Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its characters popping up willy-nilly in one another’s adventures, there existed what might be called the World Cinema Universe. It was there when the MCU was a gleam in an accountant’s eye, and it will be with us long after Tom Holland is using a stairlift rather than climbing the walls, although entry is not restricted to those with superpowers. It is here that you will find characters crossing between separate films, sometimes in the form of a grudge match (Freddy vs Jason, Alien vs Predator, the forthcoming Godzilla vs Kong) or a genre mashup (the various Abbott and Costello Meet … horror-comedies). The same actor (Michael Keaton) might play the same cop in two movies by different directors (Jackie Brown and Out of Sight). Or one film-maker will take characters created decades earlier by a different director and speculate on what became of them, as Manoel de Oliveira did in 2006 with Belle Toujours, his reply to Luis Buñuel’s 1967 Belle de Jour.
The new road movie The Jesus Rolls is not an easy film to like but demonstrates the rich possibilities of this wider cinematic universe. The picture is a remake of Bertrand Blier’s scabrous 1974 black comedy Les Valseuses, in which a pair of hoodlums (including a young Gérard Depardieu) shag and pilfer their way across France, mistreating and discarding women as they go. In the update, the men – played by John Turturro, who also wrote and directed, and Bobby Cannavale – are now in their 50s; a tale of feckless, thuggish youth is now one of gone-to-seed middle age. When Turturro sought permission from Blier for the men to be older, the answer came back: “OK, as long as they’re stupid.”
His wasn’t the only consent required. The film also takes Jesus Quintana, the flamboyant paedophile bowling champ played by Turturro in two scenes of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, and grafts him on to the remake of Blier’s movie. Joel and Ethan Coen gave Turturro their blessing to resurrect Jesus in this form, perhaps cognisant that the version of him in The Big Lebowski was itself influenced by another fictional Latino child molester that the actor had played on stage in 1987: in Reinaldo Povod’s play Nijinsky Choked His Chicken, Turturro had used the high, delicate voice that he later adopted for the Coens’ comedy. “Joel had seen me in Nijinsky and he suggested letting that character bleed into the Jesus,” he said.
Turturro’s picture ties itself in knots trying to explain away Jesus’s conviction for molestation as a misunderstanding: all he really did, in his version of events, was to respond politely to an eight-year-old boy who had commented on his gargantuan penis while standing beside him at a urinal. Viewers who can overlook that unsavoury scene will find a certain curiosity value in seeing one of the Coen Brothers’ most eccentric creations parachuted into Blier’s devil-may-care picaresque, where he is fleshed out while retaining those signature touches that made his brief turn in The Big Lebowski so unforgettable, such as licking his bowling ball lasciviously before sending it whizzing toward the pins.
Crossovers are not always so pronounced. It was Claire Denis’s intention that the French Foreign Legion commander played by Michel Subor in her 1999 film Beau Travail should be the same man Subor had portrayed more than 30 years earlier in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat – though only those viewers who twigged that the characters’ names were the same will have picked up on the connection. Michael Haneke did not specify that one of the psychopaths in tennis whites in 1997’s Funny Games was the same character who had killed a teenage classmate in his earlier film Benny’s Video. Casting the same actor, Arno Frisch, in both parts, however, hinted that the numb adolescent killer had grown into this sadistic adult. Things can get complicated in the Haneke cinematic universe: Jean-Louis Trintignant plays two widowers called Georges, both of whom smother their wives in two consecutive Haneke films, Amour and Happy End, although the connection is muddied by the presence of Isabelle Huppert, who plays Georges’s daughter in both cases but goes by a different name in each one.
That is nothing compared with how Todd Solondz has revisited and regenerated his characters. Life During Wartime, the sequel to his cause celebre Happiness, is populated by actors who are wildly dissimilar physically from the ones who had originated the parts. The role of the sex pest played in Happiness by Philip Seymour Hoffman, for instance, was taken by Michael Kenneth Williams, AKA Omar from The Wire. In Wiener-Dog, Solondz brought back Dawn Wiener, the tormented schoolgirl of his black comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse, despite having shown her funeral in an earlier movie, Palindromes. “I thought it would be nice to give her an alternative existence since I’d killed her off,” he said. “We all have parallel paths in our heads. As a writer, I have the prerogative to bestow different possibilities on my characters.”
A similar philosophy underpinned the Advance Party project, set up by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa with the Scottish production company Sigma Films. Three debut directors were each invited to make a film in Glasgow, drawing on a pool of eight characters played by the same actors across all three projects. The first of this proposed triptych was Andrea Arnold’s gruelling 2006 thriller Red Road. When the second film, Morag McKinnon’s Donkeys, arrived in 2010, it did indeed feature many of the same actors, though, confusingly, this time their characters had different relationships with each other: Jackie (Kate Dickie), the grieving CCTV operator in Arnold’s film, had become the sister of Stevie (Martin Compston), the ne’er-do-well who menaced her at the end of Red Road. (A third film, by the Danish film-maker Mikkel Nørgaard, failed to materialise.)
The return of a favourite character in a new context can often feel like a victory lap. Ralph Brown brought back his beloved drug dealer Danny from Withnail and I in the form of the roadie Del in Wayne’s World 2 – a different name but the same dazed cockney accent, spaced-out demeanour and narcotic war stories. And the ex-NSA operative played by Gene Hackman in Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State is clearly a reprise of the surveillance expert from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. At the end of Coppola’s film, Hackman is sitting in the rubble having demolished his apartment in the hunt for a bugging device; it’s a small step from that to winkling tracking devices out of the soles of Will Smith’s shoes in Scott’s spiritual sequel.
In using footage of Terence Stamp from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow to provide flashbacks to the gangster played by Stamp in The Limey some 30-odd years later, Steven Soderbergh introduced a retroactive link between these otherwise unconnected films, making them appear part of one canvas. But then cinema is in constant conversation with its past, littered with echoes, influences and homages. The critic David Thomson knew as much when he wrote his 1985 novel Suspects, which weaves biographical connections between memorable characters in cinema. The rancid Noah Cross from Chinatown has had a romantic history with Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, while she and Joe Gillis, the screenwriter found floating dead in the pool at the start of the latter film, produced a son who grew up to be Julian Kay from American Gigolo; Norman Bates, Harry Lime and Travis Bickle also feature. The effect is eerie but oddly reassuring, as if all the films we have ever seen are part of the same unspooling narrative.
For his part, Turturro has not ruled out more Jesus adventures. The actor is 63, so he could revisit the character in old age, decanting him next time around into a remake of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Tokyo Story or Cocoon. The possibilities in the World Cinematic Universe are infinite. “Maybe in 20 more years I’ll make another movie about the Jesus,” he said recently. “As we all know, he already came back once.”
The Jesus Rolls is available on demand on 23 March.