriarch – and if anything it is that patriarch’s ultimately violent bid to cling onto his power and his place in a big not-quite-white house that makes him, rather than his would-be usurper, the more Trumpian figure. There are contemporary symmetries here, but they are complicated, messy – in other words, food for thought, served cold.

A the beginning of Coup!, a heavily bearded man (Peter Sarsgaard) with a war wound (the forefinger missing from his left hand) shaves and alters his appearance to assume the face and name – Floyd Monk – of a dead man lying slumped over a table in the same tenement room, shot in the head with a letter by his side. The impostor Monk makes his way out of New York City by ferry to take up the real Monk’s new position as chef in the opulent Horton estate. Head of the house is J.C. Horton (Billy Magnussen), a pampered heir, a war-dodging ‘conscientious objector’, a strict vegetarian, a professional ‘muckraker’ for a progressive newspaper, and an ambitious political aspirant.


His wife Julie (Sarah Gadon), a talented writer who has married into wealth she otherwise would not have and is now struggling to find a sense of purpose as a kept woman in this gilded cage and loveless marriage, when even her own young children Molly (Willa Dunn) and Tom (Callum Vinson) prefer to be taught and bathed by the maid Ruth Tidwell (Skye P. Marshall). Head housekeeper Catherine McMurray (Kristine Nielsen), a stern, exceedingly loyal Irish battleaxe, runs a tight ship, while the kindly chauffeur Kaan (Faran Tahir) keeps a low profile. All the staff – soon to be joined by the fake Monk – live together in the servants’ quarters, separate from the main house.

Monk comes on a mission of subversion, and sets about his ‘insurrectionist’ plot from the moment he arrives, deviously getting the housekeeper out of the way, co-opting the rest of the staff to rebel against their master, and exposing all J.C.’s worst qualities to everyone. Charming, sly and insidious, Monk is like the domestic infiltrators in Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q (2001), Adam Rehmeier’s Dinner In America (2020) and Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn (2023), proving a sinister, deconstructive influence on his host family, as he tries to displace – and even replace – its head.

Yet Monk is not the only impostor here – for J.C. himself, whose very initials betray his messianic self-image, has made his name as a street-level champion of New York’s poor and downtrodden, even as he pens his reports in a well-appointed mansion far from the Capital where he claims to be, inventing his stories in persuasive purple prose that in fact undermines the livelihoods of the masses he purports to defend. He is a true hypocrite: presenting himself in print as a fellow fighter in the trenches of the common man and the working class, while in fact living apart from his readers in the lap of luxury; and feigning a liberal-minded indulgence towards his own staff while carefully keeping them in their place. Monk may be out to bring him down a peg or two, but the truth is that mendacious, manipulative J.C. makes himself an easy target. 

J.C.’s property, inherited rather than earned, is on the fictitious Egg Island, no doubt named for the (also fictitious) West Egg on Long Island in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925), where similar games of class and duplicity play out. Here the patriarch even shares his first name Jay with Gatsby – and as J.C., Magnussen occasionally channels Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby (2013) when he is not aping Johnny Depp’s writer in freefall from David Koepp’s Secret Window (2004). Meanwhile Sarsgaard seems to have adopted Captain Beefheart as the model for his wildcard, countercultural outsider.

Monk comes from nowhere, and proceeds to outclass J.C. in every respect. For he moves in (eventually banishing J.C. to the servant’s quarters), gets close to the children, reignites a spark (creative and sexual) in Julie, provides for everyone when normal lines of supply are cut off by Influenza, and brings warmth to a house where previously a chill had set in and beds were kept separate. Experienced, capable, adaptable and equitable, Monk is twice the man that J.C. will ever be, and precisely the working-class hero that J.C. pretends to be in his writing. 

Like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), Coup! is a class war satire, where for a fleeting moment the status quo is disrupted and a revolutionary rebalancing of upstairs and downstairs reveals itself. Yet the fantasy cannot last forever – “these lights will snap back on”, as J.C. puts it, “the ferries will run again, the stores will reopen, civilisation will return” – and inevitably the old patriarchal order will violently, viciously reassert itself with newly carnivorous zeal. It is a portrait of an America where, with the years, decades, even a century, rolling by, nothing much has really changed, and where, as Kaan says, “the one law of the land” is that “either you have servants, or you are one.” This principle holds true whether for the early twentieth-century Communist or the early twenty-first-century MAGA-ist, despite the apparent ideological divide between them. For the superrich, however undeservingly, keep acquiring further wealth and power, and keep getting away with everything, even cold-blooded murder, at everyone else’s expense. 

All the while, the nation’s unhappy family goes on, fuelled by an illusory dream – an American dream – of the possibility for something better. Schuman and Stark entertain us with a brief turning of the tables, inverting the social norms and dethroning the unworthy king, before bringing us back full circle (“We’re back”, is the film’s final, hollow line) to the cynical reality of an inherently unjust system. Serving up a topsy-turvy, bittersweet microcosm which both shows America’s ills and prescribes their (short-lived) cure, this film is a coup, alright.

strap: In Joseph Schuman and Austin Stark’s cynical period satire, a manipulative impostor brings class war to a privileged, pandemic-fleeing family

© Anton Bitel