Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy-go-lucky - Mike Leigh (2008)


Poppy rides into town modeling openness. Apparently she has not been in it before. Or may she has and forgotten. She is enchanted with the world and, it seems, with her own enchantment. She enters a bookseller with wide-eyed wonder. Yet there is a distracted blasé quality to her search for novelty. Whatever she finds to preoccupy her, we can be sure, will be short-lived. She attempts to make small talk with the clerk, who disdains to reciprocate her interest. Most likely an introvert who finds her chatty solicitude crosses the line into manipulation. He is so intent on frustrating her need to be mirrored that he neglects the most basic duties of customer service. Exiting the store after one final attempt to compel reciprocity, she quips: “I ain’t nicked nothing. Honest, guv’nor.”

When her bicycle is stolen she seems almost amused. “I didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye.” Disappointment and anger are not in her repertoire of responses. "You can't win them all,” she will later conclude, affirming the basic confidence that sustains her.

On the bus to work she manifests indiscriminate agreeableness towards all and sundry. She is admirably comfortable with different ethnicities all jumbled together. (O
nly angry neurotics are intolerant, while those of good cheer are unconditionally inclusive.) She encourages the children in the school to crow and flap their wings after covering their heads with painted paper bags. She's all about spontaneity. Main thing-- nobody takes themselves too seriously. 

In case anyone missed her
innate levity, a brief scene of her bouncing on a trampoline serves to drive home her preternatural resilience. 

At her first driving lesson instructor Scott is all business. It’s obvious from the unreciprocated introductory hand-shake that theirs will be a relationship of failed mutuality. Leigh is up to his old tricks, juxtaposing incompatible temperaments—in this case: choleric and sanguine.
There’s not much subtlety between these representatives of light and dark. The distinct hue of every character in Leigh's dramatic quilts lends their ensuing conflicts a certain inevitability, but also makes them feel--for all their specificity of milieu and motivation--almost allegorical.

Dyspeptic and dour, Scott has no time for Poppy’s flaky friskiness. She represents the force of good, he of malice. Basically the film is about her ‘natural child’ facing off with his anhedonic ‘pig parent’. And if there is any doubt with whom our sympathy should lie--Scott has bad teeth. 

When Poppy reveals she is just a primary school teacher Scott, in a rare moment of curiosity, inquires: Are you?” She confirms it, then asks if he is a Satanist. “No, in fact I’m exactly the opposite.” “Are you the Pope, then?” she guffaws. “That’s the same thing,” he replies impatiently. 

After the lesson she blithely tells her room-mate he was a funny sort. “A bit uptight.”

She visits a chiropractor—a huge black man who releases a spinal joint she jammed at trampoline practice. Poppy sense of a common humanity doesn’t miss a beat.

Scott complains about a rude student he had a confrontation with. On of those who has been “over-indulged and encouraged to express themselves,” he says contemptuously. Poppy is amused.  “It’s not easy being you, is it?”

When two African men pass on bicycles he tells her to lock her door. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she protests. “Are you taking the piss? I don’t believe you just said that.” (Only uptight 
neurotics are wary of young males of non-European ethnicity.)

Scott can’t believe Poppy is a primary school teacher. “You have no respect for order. You are arrogant, you are disruptive, and you celebrate chaos,” he seethes. 

From the perspective of Scott’s unarticulable desire and fear of encroaching social dissolution, Poppy’s light-heartedness seems unfathomably oblivious. If suffering “is the modality of taking the world seriously” (E. Cioran), Poppy's good cheer largely prevents it from 'getting' to her. Except as an amusing curiosity. This playful glibness, which keeps all options in play like so many juggling pins, disorders Scott's need for a final verdict. Poppy has and wants no limits-- everything is possible. For Scott setting limits is a survival strategy. Poppy's "arrogance" is a form of presumptuousness: assuming, in her indiscriminate affability, that everyone can be gotten onto the same jaunty wave-length. She establishes connection by indefatigably engaging people, while Scott seems to resent the need to engage. As if all attachment were a threat to his autonomy. Whence the paradox of his vehement devaluation and simultaneous desire for Poppy.  

Scott's possessiveness has more of hatred than tenderness. He could only love Poppy if she submitted to his need-to-control. But cutting Poppy down to size proves to be a bit like catching a fish with his bare hands. To succeed would annul the very condition of adult intimacy, viz., the reciprocity of autonomous individuals. Unable to internalize without being displaced by her, there is no relational path forward for him. 

Walking through a blighted nighttime urban landscape Poppy is lured off the street by the inchoate rambling of a schizophrenic. She is not put-off by his unkempt appearance and wild expression, striking up an odd, playful conversation with him. She offers money. He turns her down before reciprocating her long inquisitive look. He seems genuinely puzzled by her solicitude, makes as if to stroke her hair, then pulls away before trudging off into the night. In fearlessly engaging the deranged stranger, Poppy attains her apotheosis as enlightened being, adding a dimension of compassion to Poppy's care-free thrill-seeking.

Poppy is curious about rather than repulsed by manifestations of disgruntlement around her. With the exception of her pregnant little sister, all the aggressivized types in the film are male: Scott, a boy at school who takes to bullying, and the homeless man in the night. For the brief periods when she does not nonchalantly glide past their unspoken despair she becomes a fully three dimensional human being. Yet she does not attempt to rescue them. Men are not surrogate children, they are 'mates'—fellow travelers down of their 'luck', failing to 'forge' for themselves the Fortune that smiles so benignly upon Poppy.   

To help her with a bully at school Poppy engages a a tall, handsome social worker who exudes health and civility. He gives her his phone number and they hook up for joyful genitality.

At her next driving lesson Poppy’s flippancy riles Scott. He sternly admonishes her, saying she will have an accident and die laughing if she cannot pull herself together and be serious. He cannot have her endangering people for her own amusement. “Look around you. Do you see happiness? Do you see a policy of bringing happiness to people. No. No. You see ignorance and fear. You see…the disease of multiculturalism… Multiculturalism is non-culturalism. And why do they want non-culturalism? Because they want to reduce collective will.” (Only angry neurotics question the notion that diversity entails an unalloyed enrichment of community life.)

In a fit of rage Scott expounds his paranoid numerological theory about the Washington Monument. (You dig deep enough in any racist’s mind and you will find a conspiratorial faith.) For once Poppy seems at a loss, though the shadow of a bemused smirk never quite leaves her face. “Are you an only child, Scott?” she asks, seeking to confirm her suspicion that only a child without siblings could succumb to such delusions. For the moment Poppy’s pilot light seems extinguished, though we are certain it will reignite given time.


“You need help,” Poppy tells Scott after he explodes during their final lesson. They come to blows after she takes his car-keys to prevent him driving in his state of rage. He pulls her hair, then they chase one another around his car. Seeing adults act like children is always amusing. One wonders what von Trier would have done with such a scene...

Responding to her internalization as 'exciting-rejecting' object, Scott rages: “This is all about you—the world has to revolve around you.” “You got in that car with one thing in mind—to reel me in. And why? Because you have to be adored. You’ve got to be wanted. And you drink it in. And you leave me with a spring in your step and you go off and you fuck your boyfriend and you fuck your girlfriend…”

Scott calms down, becoming pensive. Poppy realizes the situation is beyond mending. Too many lines have been crossed for rapprochement. “I’m sorry if I upset you Scott. I wish I could make you happy.” We have no reason to doubt the genuineness of Poppy's compassion.
“So same time next week.” “I’m sorry Scott.”
“I'm a good driving instructor."

"Yeah, I know you are."

“We’re lucky, aren’t we?” “Yeah, we are. Well you make your own luck in life, don’t you?”

Monday, November 20, 2017

La Meilleure Façon de Marcher (The Best Way to Walk) (1975) - Claude Miller

“…some little private madness…"

Revealing unanticipated depths of inhumanity, The Best Way to Walk's brutal thematic seemed the unlikeliest of subjects for filmic realization when I first saw it as a teen-ager. Ever since I have felt destined to essay an account of it. In mercilessly exploring heretofore unclaimed psycho-sexual territory, it belongs, as all truly novel films, to the permanent 'future' of the cinematic avant-garde. 

A study of opposites in collision, Miller's film takes place at a boys camp over the course of a summer in the 1960s. Eschewing the kind of fussy curatorial outfitting that often drowns period films in nostalgia, Miller focuses on the psycho-dynamics unfolding between his protagonists: the sensitive and somewhat effeminate camp director's son Phillipe (Patrick Bouchity) who oversees theatrical activities, and Marc (Patrick Dewaere), self-assured and boisterous, in charge of athletic contests.

Youth is cruel. Entering upon his maturity, the adolescent must negotiate the terrain between private and public self as hormones surge and identity assumes existential exigence. Its competing necessities--remaining true to childhood, the guarantor of wholeness, while making one's way in an adult world of meritocratic proofs and reciprocities--define its infamous volatility. Miller’s film is located at this juncture of boy- vs. manhood; the boundary separating the unfinished business of being vs. having a maternal matrix from the attainment of masculine distinction and heterosexual object choice. To be sure, this applies more to Phillipe, mired in divided allegiances, than to Marc, who, for his part, has advanced unmarred. Though, as will be shown, the very unambiguousness of Marc's masculine identity makes him appear immature next to Phillipe's agonizingly anomalous identification-in-progress. 

One evening during a storm Phillipe and two other counselors are watching Wild Strawberries on television as Marc and his companions play a boisterous game of cards. The conflict between opposed temperaments--oblivious vulgarians vs. high-brow sophisticates--threatens to combust into physical violence, but ends with minor feather-ruffling when, tired of the interruptions, Phillipe withdraws to his room. The storm triggers an electrical surge that blows out the lights. The ensuing fortuitous darkness prepares for the revelation that will set the plot in motion. 

Looking for candles with a flashlight, Marc knocks on Phillipe’s door. Phillipe asks him to wait, but Marc enters anyway to find Phillipe in front of a mirror wearing a dress and wig, his face painted up like a whore. Phillipe pulls off the fake hair and wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, smearing the lipstick as the light on his face goes dark. 

Mark gazes back in perplexity. Then remembers why he came and asks for candles. His complexion sooty against the candle-light, Phillipe glares back, his heavily mascaraed eyes frozen wide with owlish apprehension. For a brief moment Marc's shock matches Phillipe’s horror. The rest of the film charts the ramifications of this primal scene of accidental exposure and the unwanted intimacy it creates between virtual strangers. 

Mark walks back through the dark hallways to resume his card game as Phillipe languidly wipes the makeup from his face. In a perfect evocation of disenchantment, he gazes upon his reflection, more bewildered than mesmerized. The spell of his clandestine disguise has been broken, displaced by the realization of his own peculiarity. 

Hell is the intrusion of other people: the Creator crashing his creatures’s dyadic bliss beyond good and evil, or a neighbor 
unwittingly forced into the witness role. Sudden scrutiny—the recognition no one seeks—turns innocent play into self-conscious antics.

Reappearing in his pajamas with a candle, Phillipe says he is unable to sleep. Marc invites him to join the card game, but he declines. Before leaving he stops in the doorway and asks Marc if he has anything special to tell him. “What do you want me to say?” Mark replies with exaggerated innocence, tapping his fingers against his temple in a show of bafflement as the others chuckle.

Exposing an other’s secret invests one with a power of inestimable magnitude. I'm tempted to say an absolute power, given the vanity of individuals. Yet Phillipe's discovery also burdens Marc with his shame, of which he is the instigator. Even as Marc appears to hold the better hand, he is also Phillipe's victim--he just doesn't realize it. This may explain why our sympathy is no less with the 
accidental exposer than with the exposed. Marc, the unintentional intruder, is tempted by Phillipe’s shame to become the abuser, while Phillipe, who wanted only to remain hidden, is forced into the the role of seducer--the object of Marc's disavowed fascination. In the denouement the tables will turn, Phillipe’s role as shameful-alluring inverting itself to become a fully-fledged subject of desire. 

The film canvasses the sordid details of Phillipe’s humiliation, interrupted by episodes of oddly respectful sensitivity on Mark's part. Passing Phillipe at the suggestion box, he turns to look at him with an air of almost chivalrous solicitude, pledging to return the candles. Later that evening, accompanied by a friend, he brings them to Phillipe's room, where he is reading on his bed. Full of mischief, Mark takes a photo of a young woman—Phillipe’s fiancée Chantal—from the window, then draws nearer and slaps Phillipe's book shut, saying that excessive reading is like masturbation. In a gross violation of personal space, he taps his fist against Phillipe’s jaw, declaring his contempt for “bookworms.” 

Unable to sleep Phillipe mounts the stairs later that night and knocks on Marc’s door, waking him. Marc invites him to sit on his bed. Phillipe would like to broach a subject “difficult to talk about.” In a veiled attempt at rapprochement, he says he feels the groups of boys are too isolated from one another. “That’s what’s been keeping you up?” Mark asks skeptically. Phillipe says he wants the groups to work closer together. “Why not try Deloux? He’d love it.” Discouraged, Phillipe rises to go. Marc accuses him of being touchy and restrains him by his shirt sleeve. Phillipe says he's been guilty of not letting his boys do sports. “Excuse me? Repeat that I didn’t get it?” Marc facetiously requests, sensing an unspoken confession and increasingly wary or Phillipe’s half-truths. 

Don’t other people have problems? Phillipe inquires. With characteristic directness Mark asks why he is telling him all this? “It’s only normal,” Phillipe replies. “I’m confiding in you because everyone admires you.”

Phillipe is desperate to forge a bond of mutual respect, surreptitiously and out of fear for his reputation as the camp superintendent's son. Marc can see through his greasy stratagem, but plays along for the time being. It amuses him to see Phillipe contort himself to establish a level playing field now that the balance of power has shifted in his favor. He clearly relishes his dominant position. Indebted without knowing the terms of repayment, Phillipe can no longer afford his mildly disdainful superiority. 

“I’d like us to be friends,” Phillipe coyly suggests, pouring himself wine till his glass overflows and the bottle falls to the ground. “What about favors?” Marc inquires. Suggestively framed mopping up on all fours, Phillipe looks back over his shoulder and asks for specifics. Marc remains vague, saying only that as a ‘friend’ he might need a favor.  

Though it has the elements of one, The Best Way to Walk is not a ‘gay’ film so much as one about power and manipulation. It emplots the psycho-social role power assumes by virtue of the fact that in seeking recognition as the basic satisfaction of their individuality, 
human beings are put at each other's mercy. It is about Phillipe's subjugation by his own fear and vanity. The power Marc exercises vis à vis Phillipe derives from Phillipe’s need for his discretion. Initially savoring the authority Phillipe's vulnerability lends him, Marc soon finds himself repulsed by his desperate groveling. 

Knowledge of another’s obsessions trespasses on the right not to be seen or judgedThe ability to stay hidden essentially supports the inviolability, or dignity, of the person, functioning like a cocoon in whose anonymity our unfinished selves are carried to term. 

In Marc’s eyes Phillippe’s dressing up as a woman for his own beguilement forfeits what masculine honor he may have possessed. His identificatory exorcism of the female force, indicates Phillipe is suspended between two forms of participation—being a woman vs. having one. As the film will show, these alternatives are not exclusive.*  

*A female identification in the male is wholly compatible with heterosexual object-choice, for the relation between desire and identification is not orthogonal, as was assumed by the earliest modern investigators of homosexuality (viz. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs). Spirituality has been conceived as a process of uniting opposites: “He who, being a man, remains a woman, becomes a universal channel,” as 
Lao-Tzu observed. The ideal envisioned being the optimal balance between psychic, physiological, and cosmic polarities. Whether this is what your average cross-dresser is up to is open to debate. (One certainly cannot rule out that they are seeking totality, and whether this is considered regressive will depend on one’s view of the proper end of masculine identification.) Likewise the question of whether the personification of the female by men is meant to celebrate women or divest them of their power. Either way it may be interpreted as a station on the convoluted journey to individuation. 

Even in our age of gender-gerrymandering,
male identity in western cultures is defined against the female by a frequently emphatic, even violent process of differentiations. And though a diversity of motives must be allowed the transvestite, what matters here is not the validity of a psychological theory, but the consequence of one character’s perception. Marc has clearly not been sensitized to what we understand as the right to be different, specifically the right not to choose and to blur boundaries. Hailing from a period before gender relativism, he responds to what threatens his identity with self-defensive aversion: excluding a masculinity he sees as insufficiently exclusive of effeminate tendencies. The playful, school-boyish spiritedness in which he expresses his loathing for Phillipe, not to mention his express denial of being discomfited, may seem to belie the notion that he is threatened--as the theory of "homophobia" would have us believe--though in light of his panicked response in the final act, it cannot be denied that he is unnerved by Phillipe's overt 'otherness'.

Phillipe is not motivated to fight his need to personify the female force, which he experiences as a source of power, though not one he can afford to manifest in the light of day. The power it lends remains virtual, hidden in half-light, while 
Marc’s identity is overtly phallic and resolutely unhidden. His masculine superiority--a mixture of confidence and cockiness--protects him against self-enfeeblement. 

Phillipe’s group try their hand at dodgeball, while Marc’s participate in the theater, only to turn a mock battle into a real one. After a run in the countryside the two stop to rest on a fallen tree at the side of the road. Phillipe accuses Marc of planning the fiasco for his amusement and to make fun of him. “You’re baiting me because you saw me that time in my room” “I don’t give a fuck about all that,” Marc insists. 

Phillipe: “If I snuck into your room at night I’d catch you at…”

Marc: “Yeah what?”
Phillipe: “At some little private madness.”
Marc: “As my grandmother would say—you’ve got bats upstairs.” Marc pushes him back with his fist.

“All this was your idea,” Mark continues. “Out of fear, you romanced me. Afraid I would tell everyone.”

“You wouldn’t.”
“Pathetic. You are a real jerk-off. You crap in your pants…. I want no part of you.”

Phillipe writes to his girlfriend, begging her to visit him. After some vulgar joking in the cafeteria from which Marc appears to protect him, Phillipe barges into Marc’s room where he is washing his feet in a sink, and demands Marc stop his harassment. Marc assures him he has not told anyone.  Then makes lewd insinuations about Chantal. Phillipe doesn’t respond. 

“If someone had said that to me I would already have busted his face. You didn’t even flinch. You are repulsive.” Mark throws Phillipe forcefully out of his room. 

By virtue of his status as shameful deviant, Phillipe must appeal to Marc for recognition. But the recognition he seeks isn't parceled out on the basis of need. It must be compelled by a show of force that demonstrates shamelessness. In a show-down pitting the desirer against the desired, each will dare the other to blink first.  

Mark picks up Chantal, a luminous brunette of great tenderness. At a restaurant Phillipe tells her he’s rented a room. She wonders why. They drive into the forest and lay in a fern framed meadow where Phillipe attempts to make love to her. This sequence is handled with Bressonian efficiency. He rolls off her. Both are naked. Cut to her facing away as he stands still naked in the foreground. Next she is kneeling in the foreground in her undergarments, her arms folded like some modern day Eve covering her semi-nakedness while he ties his belt. Cut to them exiting the forest. Cut to them sitting pensively in a desolate cafe. She takes his pen and writes: “It doesn’t matter. I love you.” Kissing each other goodbye, she reassures him the first time is a flop for lots of people. 

Watching the boys play soccer, Phillipe asks Marc about the favor he wanted. “I’ll suck your cock, if that’s it.” Bemused, Marc insists he doesn’t want anything. Phillipe, at his wits’ end, demands to be left alone, threatening to kill himself and blame Marc for making his life miserable. Marc apologizes for ‘screwing him around’ and extends his hand. Phillipe shakes it and thanks him. “My pleasure,” Marc responds, “It’s always a pleasure to shake the hand of a gentleman.” Their rapprochement won’t last. 

Phillipe picks Chantal up at the station. Marc and his squad show up. He invites them to a swim match he’s set up. “Do we have a choice, Officer,” Chantal asks facetiously. 

Changing out of his tracksuit back at camp, he looks down to watch Marc entertain Chantal with his carefree antics as she waits. He invites her to eat with them. She declines. Finding himself locked in his room when the door handle comes off in his hand, Phillipe has to climb down through the window, tearing his blazer pocket in the process. Chantal assures him Marc represents everything she loathes: “I find him cheap and pretentious.”

At a swimming event they reluctantly attend, Deloux is officially expelled for having pornography in his room. Asked to say a few words he throws a tantrum and has to be escorted out. In the pandemonium Marc rushes over to Phillipe and throws him in the pool. Then dives in to retrieve him at Chantal’s insistence. Phillipe feels like throwing-up.

The scene in the lavatory is one of merciless torment. On the pretext of helping him, Mark forces Phillipe to put two fingers in his mouth. They argue violently. Then Marc pushes Phillipe’s fact into the sink, ordering him to “eat your shit.” Phillipe screams. Chantal enters. “I was helping him puke,” Marc insists. Phillipe entreats her to stay outside. 

The degree to which a so-called ‘homo-phobic’ complex exists in Marc must remain a matter of speculation. His abuse of Phillipe seems more a reflection of his disdain for effeminate males, than for ones who have sex with other men.* What makes Phillipe the enemy is not his desire, as we shall see, but his absolute vulnerability as object of ridicule. 

*Towards a more spirited homosexual Marc could not respond with disgust; his self-acceptance as subject of desire would compel some degree of respect. As himself the author of recognition, such a man would be a force to be reckoned with. Recognition is not a gratuitous gift, but in large part compelled by the other’s self-understanding and its claim to acknowledgment.º For Marc to give such acknowledgement there needs to be both a level playing field—the very agonistic pitch which Phillipe’s wound disqualifies him from. In addition, there must be a desire for recognition by someone respected. It is not a matter of indifference whether the person from whom recognition is sought is himself estimable; that he ‘matters’ is essential. In this sense recognition is not egalitarian but inherently partial and hierarchic.

º Where recognition has to be compelled, respect has not been earned. Recognition as a form of honoring is at home in hierarchic and what were until quite recently homo-social institutions such as the military, medicine, law, and politics. In aristocratic cultures equality, in the form of an equality of the best (aristos) inter paresis as essential as it is in egalitarian regimes, in which dignity largely supplants honorA level playing field is the presupposition of any agonistic society where honor secures the arena of commonality through mutual recognition. This very fact precludes honor from being a universal right. 

When the suggestion box is emptied it contains nothing useful in the way of a season’s end activity. Finally, Phillipe, fully recovered from his ordeal, suggests a costume party, as “everyone likes dressing up.” 

He requests of Chantal not to come. But she writes back that she will be there. She wants to know what he wants, and all his secrets. “To understand and love them, to show you mine,” she declares in voice-over, suddenly shown combing her hair in a mirror, sporting a fake mustache. 

Festive band music strikes up. Marc appears as a torero and dances about with a blonde woman until Chantal appears. “What’s Phillipe dressed as?” He inquires. “You’ll see,” she responds. 

Cut to a heavily made up Phillipe in a red dress, casting a defiant gaze from out of the darkness. A gaze with more than a trace of Marc's signature bemused superciliousness. Approaching, he requests Marc ask him to dance. Marc smirks and looks at Chantal.  “May I?” he asks her. “What do they call the dark Lady?” “They call me La Upa.”  Mark claps his hands, bending forward to do a little jig before offering himself to Phillipe. “I’m in a strange mood,” Phillipe tells Mark, “ready for anything. I find you more appealing than usual.” Marc shakes his head, grinning. “And you are a real beauty tonight. You are always a beauty.” Phillipe draws nearer, “You bitch,” he whispers into his ear, cackling like some drunken floozy. Marc gives warning that they are being watched. “Let them look, my sweet, mad thing!” 

“Tonight I only want to dance with Marc!” Phillipe declares loudly. “Okay, but this is the last one.” Phillipe becomes aggressively tender, stroking the back of Marc’s neck. Mark looses is patience and pushes away. “Quit or I’ll punch you.” Not backing off, Phillipe looks at him with the same mock innocence we’re used to seeing from Marc. When Marc tries to dance with a woman, he breaks them up forcefully: “You’re dancing with my lover, Jezebel.” Phillipe gets close again and grabs his buttocks. Marc is furious, yet almost paralyzed with shock. “Marc, my little one, where do you hide them?” he asks, his hand coming round to his crotch. “Here, Marc, it’s here. What are you afraid of?” he says, moving Marc’s hand to his loins. He brings his lips to Marc’s and kisses him until Marc breaks away, screaming, and slaps Phillipe. “Fists won’t do Marc. I’m ashamed. I’m just ashamed. I feel those needles in the same places you do,” he rages. Bending forward like some charging bull, he rams Marc onto a table. They roll about on the ground as the band plays on. Back on their feet, Phillipe grabs a knife from the table and plunges it into Marc’s thigh. The music stops abruptly as Marc bends over in disbelief. “He pricked me,” he announces to the dumbfounded guests. “He’s nuts.” Phillipe sits back on a table, exhausted. “Excuse me,” he whispers.

The climactic table-turning scene is genuinely subversive: supremely awkward, at times almost funny, and utterly shocking. In coming out of hiding--the inferior place to which shame, inhibiting his aggression, confined him--Phillipe not only owns his ambivalent gender-identity, he deploys it to turn Marc’s worst nightmare into reality. 

Cut to a panoramic view of Paris “quelques années plus tard.” The camera pan ends on Phillipe looking out a window. A beaming Chantal appears. “Shall we take it?” she asks. They go inside as the realtor asks if they like it. It’s Marc, his hair longer and mustache bushier, in convivial professional mode. He tells Phillipe since it’s him they can work something out about the fee, reiterating, “we can work it out together.”  Phillipe does not respond to his query about how many years have passed. Unlike Marc, he has not married, though he and Chantal are clearly a couple. 

Exiting the apartment Marc politely enjoins “after you.” Phillipe insists Marc go first. Back and forth they go, Phillipe’s hand resting amiably on Marc’s shoulder. “After you,” Marc repeats a final time, gazing demurely at Phillipe. The frame freezes as the credits roll.  

The abrupt ending on a note of gentlemanly graciousness suggests the old struggle for recognition has been resolved in the perfect mutuality of conventional civility. That the intervening years should have healed the old wounds, grave as they were, feels almost miraculous. Marc’s exquisite politeness may be dictated by his role as realtor at the service of his client, but we sense genuine esteem for this new Phillipe—who once risked all to become the subject of desire. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Another Year - Mike Leigh (2010)

To Have and Have not

Mike Leigh’s films often feel like illustrations of clinical diagnostic categories. I can imagine students watching and discussing the disorders manifest by all the ‘atypical’ characters. Not unexpectedly with Another Year he seems as interested in making us squirm as in inducing catharsis. A discomfort not discernibly distinct from annoyance or mild disgust. He achieves this substitution by stuffing his frame with buzzing, twitching, lived-in personifications of socially maladjusted types typically presenting some combination of hysterical conversion, neurasthenia, and plain old grumpy slovenliness. All this should be well-familiar to anyone who's watched previous Leigh efforts. What's unexpected is the amount of self-examination the carefully calibrated squirming induces, making Another Year cathartic in its own understated way. 

The moral core of the film is a comfortably situated couple near retirement. Almost smugly content with their lot, Tom Hepple (Jim Broadbent) and wife Gerri (the elfin Ruth Sheen) tend their patch in a local community garden and drink a lot of wine when not professionally engaged. 

The voice of civility and reason, Gerri is a social worker, while husband Tom, grounded and affable, works as a geologist. Together they represent the party of mental health and prosperity--the pole of sanity anchoring Leigh's film and attracting our normative identification. A story about gracious hosts put upon by uncouth manipulators and emerging with their dignity in tact may not sound like the stuff of compelling drama, but Leigh and his cast devise to pull us irresistibly into their gently churning vortex of breached social mores and missed queues. 

                                    Moral incommensurability is the focus of Leigh's cinema of domestic ill-manners.

 Envy is ever present in Leigh’s cinematic universe, most explicitly in Happy-go Lucky. The felicity of the fortune-favored--the unequal distribution of the capacity for happiness--can be as corrosive as the desperation of have-nots. In Another Year Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri’s unattached co-worker, embodies the self-frustrating vacuum of invidious comparison

Gerri invites Mary to dinner on occasion, less out of genuine interest for her professional inferior than out of a sense of obligation. It's never in doubt that the privilege is Mary's. As her increasingly disordering neuroticisms—self-absorption, neediness and general over-acting—become burdensome, the Hepples confront the film's pivotal dilemma. 

Thrusting herself into the center of conversation, drinking to inebriation, and over-staying her welcome, Mary avails herself of the Hepple's hospitality to turn them into parent-surrogates. Though they partly bring it on themselves with their ‘motivational’ solicitude. In her regressed states they become unwitting auditors of her interminable petty grievances. Our sympathy is with the Hepples, but their neighborliness begins to arouse the suspicion that they don't know how to set boundaries. This turns out not to be the case, but in the meantime we don't know whether to applaud or descry their long-suffering generosity. 

The discrepancy of provision gives the Hepples a power that offends our egalitarian sensitivities. We feel sorry that they are so put-upon by Mary's self-involved desperation, yet the very fact that they are forced to forbear gives them a superiority that belies that friendship is the motive for their hospitality. Friendship transpires between equals, not dependents. At the same time their influence is burdensome rather than empowering, investing them with a sense of real responsibility towards Mary. It's painful to watch the basis of possible friendship erode beyond the point of no-return under the corrosive action of the supplicant 's need and the host's growing resentment. 

Mary is convinced the Hepple's grown-up son Joe (Oliver Maltman), unattached at 30, would make a promising prospect, a notion she is bitterly, and predictably, disabused of when his preternaturally chipper new girl-friend Katie (Karina Fernandez) shows up. Katie becomes the enduring trigger of Mary’s 'sorrow.' And our annoyance. 

Enthusing with the same manic ebullience of Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, Katie's good cheer gratifies the Hepples but repels Mary. What makes Katie and Poppy so irritating is the irrepressibility of their chronic lightheartedness, which acts to deflect all contrary affective modalities like a shield. If sympathy is the social grace that greases the skids of intercourse by proportioning levels of affect, such unbending good-cheer must count as selfish, if not anti-social. Though diametrically opposed to ill-humor, it may, under certain circumstances, be comparably disruptive, even as it understands itself as uniquely conducive to concord. Given the differences of temperament, it isolates as often as it promotes affiliation. The power of the good to diminish us, ubiquitous in life, is rarely explored cinematically. Leigh's repeated emplotment of it must count as one of his unique contributions. 

Manville’s furtive impersonation of a discombobulated hysteric comes with all the bells and whistles we expect of a Leigh film, its scene-clawing theatricality bringing to mind Miriam Hopkins’ thespian rivalry with Bette Davis in Old AcquaintanceIt feels only marginally more organic than that performance. Her studied embodiment of dejection and performance as a drunk in particular make us all too aware that an actress is plying her craft. Excesses may be the whole point of her hysterical character, but Leigh overindulges Manville. As if we could not be trusted to appreciate that Mary is pathetic short of being completely submerged in her vacuous turbulence. 

Had Mary been less drastically personified our loyalties would have been more divided. Fewer close-ups and more inclusive framing would also have fostered ambiguity—the psychological corollary of the plot that keeps you guessing. In Another Year we are less in suspense about than dreading the embarrassments destined to unfold as Mary's characterologically begotten faux-pas are iterated ad nauseum.  

Just when we’ve had our fill of overbearing quirkiness, bumptious chub Ken  (Peter Wight) makes his appearance.  A compulsive snacker,  he barely has time to breath as he gorges himself on Gerri’s home-cooked repast, slugging back beer and wine with the same want of delicacy Mary brings to the practice. His gluttony and her furtive emptiness may seem destined for symbiotic pair-formation, but she spurns his graceless overtures. Reluctantly, given her desperation, but unambiguously. 

After the bleak funeral and wake of Tom's sister-in-law, Mary makes the acquaintance of her surviving husband, stoic Ronnie (David Bradley), who, though barely able to connect, has the virtue of not inducing mortification in her.   

Leigh ought to try his hand at comedy given his fascination with inferior types. Yet to ascribe satirical intent to Leigh would be to misunderstand his profoundly moral vision. His focus on the implosions of disagreeable and damaged people is  but a means to challenge our capacity--or preparedness--to maintain sympathy for losers. His marathons of the ill-mannered thematize the moral equivalent of object-constancy. 

Compassion is a Bitch

At its deepest level Another Year grapples with the issue of whether we have a duty to exercise charity towards those who abuse our hospitality. It’s easy to be compassionate towards loved ones in good times. The test is to exercise charity towards individuals whose manipulative neediness puts them beyond the pale. When Mary turns up unannounced the very evening Joe and Katie are expected, Gerri is confronted with this dilemma of conscience. She is anything but glad to see her, and conveys this by her matter-of-fact comportment. Her displeasure is not lost on Mary, distraught and mortified. Conferring with Tom, Gerri decides she can't just “chuck her out” given her state. Besides, she concludes, “I’ve got enough food.” Fearing the worst and hoping for the best, they resign themselves to include her. The gentle exchange between a husband and wife transcending their aversion to include a damaged and exploitative soul despite her trespasses shows how questions of moral character get answered in the media res of the day's micro-decisions. Not as theoretical quandaries, but as choices we are compelled to make lest they be made for us. Tom and Gerri are fortunate enough to be able to define their moral priorities in intimate conference. 

The film illustrates how the bond of one stably devoted couple provides the basis for a solicitude that fosters social cohesion through acts of charity, forbearance, and forgiveness. Leigh stands in the tradition of English bourgeois culture that gave us the works of Austen, Elliot, and Dickens, as well as the socio-realist tradition of 'kitchen-sink' cinema. A tradition that is, first and foremost, and in contradistinction to the more cynical French realist novel and the aestheticism of nouvelle vague, moral in recognizing that the authority of conscience is no more or less basic to the experience of narrative art than the unmasking of hypocrisy and protest against injustice.

In the final scene we witness Mary's sad fate as a have-not. It is tempting to call it her comeuppance, but Leigh is not out to punish. It is enough to expose her shame. In a drawn-out pan about the table revealing one guest after another, he leaves us in the dark as long as he can about whether Mary has decided to stay or, in what would be her act of charity, cut her loses and absconded. Leigh gives us time enough to hope she has taken the initiative and departed with her shred of dignity. But alas there, finally, she sits--(ecce homo!)--eyes downward cast, twitching in dumb dejection on the margins of Good Life.  

The felicity of the fortune-favored can be as corrosive as the desperation of have-nots. The unequal distribution of the capacity for happiness--and the moral incommensurability that results--manifests as the mortification of invidious comparison. 


It has been suggested that Tom and Gerri’s generosity may in fact be a kind of power-play to gratify their need, presumably, to feel superior: far from being exploited by Mary, they are in fact exploiting her. This extrapolation is not one that will seem compelling without a) commitment to a notion of social justice that sees the leveling all distinctions of class and privilege, regardless of individual accomplishment and responsibility, as mandatory, and b) adherence to an unmasking interpretive strategy that contradicts all manifest meanings by turning them into their opposite, usually by tracing them back to illicit strategies of domination. These interpretive agendas are intimately connected, the first availing itself of the second to redeem Mary from her self-enfeeblement “and” social inferiority (viz., her oppression by an unjust system). 

Such a tendentious interpretive approach does violence to the depth of  meaning conveyed on the surface of the film. The implication that the Leigh’s point is not that there are inequities in society, but to reveal the fate—and guilt—of one individual eviscerated by sorrow, longing and resentment. The final shot reveals that Mary’s envy—the anger at being excluded from the good by denigrating its source—is on everyone’s radar. Mary’s moral corruption has been exposed, her hostility disarmed. She has nowhere to hide and nothing to contribute. She is being tolerated. Can there be a more searing violation of personal dignity? 

Does that make Mary Leigh’s victim? This raises the question of culpability. Can one victimize oneself or does it take a village? Do we need to make society safe for people who invidiously compare themselves to others? Or does the therapeutic welfare state, at some point, respect that there must be limits to its ministry and leave people to their wits and fate?

It is amazing the ends to which even moral philosophers and social scientists will go to frame their subjects with no reference to envy, the dark energy of social life. Envy is especially taboo in egalitarian centuries in which conditions of relative equality exasperate the evidence of privilege. Its erasure from public discourse goes hand-in-hand with the notion that everyone ought to be, in all ways, equal. This belief in a global right to equality--which is strictly speaking absurd, given that equality is only meaningful in reference to specific qualities and institutions--is the founding dogma of our age of equalization. To question it, either directly or by showing the dark side of inequality as anything but the result of exploitation, is to put oneself beyond the pale. 

Other motivations for such an retributive interpretation are, paradoxically, the Christian spiritual motif of raising up (redeeming) the lowly, as well as the currently ubiquitous conviction—the creed  of our feministically sensitized therapeutic culture—that women are emblematically victims. The new orthodoxy can be observed in all facets of social life. Its goal of a just society—which amalgamates political with therapeutic and spiritual, public with private, ends—is one in which guilt and shame have been banished and the right to ‘self-esteem’ trumps all other goods. Most perversely of all, envy becomes an index of social injustice, because, as we all know, society corrupts and no individual, all things being equal, would choose to feel mortified by the aspect of superior good fortune…

In one sense Mary is Leigh’s victim--as Antigone was Sophocles’, Gretchen Goethe’s, Madame Bovary Flaubert’s, Anna Karenina Tolstoy’s, etc. Men have been sacrificing women in the arts for generations. Which suggests that it is the fate of women to be victims. What is a tragedy for the individual woman, is an enrichment for art and society. 

It might be argued that women in and of themselves are not victims, they only becomes so when men visit their violence upon them. This is an absurd notion. The female only obtains in the polarity ‘male-female,’ women in conjunction (in the context of) men. Women in and of themselves is lesbian fantasy. And, who knows, perhaps as such a way for women to empower and celebrate themselves. What I have called ‘gender narcissism’ is constitutive of gender identity. It goes without saying that this tends to be a love-hate relationship.

Why should the female sex be any different from the male in this regard? Male adulation of manliness (from phallic cults to warrior-worship) and the love of men for one another, has been crucial, culturally speaking. At least as influential as any monotheist concept of Deity.