Thomas Negovan wondered if his quest to restore and repair the famously mangled, pornified all-star 1979 production of Caligula was pointless and insane. Then the Cannes Film Festival told him they wanted it to debut there, and yesterday history was made. The new cut draws from 90 hours of footage and focuses on the performances of Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud. It's still a deranged, depraved and badly-shot film (unfocused and otherwise incompetent camera and sound work being one of the infamous problems for would-be editors of Caligula) but now it… well, it finally lives up to its original epic pretensions.
Screened for the first time on Wednesday, the 2023 version is billed as Caligula: The Ultimate Cut, and Negovan is keen to point out that, "The thing that's bizarrely unique about it is it's almost like the version that was released in 1979 is the deviant version. Ours is closer to what was originally intended. Even the word restoration … I don't know what word works, but it isn't a restoration. I don't know what to call it." …
There is something moving about Negovan's quest to honour McDowell's performance. There's not much the recut can do about the script and iffy camerawork, which are all part of the charm. But Negovan has unearthed a much clearer sense of a character arc, from Caligula as wary young man genuflecting to the mad emperor Tiberius (Peter O'Toole, on wonderful form), to a joyful freshly minted tyrant, through to the increasing cruelty and disintegration of his reason as he is driven mad by power. Modern audiences, attuned to reality television and the way that an unfavourable edit can create an entirely different version of someone's personality, are well-positioned to be more sensitive to the effect that the "clickbait" choices in the original edit has on the film as a whole.
HBO and the BBC accomplished with Rome what Caligula had set out to do 25 years earlier. In doing so they captured Caligula's mystique and obviated any lingering appeal it had for audiences, but also developed the cinematic vocabulary needed to fix the movie itself.