I hope you'll bear with me if I feel the need to declare this a first draft review of Todd Haynes's I'm Not There. What the film needs, I think, is plenty of time to digest, and a second viewing; I haven't had the first and I'm not going to have the second, in all likelihood, until the DVD release. So let's just acknowledge that I have an incomplete appreciation on the film, and this review is just a collection of dubiously cogent first impressions. I will revisit it, I promise.

It has been long been said about Haynes that his films are intellectual exercises disguised as movies, which is not a view I've ever been particularly sympathetic to; until now. There's a wall around I'm Not There, a constant distancing from the audience behind which Haynes's script, co-written by Oren Moverman, presents its arguments with the imagination of a thesis paper.

To put it another way, I think that the concept of the film effectively contains the meaning of the film: six actors playing Bob Dylan in various stages of his life, to represent the many ways in which he redefined his public persona without ever revealing who he was inside - "I'm not there" in other words. So we have Woody Guthrie (11-year-old African-American actor Marcus Carl Franklin), or Dylan in his early period struggling to define his identity as complementary to, but separate from, the corpus of American folk music; Jack Rollins (Welshman Christian Bale), Dylan as a folk soothsayer, and later the religious Dylan of the mid-to-late '70s; Robbie (Aussie Heath Ledger), an actor who once played Jack Rollins, the familial Dylan whose strained marriage to Sara Lownds (here Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) ended in divorce and Blood on the Tracks; Jude Quinn (Aussie woman Cate Blanchett), the electric superstar Dylan we best remember today, the subject of the essential D.A. Pennebaker documentary Dont Look Back; and then the two figures who don't really represent any specific Dylan at all, Arthur Rimbaud (Brit Ben Whishaw), representing the cynical and pragmatic man who knew his entire career was performance art, and Billy (Richard Gere), the American outlaw, the Dylan who just wanted to hide away in some remote corner and be left to his own devices.

There. You know the theme of the movie now.

The pleasure in watching I'm Not There unfold - for it is pleasurable, although exceedingly hard - is not typical; it is the pleasure of watching a riddle built in front of your eyes and around you. Literally, in a sense: the film is bookended by a fictional Missouri town called Riddle, where Woody starts the film and Billy ends it. The riddle in question is the true identity of an individual whose existence has been dedicated to creating and shedding false identities. The six characters (seven, if we divide Bale's role into two) each have their own narrative through-line, and even their own genre (Jack is shown in a "Behind the Music" style documentary, Robbie in a Cassavetes-tinged chamber drama, and so forth), and it's not at all accurate to say that the six actors are playing the same role. Instead, they are playing individuals whose stories contradict and overlap each other, sometimes ironically commenting on each other, to generally follow the course of Dylan's life from 1961 until 1977 or thereabouts. The riddle is for the audience to bring all of these separate strands into one figure.

Unfortunately, it's this last step that Haynes basically punts on. The film's "plot" - the order of the scenes, not the overarching narrative, for there is not such a thing - is diabolical, but we're given the answer key almost from the word "go," in the gravelly and metaphorical and weirdly expository narration by Kris Kristofferson, Dylan's costar in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It's the cinematic equivalent of being given the solution to a complex mathematical problem; yes, you can certainly do all the work for yourself, but dammit, the answer is right there! This is what leads to the feeling that the film is ultimately an intellectual exercise instead of a cinematic work, and to our alienation from the figures in the movie particularly in Franklin and Bale's sequences.

Still, the act of watching the film build is more than occasionally thrilling, particularly in the moments where Haynes actually shuts up and lets us figure things out on our own. For example, there is the apparently common question of what the hell Gere's sequence has to do with the rest of the film. To me, it seems obvious that Billy represents the connection between the other five Dylans; he is the embodiment of the artist's dream to live in peace, and his appearances all seem to occur when one of the characters reflects upon his own unhappiness. Indeed, I found the straightforward symbolism of the Billy scenes to be a nice respite from the melange of pseudo-factual confusion present everywhere else. But that is just about my only observation that Haynes didn't tell me to make, and it's positively frustrating how obviously he has preordained our responses.

Leaving the filmmaking per se; which is unsurprisingly excellent, given Haynes's track record. The most obvious thing to talk about is the acting, and frankly one could focus on nothing but the acting and still come away satisfied. First, what you've heard is correct: Cate Blanchett is amazing and then some, absolutely disappearing into the role so deeply that I honestly forgot she was a woman. Hers is the most straightforward Dylan impersonation in the film, by design (and by the same design, Jude was always meant to be played by an actress; this begins to slip into that overly-intellectual thing that I was just complaining about), and it is a uniquely perfect impersonation that is still unmistakable a performance - she is playing a version of Bob Dylan and this movie character "Jude Quinn," and doing both of them flawlessly.

It's not really fair to rank the other five performers, given that Blanchett has been given the most-playable role (Whishaw the least), but they do have flaws in varying degrees; my least favorite being Bale, as much as that hurts to say, who is a little too invested in his accent and not enough in his character. The real standouts are the supporting cast, notably Gainsbourg (who completely outshines Ledger) and surprisingly, Michelle Williams as the Edie Sedgwick character, Coco Rivington (crapping all over Sienna Miller's Factory Girl performance, though not nearly as much as all six headliners crap all over Hayden Christensen's Dylan). The only clinkers are both disappointments: Julianne Moore, as Joan Baez surrogate Alice Fabian, is very pleasant and mannered and not remotely as earthy as the real woman, and David Cross is nothing other than a distraction as Allen Ginsberg. Yes, that one.

The look of the film, meanwhile, is a delight. Each of the six sequences is designed to look differently: Bale's, Ledger's and particularly Blanchett's meant to evoke the reigning style of their time period, which in the last case means shots cribbed directly from Fellini and Godard, and a general Richard Lester sensibility. Franklin's sequence is an over-saturated study of the South, Gere's is a straight-up Peckinpah western, and Whishaw's is almost painfully high-contrast black-and-white, befitting the only character in the movie who's not trying to hide. We are not surprised that this is all done very well, or at least we shouldn't be; Ed Lachman, the cinematographer, last worked with Haynes on Far from Heaven, where they recreated the color cinema of the 1950s with freakish accuracy.

Individually, most moments in the film work, although one scene leaps out as unusually dreadful: a painful literalisation of "Ballad of a Thin Man" in Blanchett's sequence that stands out as the worst example of the film's tendency towards needless explanation. Otherwise, it ranges from more than competent to transcendent, taken in bite-sized chunks. Taken as a whole film, there's that one overriding flaw, though: this isn't a movie, it's a series of thematic propositions, and it's at once impossibly confusing and annoyingly obvious.

The other...I'm not sure if this is a flaw...but the film, fixated as it is on Dylan the man, mostly ignores Dylan's art. Plenty of songs are used, including the rare title track (making its first sanctioned appearance on disc via the film's soundtrack!), but they play on familiarity. This film absolutely requires that the viewer come in with a working knowledge of Dylan, the more the better, and probably even a predisposition to loving his music. What it does not do, not for one moment, is argue in favor of his aesthetic quality. And if there is any musical figure of the 20 century that you can get away with that, Bob Dylan is the one, but it still seems like a significant hole in the film.