Monday, 4 May 2015

She's Lost Control Again

As the UK general election campaign wends its weary way to the inevitable, squalid conclusion of a hung parliament, I have been diverted by two recent foreign films that seem to capture the global sense of defeat and frustration that mark our age. Despite that less than cheerful recommendation, both are a hoot. While Avengers: Age of Ultron objectifies our terror of technology and disappointment with the neoliberal state (aka Tony Stark), Force Majeure and Wild Tales focus on matters closer to home: bourgeois hypocrisy and the joys of revenge. The first takes a Lockean view of the world, in which property relations substitute for emotional engagement, while the latter is relentlessly Hobbesian, homo homini lupus est, but at least carries a small torch for honesty.

Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure is all about systems of control, from the nuclear family engaged in emotional blackmail to the manipulation of the natural world. It is set in an Alpine resort that might as easily be on Hoth as on Earth, where sinister-looking technology is used to create controlled avalanches. The Alpine retreat has served as a stagey microcosm of bourgeois society from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain onwards, but it also stands as a rather laboured metaphor for emotional frigidity and social isolation (even in that modern classic, Dumb and Dumber). The film is a series of vignettes of control mediated by property: the snowploughs at night, the clanking ski-lifts, even a remote-controlled toy drone. The recurrent bathroom rituals are exercises in self-control centred on electric tootbrushes, while the social gatherings, all superficial bonhomie and good taste in wine, are struggles for control of the narrative.

The film quickly sets the scene and then introduces the moment of crisis: a family of smug Swedes on a restaurant terrace take fright at an approaching mini-avalanche. Tomas, the father, reveals his true colours by grabbing his smartphone and fleeing, leaving Ebba, the mother, to protect their son and daughter under the table. The event is trivial - just a shower of powdered snow that passes in a couple of minutes - but the long aftermath proves corrosive as Tomas seeks to excuse his behaviour as Ebba's misunderstanding in the confusion of the moment. This is a power struggle, not just between husband and wife, but between the husband's self-image (hard-working provider and protector) and his true nature. His negotiations and evasions are finally undermined by the video-footage on his own smartphone.

Tomas is a middle-class professional for whom masculinity is about charming manipulation, from the passive-aggressive treatment of his wife to his ability to turn on the man-tears. He doesn't get angry so much as peeved. When he is manipulated - a scene in which a girl mistakenly passes on a compliment and then admits her error is both excrutiating and hilarious - he is shown to be cluelessly vulnerable. This is an ancient trope in which traditional, manly virtues (loyalty, self-sacrifice, self-possession) have been undermined by soft living. The Alpine setting offers a stock contrast: the natural sublime against the man-made, civilisation wilting in the face of the wild, the need to prove oneself in a hostile environment (Ken Russell's Women in Love, with Oliver Reed expiring melodramatically in the snow, came to mind).

Much of the fun of the film comes from Ostlund ridiculing this trope in a carefully curated and commercialised corner of the Alps. In the depths of his self-pity, Tomas is overwhelmed by a boisterous stag party reduced to testosterone howling. The hotel is reminiscent of an ocean liner: a Titanic trapped in a sea of ice, with the servant class occasionally intruding to the frustration of Tomas and Ebba who try to conduct their rows in the corridor outside their room to spare the kids. The music hints at dread and foreboding, which makes the actual disaster - the loss of face by a middle-aged solipsist - all the more amusing. To make sure we get the point, Ostlund repeats the bathos with Tomas's mate Mats, a middle-aged man-child who thinks that possession of a hipster beard and a young girlfriend is enough to convince the world of his worth.

Tomas finally recovers his self-esteem when he saves Ebba on the last day of their holiday, though it looks like a setup on her part: she goes missing in the mist, calls for help and is carried back in his arms, without skies and without any visible injury. I found myself thinking of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, in which the "ambisexual" inhabitants of a snow-covered planet oscillate between their two genders. Ebba has previously flirted with the idea of having an affair, perhaps more as an act of autonomy than revenge, but decides to save her marriage instead, if only for the kids (the emotional blackmail never ends). Tomas's indulgence of her fear in the poorly-driven coach that takes them away from the resort re-establishes their middle-class bond - safety first, don't take chances - but also allows them to share in their defeat. His decision to smoke a cigarette, as they walk down the mountain having abandoned the bus, suggests a loosening of their hitherto tight control. Whether this points to a more relaxed and honest relationship, or just another form of self-indulgence, is left open.

Damian Szifron's Wild Tales is a portmanteau of revenge and surrender set in Argentina. It opens with a plane crash, engineered by an absent member of the cabin crew who has arranged for almost everyone who ever did him harm to be on the flight. The punchline is that the plane is hurtling towards his parents' house as they sit by their pool. We then move to a mini-epic of road rage, pitting a middle-class executive in an Audi against a working-class truck driver, that quickly spirals into mutually-assured destruction. In the third tale, a young woman is tempted to take revenge by poisoning her family's tormentor in the restaurant where she works, but when she balks, as she realises the act will harm the innocent as well, her workmate takes over and dispatches the tormentor with a knife. The fourth tale is the most overtly political, as a demolition expert takes revenge on the parasitical state, represented by a ruthless car-pound, after his car has been towed and he has had to pay through the nose, triggering a sequence in which he loses his job and marriage. He puts explosives in his car, let's them tow it again, and watches in satisfaction as the pound is blown up.

The penultimate tale sees a rich family bribe a servant to take the rap for their son's hit-and-run killing of a pregnant woman. The price escalates, as first the family lawyer and the investigating prosecutor demand their cut and then the servant ups his fee, tempting the father to cancel the arrangement and let his son face the music. In the end, after his wife's pleas and his own affronted haggling, the contract is sealed, but as the servant is led away in cuffs, the husband of the victim appears bent on deadly revenge. The final tale is of a wedding reception during which the bride suddenly realises that her husband is having an affair with one of the guests. She flees to a rooftop terrace where she screws one of the hotel staff and is found in the act by her husband. She says she will do as she pleases in future and threatens to financially ruin him if he tries to divorce her. Returning to the party, she semi-accidentally hurls the other woman into a mirror. Amid the mayhem, and fortified by the wedding cake, the husband and wife decide that the arrangement is not so bad after all and start to make love on a table as the guests depart (a Bunuelian touch).

There are parallels with Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, not just in the dynamic of the plane crash episode, but in the later plot significance of hit-and-run killings, poisoning and miscarriages of justice. But while Christie was concerned with moral failings and the inescapability of guilt in a world built on property (inheritance figures prominently as a motive), Szifron is more concerned with the social contagion of anger and the inadequacy of money as a social currency (cakes come out far better). The tales themselves are ancient, which means amusing nods to the canon. For example, the road rage incident echoes modern existential films such as Duel and The Hitcher but thereby harks back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For all their gritty realism, these are also fairy-tales, most obviously the story of "Dynamite" who may end up in prison but is feted as a popular hero (no one was injured in the explosion and the towing company's corruption has been revealed) before being reconciled with his wife and kids.

The last tale, with its antagonistic but ultimately pragmatic couple, could have been entitled All's Well That Ends Well, a postscript that might even be applied to Force Majeure. Some critics of Wild Tales saw this as a cop-out, but I think it shows a humane understanding of the need to live in the world. Similarly, Tomas and Ebba may be shallow and self-obsessed, but at least they insist on making their own way down from the rarefied heights of their Alpine retreat to the messy world below, another resonant parallel with The Magic Mountain. In the end, it is the gender politics of both films that stick in the memory. The men are trapped in their roles and their attempts to live up to them result in a reversion to childhood fantasy: bare-faced lying, pumped-up violence, the magic wand of money. The women are more flexible, but that is both a strength and a weakness as they bounce between compromise and confrontation. I need hardly make the political parallels explicit.

1 comment:

  1. Herbie Kills Children5 May 2015 at 18:24

    I am going to appeal to Marx here because what I am about to say may be taken as the sort of complaint your average UKIP supporter may say.

    Marx called the theory of Malthus an insult to humanity, I, like some right wing UKIP supporters, feel that modern society insult the male of the species and portrays women as hapless victims. I don't like this trend and think we should resist it.

    There I said it.