Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No-Home Movie

It may be a sign of the times: at the moment you can see three films in British cinemas that centre on a threat to a home or community. Alice Winocour’s film Disorder is a more straightforward variation on the storied Home Invasion genre - but The Club, Pablo Larrain’s evisceration of the Catholic church, and Robert Eggers' horror film The Witch, also play on this theme in different ways.The differences between the films - in the way they utilise this format, the way they reflect our fears and insecurities - is telling about contemporary political concerns.

Disorder focuses on Vincent, an ex-soldier with PTSD, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who takes a security job looking after the wife and son of a shady businessman in their luxury villa. For reasons which aren't entirely clear - and which, to its detriment, the film doesn't investigate - the house will become the scene of a vicious siege, aiming to harm the businessman's wife and child. As the film progresses, Vincent must learn to cope with his past trauma in order to protect his charges, and an attraction begins to grow between him and the lady of the house (Diane Kruger).

Winocour's film treads an odd balance between all-out action and a sort of Audardian arthouse aesthetic, particularly in the film's first half, in which the camera is trained insistently on Vincent, the better to reflect the throbbing anguish of his condition. This strange compromise of tone - where psychological grit rubs up against suspense and entertainment - means that we might tend to overlook the film's political dimension. We are with Vincent from the start, perceiving events through his eyes, so that the attack on the domain, when it occurs, is experienced by the audience as a threat to ourselves, which must be averted.

 Is Winocour being satirical in the set-up that she presents? Two beautiful aryan characters defending a house at all cost against unnamed, faceless (but still racialised) attackers would seem to be almost too keen a metaphor for the current defence strategy adopted in Europe against the threat of terrorist attacks. But it is by no means certain that Winocour's perspective is this critical; on the contrary, it could be that Disorder plays on ingrained fears, and that the motives, lives and history of the people attacking the house are simply not probed by the film. The film’s success, surely, hinges on whether you believe Winocour is criticising Western paranoia or is a victim of it. Certainly, the violence that the film lurches into after its more contemplative first half, can feel a little unjustified, not fully anchored in a socio-political reality.

The Club is altogether more playful with form, presenting a sort of Matryoshka doll variant on the home invasion gig. The film presents a kind of mirror image of Spotlight, as it deals with a remote safe-house for paedophile priests in Chile, whose fear is that they will be found out by the national press. There is obviously a bitter irony in this narrative, which means that the story already starts with a twisted perspective: the threats that the men are seeking to defend themselves from are truth and justice. Larrain builds on this by setting the safe-house in a small seaside community, meaning that we see the priests' interactions with nearby villagers as so many microcosmic analogies for a wider evil.

The Club ramps up the tension early on, as a priest sent to join the other nonces at the safe-house is recognised by a local bum, who besieges the household while hollering accusations at the priests within. The priests find a grim way to put pay to this situation, following which a fixer is sent to live with them by the church in order to get them in line. This is where The Club begins to embrace all of the savage ironies that it has built up, as the ambiguous figure of Father Garcia descends amongst the priests, and the film enters the realm of the parable, while remaining rooted in a deeply political fury. What does Father Garcia represent? Does he want the fathers to atone for their sins, or merely tamp down their evil in order to protect the church? Marcelo Alonso, who plays Father Garcia, is austere and beautiful, playing his character as a type of messianic redeemer - but it is unclear what he is protecting, and how elastic his morality is.

The film goes a little heavy on this angle in its visual presentation, viewing events through the prism of a murky lens which obscures action, makes everything that little more opaque. The landscape's astonishing beauty serves as a harshly ironic backdrop for the film's increasingly grim events. An interesting facet of Larrain’s film is that so much of its political dimension is intangible, existing as a sort of ghostly presence hovering over events: the past, the priests’ victims, the church at large, and the rest of Chile are all felt as the story unfolds.

Robert Eggers' The Witch is the best of these films, not least because it offers up a multitude of responses to the threat encountered by its central family. In Eggers’s film a Puritan family in the 17th century has been exiled from their original community, to an isolated settlement near a forest, where they must contend with a phantasm of some ilk that has made their baby disappear and apparently caused other various misfortunes to occur on their farm. The film keeps every interpretation open: perhaps the curse is due to the father’s dishonesty, or the son’s sexual temptation, or to the daughter’s rejection of the Lord. The family themselves suspect a rabbit, or a goat: even nature itself is seen as embodying evil. As the film gathers momentum, the family often has to hole itself up against external forces.

The Witch is set in past times unlike Disorder and The Club, but its modern resonances are pointed. The disconnection between the family and nature - the way this family feels threatened by the surrounding world, and attempts to impose illogical rules on its surroundings - feels extremely apt in 2016, where technology can be said to have distanced us from nature. The film can also be read as an attack on religious fanaticism, which tries to make sense of the world in tyrannical ways and punish what it does not understand: it’s no coincidence that the prime suspect in the film is the daughter of the family, who is just becoming a woman. Her nascent sexuality is viewed as a threat in itself, which must be brought into line. Family itself seems to be coming in for a bit of a bashing in The Witch, where parents, partners, children, siblings, all seem to exist at odds with each other, to suspect one another, and finally come into brutal conflict. The Witch’s most bitter touch is that the family has no means to protect itself from the forces that are harming it, not least because those forces might very well be coming from within.

What is interesting about these three films is that in each one, the house itself is already a very uncertain sanctuary to begin with. In previous home invasion films (Home Alone, say, or Skyfall) the house has at least represented a form of security, a clear signifier of familial identity. But in these films, the home is in itself shoddy, or unwelcoming: in Disorder, the house acts as a kind of palatial prison, in which Diane Kruger’s character is trapped. The decor is opulent, but she feels and looks like a stranger there. In The Club, the house is not a home for any of its residents, but a grim exile, a sort of prison again, with firm rules to be adhered to at all times. In The Witch, the family are exiles twice over, since they have recently arrived in America and then been rejected by their community, only to set up in this new, barren environment. The mother talks at one point with longing of missing their home in England. The fact that none of these houses, even from the start, represents a form of comfort or has any emotional resonance, would seem to indicate that we now feel deracinated, at odds with our surroundings.

We also see in these films a discussion of culpability: although it can be argued that Disorder shirks its target somewhat, we see in these movies a representation of evil in our midst, and find that it can exist precisely within our communities, within ourselves. A problem with Spotlight was that its crusading perspective allows the audience to indulge in an us v them train of thought, to align with the heroes against the priests. In The Club, we are immediately aligned with the criminal priests, because the film’s format makes us view events from their midst, from inside their actual home. Likewise in The Witch, it takes us a while to comprehend that the evil might reside in the fractious relations between the family members, in their misunderstandings and betrayals. The homes that we are in are under siege, and we are both victim and perpetrator.