Cinema Today and Yesterday
In Cannes 2016 I, Daniel Blake took the Palme d’Or over the much favoured Toni Erdmann, a film that has made many a top ten. Was Cannes incorrect in choosing Ken Loach’s film over Maren Ade’s? If we believe it to be so this shouldn’t chiefly reside in Loach’s political directness; more in the film’s inability to push far enough into its theme: into the absurdity it invites. When politicians and right-wing commentators (from Ian Duncan Smith to Toby Young) have attacked the film believing it offers an unfair picture of jobcentre staff, we can ignore the criticisms on two counts but absorb the third. Smith and Young are hardly disinterested in their condemnations (they are both clearly right-wing; Loach very much to the left), and unlikely to know too much about working on the frontline. The Daily Mail pays in the region of £750 for a four hundred word article according to The Writer’s Bureau: this is more than ten times the weekly pre-sanctioned sum for an unemployed person. Young as a media celebrity probably gets paid rather more than that, and certainly more than enough to stave off a job centre visit: his comments that certain things don’t ring true are hardly like to be based on personal evidence. Duncan Smith no doubt has his own agenda when he frets over how the staff are presented in the film but we would be more inclined to worry about other injustices. “Policies to slash the benefits bill have led to a rise in assaults. Increasing violence in job centres is leaving staff scared to go to work. The government’s own figures show hundreds of incidents of either verbal or physical assaults on job centre staff every month. Last year alone there were more than 20,000 attacks. In one of the most extreme cases a man drove his car into the front of a job centre in Norwich.” (Sunday Post). Duncan Smith might feel sorry for jobcentre staff who, he feels are being unfairly attacked in Loach’s film, but many are probably rather more worried about the attacks on the welfare state that lead to attacks on their body.
The problem is perhaps that the film is too melodramatic to be easily believed. Smith and Young condemn I, Daniel Blake for a lack of plausibility, but their self-interested arguments rest on politics and not on aesthetics. Loach and his screeenwriter Paul Laverty’s problem is that they themselves have couched it too often from the political perspective as well. The filmmakers insisted the script was based on extensive research and that they wanted to make sure that all the details were correct. As producer Rebecca O’Brien says in the i, “Every plot element is backed up by 20, 50, 100 real-life cases. “ Yet Laverty also insisted “you’re already telling an amazing amount of the story if you know the culture. You’re always trying to find shortcuts and situations that are revealing of a much bigger picture. To do it economically and also memorably, and also dramatically. So the big challenge in this one was to dramatize a bureaucracy, which is quite hard to do.” If it is easy to defend the film against the political polemic of Smith or Young; it is harder to do so if one wants to question the film’s aesthetic choices. The film is an oddly generic work, a melodramatic weepie. Yet the melodrama and the weepie are not in Loach’s work cause and effectual. While many have pointed up of course how politically oriented Loach’s films are, it is much rarer for critics to comment on the director’s capacity to move us. Whether in a moment where the two sisters discuss their lives in Bread and Roses or a dad needing a little financial help from his daughter in Raining Stones, Loach’s films can move us to tears. He has the astonishing capacity to move us not with the conventional and universal themes of an impossible romance or a parent passing away, pushed into the socio-politically abstract, but to move us with the immediacy of lives that would be rather less unfortunate if the socio-political wasn’t so present. Loach’s characters are usually living the lives they lead because of worker exploitation, high unemployment, or social cutbacks. This is partly why Loach’s most moving moments don’t happen at the film’s conclusion (as we expect in a typical melodrama like Stella Dallas or Magnificent Obsession), but in the middle of the film, as in the examples we give from Bread and Roses and Raining Stones. The same is the case in I, Daniel Blake. The scenes that are likely to move people to tears are the ones in the food bank, where the young mother who the title character befriends is so hungry that she eats directly from the tin in ravenous shame, and where she works as a prostitute and Daniel (Dave Johns) finds her selling her body in a dingy room. Loach doesn’t move towards an emotional crescendo indicative in the very name melodrama, with its musical connotations, but in scenes often where a character are suddenly robbed of their dignity. Loach has his manipulative moments, no doubt, and has never been afraid of cue music, but his films aren’t usually seeking a melodramatic through-line; they pursue a political realisation. One says realisation over agenda because though many a critic sees in Loach’s work a strong message, it might be fairer to talk of a certain type of logic: an inevitable escalation of despair. It is of course dramatically ironic that Daniel will die of a heart attack at the end of the film, but this is central to the absurd position he has been put in. Here is someone with a heart condition who at the start of the film has to sit a test to see if he is fit to work, even though a doctor tells him is in no fit shape for employment. Failing the disability test he is expected to look for work, and then has to tell an employer when a job is offered that he isn’t in a position to take it. All this is likely to be a strain on the very organ that was causing him problems in the first place, so it is not surprising when he gets the chance to sit the test again, so nervous is he by the result, that it leads to the heart attack that will kill him. Some will see in this, contrived storytelling, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Loach would be more inclined to point up the political: putting endless strain upon a man who is recovering from a heart condition is not the best way to get a man into the job market. By the end of the film he isn’t fit for work, he is ripe for death. Perhaps a perfect conclusion for a system that wants to free up the labour market and lower the welfare budget. “If you’re not angry, what sort of person are you?” Ken Loach said in a Guardian interview. The film concludes as if determined to channel that emotion through the viewer in a socio-political catharsis. It doesn’t want melodrama as a means by which to allow the viewer to escape from the every day, but as a means by which to reveal it. “People are getting the sense that the world cannot be sustained like this, that we really have to change things now.” This is a statement many in politics wouldn’t dare make, and a remark many filmmakers would feel is beyond their jurisdiction. Yet Loach wants to make films that are well within the jurisdiction of the socio-political, but as a consequence does his work fall outside the properly aesthetic?
That is a big question demanding a complicated answer. In an interview accompanying The Politics of the Aesthetic, Jacques Ranciere says: “suitable political art would ensure, at one and the same time, the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification.” We might wonder whether Loach achieves this uncanniness, but let us say that the tears in Loach’s work allow for this surprise of the sensible. This wouldn’t be the case if the films’ ended lachrymosely, or rather this isn’t where the art lies when the film does end in tears. People might be very moved by the conclusion to I, Daniel Blake, but Loach’s interest here probably resides in anger over tenderness. He wants the viewer to leave the cinema not like a semi-rinsed rag, but seeing the system as a red rag to a bull. He would want want people to come out fighting for the left-wing cause. At the end of Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, young Liam has got himself involved in the underworld and by the end of the film has stabbed his mother’s drug-dealing boyfriend. The sister says as they speak over the phone “what a waste”, well aware that Liam has ruined his life. But earlier in the film as Liam gets initiated into the gangster community, the main man tells him that about the only option he has in life is in entering this world of criminality. In Loach’s logic it is the former statement that can lead to the latter: people with few options will survive as best they can, but almost certainly be destroyed by that choice. The problem isn’t that Liam is a bad person; more that the choices available to him are not good. The Right might insist that Liam is a criminal, but Loach is more inclined to see a victim: someone whose choices are so limited that agency only partly comes into it. A useful, functioning society would give Liam more opportunities so that at sixteen there would be no need for his sister to say he has already wasted his existence.
Yet such narrative determinism attached to so political an agenda doesn’t easily generate art as Ranciere defines it. But we have also talked of the surprise of the sensible in Loach’s work: those moments when we can be reduced to tears in a moment of great pity. This is the melodramatic weepie, a notion that might seem to undermine Loach’s aesthetic, but in our opinion is the apotheosis of it. If in great melodramas like Stella Dallas and Magnificent Obsession the emotion comes out of dignity, and especially the dignity to be found in the film’s conclusions, then in Loach’s films it is usually the robbing of dignity that can lead to the strongest emotion. This is why so many invoke the scene at the food bank in I, Daniel Blake: it is the moment where the young woman accepts that no matter how much dignity one wishes to possess, it is weak in the face of desperate hunger and need. In Stella Dallas we are moved at the conclusion because of the show of dignity. The working-class and vulgar Stella lets her now grown up daughter go when she sees that she cannot fit into her daughter’s now impressive world, and feels that she will be a liability. She pretends to her daughter that she no longer wants very much to do with her, all the while the viewer is aware she is doing this for her daughter’s sake. Thus the daughter need no longer feel caught between the middle-class milieu she is moving in and the working class origins her mother couldn’t escape from, as Stella says she will be going off to South America. The end of the film shows Stella still in the States watching from beyond railings her daughter getting married, looking in the window and seeing her daughter’s marital status at the moment of her own greatest sacrifice. It is nothing if not a dignified moment, whatever we think of the social politics at work in the film.
Could we propose then that while Stella Dallas, as well as Magnificent Obsession, Now Voyager and Inherit the Wind, for example, are melodramas of dignity; Loach’s work offers the melodrama of its absence. This isn’t at all of course because the characters lack the ‘character’ for dignity; more that the social apparatus consistently undermines its possibility. This is partly what the title is about. At one moment in the film Daniel scrawls on a wall exactly who he is (I, Daniel Blake), after refusing to suffer any more indignities in the benefits office. It is a triumphal moment but not an emotional one. This isn’t where Loach’s singularity resides. It rests in the undignified as the social system sees people as economic agents rather than dignified individuals. If one doesn’t have the wherewithal to be that economic agent, one’s status is of almost no value. It is a point the philosopher Alain Badiou makes in an article on Trump’s inaugeration, noticing that“…principally the poor people, the people of provincial states, the peasants of many countries, and also the workers without a job, and so on – all that population, which progressively is reduced by the brutality of contemporary capital, to nothing at all, which has no possible existence, and which stays, in some places, without jobs, without money, without orientation, [are left] without existential orientation.” (‘Reflections on the Recent Election’) This is neither dignity nor the undignified, but the position of indignity, and these are the tears Loach very succinctly searches out.
A similar figure is to be found in The Measure of a Man, Stephane Brize’s account of someone prodded and pushed into jobs that don’t match his skills, can’t pay a living wage or leaves him feeling in cahoots with a system of capital that he is supposed to protect while also he himself is at the brunt of it. This is exemplified when he takes a job as a security guard in a supermarket, and has to watch over people as poor as himself while protecting the wealth of those who own the company. The job doesn’t alleviate his poverty so much as exacerbate his frustrations. Like Daniel Blake, Thierry is a man out of his time, blue collar skilled but unable to make sense of new technologies. Some might insist that such men should do everything they can to avoid obsolescence, but others would say that people working with their hands isn’t out-dated; more that it has been out-sourced. These skills are still needed, but better to employ someone thousands of miles away who can work at a much cheaper rate and guarantee far greater profits for the company. The worker here is on a hamster wheel trying to keep up with the job market, as more jobs get sent abroad or automated well explored in James Meek’s article, ‘From Somerdale to Skarbimierz’ in the LRB. Both films wonder if there shouldn’t be a dignity greater than the job you do or the skills you are supposed to attain. In a fine article ‘Does the Left Have a Future?’, John Harris quotes a Tony Blair remark from the past. “The pace of change can either overwhelm us, or make our lives better and our country stronger…What we can’t do is pretend it is not happening. I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” Blair adds, “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” This might work for the young, with parents who can help them buy a flat or pay off a loan, and whose education isn’t a source of financial stress, but for men in their fifties like Daniel and Thierry, this is far from an easy ask. Yet at least Blair’s Britain, and the France of Chirac and Hollande have still been interested in protecting the citizen from the pace of this change. Right-wing think tanks often suggest sink or swim. Harris talks about a book, Britannia Unchained co-authored by five new Tory MPs, including Priti Patel and Dominic Raab. A little like Blair they admire people who know how to get on. They “work on a freelance basis. They can net £600 a week in take-home pay. But they have to work for it – up to 60 hours a week.” As Harris says, “in this vision – taken to its logical conclusion by Uber – the acceptance of insecurity becomes a matter of heroism, and a new political division arises between the grafters and those – as Britannia Unchained witheringly puts it – “who enjoy public subsidies”. (Guardian) In other words, the “skivers” versus the “strivers”.” Blair presented his vision at least with a hint of hope and possibility; the Tories want to push people into overwork and apply moral judgement om those who don’t wish to work themselves to the bone – though starving to the bone seems the alternative. Yet in both visions, Thierry and Daniel are ‘losers’.
At various moments in The Measure of a Man, we see images from the surveillance camera, watching people to see if they are up to no good. If at the end of the nineteenth century the camera was a means by which to understand ourselves and our world better as it became a tool for science and a mode for narrative, the surveillance system is a mode of suspicion: crime prevention, perhaps, but also a means by which to reduce people to a ghosted, slow motion black and white consumer looking to steal, watched on by someone whose sole purpose, rather than soulful purpose, is to catch someone red-handed in monochrome. This is what Thierry cannot tolerate. If the English title invokes slightly St Augustine’s the measure of love is to love without measure, then the measure of a man in the 21st century is to be measured by the monetary metre: the degree to which he or she happens to be a striver or a skiver. Brize preferred the French title, which translates as Market Law, but while the English one is less harsh, it nevertheless conveys an aspect of enquiry and empathy. As lead actor Vincent Lindon says: “Well, I need to be interested by a character and when the shoot is over, there needs to be, no matter how distant, some radiation within me of what the character has done. Thierry was by far the character who radiated the most. To put it another way, if I, Vincent Lindon, was invited to share a meal with any of the characters I’ve played in the past, I’d want it to be Thierry. He intrigues me the most and even if I’ve been passionate about other roles, Thierry’s the one that I feel won’t leave me completely.” The director was looking for an aesthetic as immediate as possible. “Vincent was on set for 20 days and we shot the whole film in 21 days. I didn’t want to wait for make-up and light set-ups, we shot with natural light and had a small crew on set, so yes, the stripped down, realistic feel might partly be a consequence of the short shoot. For me, it was a subconscious response to how films are made today: I wanted to make the film feel as real as possible, and a self-imposed reduced shoot was very liberating.” (ExBerliner.com)
If Loach and Brize would both be inclined to play up the real; other films no less preoccupied with the social emphasise the surreal. Both The Lobster and Toni Erdmann are comedies more than tragedies, and get much of their humour out of taking an aspect of our contemporary mores and tweaking them to reflect how absurd our lives often happen to be. Yorgos Lanthimos’s film coincides with but doesn’t at all directly play on the modern dating world. This new culture is quite different from arranged marriages, courting rituals or even the singles bars popular in the US in the seventies and eighties, yet nevertheless, a modern phenomenon that incorporates the neurotic on the one hand and numerous options on the other. Just as we can now order a meal that could be Indian, Chinese, Lebanese or Greek, so we have the same potential possibilities in our sex lives. Yet if the opportunities increase so perhaps too have the neurotic aspects. Denis de Rougement writing on the history of love in Passion and Society, says: “men and women of the twentieth century, even with only a smattering of the existence of Freudian complexes, if the play of repression and inhibitions, and of the origin of neuroses, are inclined to require more than their ancestors did from marriage and from conjugal life.” De Rougemont’s analysis finds contemporary justification in a typical Guardian article about dating sites. “On Tinder everything’s disposable, there’s always more, you move on fast. You start browsing again, he starts browsing – and you can see when anyone was last on it. If five days pass with no messaging between you, it’s history.” The writer found it a great opportunity for meeting men, but very difficult to find love. It can bring out people’s worst traits rather than their better ones. There is a conservative conclusion to the article; “it has taught me the value of true connection. It’s really obvious when you have it, and usually, you don’t. I hate to say it, but sex in a relationship beats casual sex. Yes, the rush of meeting someone new – new bed, new bodies – can, occasionally, be great. More often though, you find yourself yearning for a nice partner who loves you and treats you well.”(‘How Tinder took Me from Serial Monogamy to Casual Sex’) Yet she also talks about being more open to swinging and less judgemental about casual flings. However, the point of the article rests on less is more, and a film like The Lobster wonders if part of the problem rests on the culture of coupling: the idea that we are somehow inadequate if we cannot find a partner. In Lanthimos’s film society demands that you find your other half or turn into your favourite animal. Yet finding your significant other isn’t so easy, and works like a perverse arranged marriage. People have forty-five days to find a partner, but they must do so based on a distinguishing common trait. One character bangs his face off hard surface and thus hooks up with a young woman who gets nose bleeds. Someone else seeks another person with a limp and so on. This is the opposite of a soulful environment, and instead of the usual social anxiety that demands we mustn’t remain single, the film plays up the metaphorical as the metaphysical. You are as well being dead as single, society contends, and consider yourself lucky that you can be reincarnated as your favourite beast.
The film manages to tap into contemporary concerns without duplicating their representations. A film about Tinder, Grinder and dating sites generally would be doing exactly that. Lanthimos instead wants to find underlying thematics that can talk about the cultural concerns without echoing momentary mores. In ten years time, we might have only the vaguest memory of Tinder, just as we now, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, see MySpace as all but irrelevant. “We make observations about the way we live and organize our lives — and structure our societies — so we wanted to do something about romantic relationships and how single people are treated within society,” Lanthimos says. “The pressure that is on them in order to be with someone and … the pressure that they put on themselves to be with someone. What we like to do is push those situations to extremes in order to reveal the absurdity behind them, behind things that we consider normal in our everyday life.” (Washington Post) The film externalises the pressure many people internalise. It is society that insists being single is an offence punishable by a certain type of death. If man is a social animal, as people so often claim, then, if he or she cannot find a partner, better to turn them into an animal of another kind. Central character Colin Farrell’s brother becomes his loyal companion at the retreat where Farrell tries to find a wife. The brother unable to find a partner has become instead man’s best friend, a canine who Farrell can still love but as another species. Later in the film, the dog will die cruelly at the hands of a woman Farrell tries to team up with, someone whose heartless traits Farrell has to match to show that they have something in common and can thus marry. She wants to test whether Farrell is quite as vicious as she happens to be, and we watch him take it as best he can: shocked and grieving for his brother; determined not to show it so he can escape being turned into his creature of forced choice: the lobster of the title.
Yet though the film is an attack on couple culture, it wonders whether the alternative is a healthier option. With supposedly more single people than married couples in the US now, according to a study by the Bureau for Labour Statistics, this suggests single life has become a viable lifestyle choice. How can this square with the pressure on coupling up so present in our culture? “Human societies, at all times and places, have organised themselves around the will to live with others, not alone. But not anymore,” according to Eric Klinenberg in the Guardian. “During the past half-century, our species has embarked on a remarkable social experiment. For the first time in human history, great numbers of people – at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion – have begun settling down as singletons.” While in the first section of The Lobster at the retreat shows that anyone caught masturbating can expect to have their hand inserted into a toaster, in the woods where the singles live, someone caught kissing another will have their lips sewn up. This suggests that Lanthimos doesn’t have a polemical point to make about either option, finally, but instead wants to inquire into the means by which choices can be made, and if people can be trusted. If the need to be part of a couple is too predicated on being part of society, then are we in love with another or teaming up for fear of being alone and failing in the eyes of the social? If we insist too assertively on single status, are we missing out on the chance to develop a transformative bond with another person? Lanthimos and his regular screenwriter Efthimis Philippou look to question both positions all the better to wonder what terms like the solitary and the social happen to be. Whether coerced into a relationship or prizing one’s individualism, both seem products of a world that doesn’t allow much room for what the Ancients would call Agape. Of course, the Greeks differentiated various kinds of love: eros, philia, pragma, agape, philatia and storge. Eros suggested the erotic, Philia the friendly, storge the familial and so on. But what is agape? Agape is commonly linked to charity, and a love that does not change with circumstances. In this sense, it is the opposite of an erotic love that is based on chemical elements which are inevitably, biologically going to change. As the Guardian‘s Ian Sample reported, there are plenty similarities between getting high on cocaine and getting high on love. “When passionate love is described like this, it in some ways sounds like an addiction. We thought, maybe this does involve similar brain systems as those involved in addictions.” Agape, however, is something else, suggesting the open, the possible. This is missing from a culture obsessed with relationships or that pursues solitude. One demands a relationship; the other eschews it, but neither is open, agape to it.
The Lobster is science fiction as psychological fact. It cares little for the mise-en-scene vital to most dystopian visions: it refuses to put into set design its negative vision of the world as we find in anything from Blade Runner to Logan’s Run, from Attica to AI. What it wants instead is to wonder what might happen if an open love becomes impossible, or so sceptical a possibility, and staked so high, that who would risk it? This would seem to be the point behind the film as Farrell’s David falls for Rachel Weisz, who becomes blind. Can he poke his own eyes out and prove his love for her, as she demands? Then they will have something in common, and can easily marry. This is a joke on the positivistic aspect of love that is a constant in our culture. How do you prove you love someone, and are the friends not often on hand to judge whether the gesture reveals a certain level of affection? Christmas presents, birthday gifts, weekends away and holidays abroad are all part of the currency of feeling, yet scepticism remains, and perhaps all the more so since the faith in the evidence meeting the impossibility of knowing can create a chasm of anxiety. This isn’t about trusting one’s instincts, but relying on the evidential. This is the dystopia of the actual rather than the utopia of the possible and would seem to be what intrigues Lanthimos. “It was a very interesting look at how we are as people,” says producer Lee Magiday. “Being single, being alone or being involved with someone and the fears and constraints society puts on that. It was a truly original love story.” (bfi)
Toni Erdmann is ostensibly a light comedy with a heart, but maybe one reason why a film matters is that it manages to take the heart-felt and turn it into the soul-felt. The heart-felt stays close to the surface, rarely engaging with intricacies of the situations explored and often relies on misunderstandings as opposed to nuanced intimacies. One reason why the romantic comedy is so frequently no more than lightly moving is that it doesn’t create characters who are deeply pensive: their needs and desires are close to the social surface. They want to meet a ‘keeper’, someone whose interests match their own, or whose mismatches can find a means by which to match. Whether it is Bridget Jones’s Diary or French Kiss, the misunderstandings are resolved and coupledom achieved. The audience, and often the friends within the diegesis, can see this coming, but the characters are blind to the obvious. Yet the irony is that it happens to be obvious: the weak subjectivity is evident in others knowing better than they do their needs and desires, which are more or less socially predictable.
Now Toni Erdmann is not a romantic film: it is a father/daughter comedy about a dad who seems to have lived as if always at a loose end, and a daughter who looks like she avoids moments to herself. Halfway through the film she has a moment alone, as Maren Ade shifts perspective to focus on the daughter standing on the balcony waving her father off as he gets into a taxi. As he gets into the cab he waves back, and the film stays with Ines as she starts to sob. A few scenes earlier Toni asks her if she is happy and a little later she discusses with a friend in a jokey way that her father started asking her all these personal questions. In the first scene she feels exposed, in the second plays up her role as the tough corporate business women, and in the third lets her fragility show. Ines (Sandra Huller) seems afraid of solitude less because of the fear of loneliness than the fear of nothingness. She is in an environment that doesn’t seem to appreciate the idea of time to oneself, and this might be where the corporation digs deepest. It doesn’t only demand most of your time; it makes you exist in a void within your own solitude.
When Ade talks about Ines’s tears she says: “with her crying, I was not sure…It’s a different type of crying. I like it when the facade breaks. She stays tough but she cries. The tension inside her is so high.” (Sight and Sound) Seeing Ines in her apartment we sense a woman who is not at home there; it is part of a corporate self that insists on hard surfaces, high technology and plenty of glass. By contrast, at the beginning of the film we see her mother’s house, with a leafy garden and numerous books. We might believe her mother’s abode could assuage her solitude, while her own apartment suggests no more than a walk through, like a hotel foyer or an airport lounge. The film happens to be set in Romania but it isn’t until late in the film that we have a sense of the country rather an economic territory. For most of the time, Ade deliberately presents Bucharest as another city that can be usefully developed, Romania as another country that can be productively mined for its resources. This is a world of international dealing where specifics must give way to the general. The idea is that if you are going to move around the world of international finance and trade, everywhere should look more or less the same to minimise the friction of relocation. Ines could be anywhere at all as her apartment resembles one in Frankfurt, New York or London. It means that if she transfers to any of these cities she wouldn’t notice any real change. She will also find similar hotels and spas, similar shopping malls and bars. What she won’t find is anywhere she can call home, and that might be the point. Her purpose is to be easily relocatable, and so the comforts and uniformity need to be available wherever she finds herself. As Marc Auge says “if a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” Ines occupies non-places. In his book on Supermodernity, Auge adds, “the hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike in Baudelairean modernity, do not integrate the earlier places…” Supermodernity allows for free movement of capital and high-end labour with minimum turbulence. The non-place is a dwelling that can make you feel not so much at home as equally homeless whichever country you happen to be in. If the place happened to be too ‘homeful’, if one were to become attached to the specifics of place, relocation would be much harder. The idea is that one never really feels at home so that one can easily be relocated without feeling displaced. The father’s presence in Bucharest is to allow Ines to comprehend an aspect of home through the presence of her dad. Indeed he flies to the city so that he can stalk his daughter into spending quality time with him. This is partly where the humour lies: a parent finds the only way they can get a moment with their offspring in the corporate 21
This is partly where the humour lies: a parent finds the only way they can get a moment with their offspring in the corporate 21st century is by turning up and harassing them into it, a whisker away from a restraining order. If the corporate world insists that everywhere is home because everything is the same, Toni (Peter Simonischek) is there to point out to her that this needn’t be so as the film complicates and gives nuance to the tired phrase that home is where the heart is. In the modern world, in a world of non-places, home is universalised because the heart of it is excised. It isn’t that that everywhere becomes homely; more that places become soulless. This is the opposite of Gaston Bachelard’s exploration in Poetics of Space. “May all matter be given its individual place, all sub-stances their ex-stance. And may all matter achieve conquest of its space, its power of expansion over and beyond the surfaces by means of which a geometrician would like to define it. It would seem that it is through “their immensity” that these two kinds of spaces – the space of intimacy and the world space – blend.”
This has nothing in itself to do with the authentic against the inauthentic. It could work with moments that combine the two. In a scene late in Toni Erdmann Toni and Ines end up at a party in the home of a Bucharest family and find themselves offering a rendition of a Whitney Houston song, ‘The Greatest Love of All’. It is ostensibly Toni’s way of thanking the family for inviting them to their home, but it is, of course, a lot more another of the father’s attempts to get his daughter to escape from her corporate self. Reluctant but feeling obliged, she sings it nevertheless and finds in singing it perhaps an aspect of her childhood self that her new image can’t countenance. She might be in a huff afterwards, but her dad has got her to face herself in front of others. Yet this isn’t at all one of those moments where the shy individual gains confidence as she sings in front of a crowd. It is instead the buried self finding her voice and the father can get her to do so only because she is coerced into it in the presence of a roomful of strangers.
Asked why she chose Romania for the film’s setting, Ade says, it “made a lot of sense because there are a lot of multinational companies there because Romania had to sell a lot after the fall of the [the communist dictator Nicolae] Ceaucescu [in 1989].; there were a lot of people trying to get a slice of the cake. That country has also lost a bit of its identity through these companies coming.” (Sight and Sound) But not only does Romania lose its identity; those going to work there and fitting into a globalized pattern of behaviour and work practices lose an aspect of their identity too. In one scene, Toni and his daughter are out on an oil site and one of the workers offers a handshake. Toni jokes that it is not such a good idea: the worker has oil all over his hands. Toni offers it as a gag but it is received by the bosses around him as a criticism of negligent work practices and the man is promptly fired despite Toni’s protestations. Of course, the worker has been negligent, but this has nothing to do with the company’s interest in the health of the worker (there is no sense they cared before, and no sense that this is the first time he hasn’t been wearing gloves). No, it is about the importance of homogenised safety in the face of an embarrassed amateurism. It is one of many examples in the film where there is such a thing as appropriate behaviour to which one must abide. Instead of the joke offered and concern expressed, what happens is the worker is sacked. No humour and no concern – only officious practice. This is the bubble in which Ines constantly tries to fit, and one in which her father constantly tries to burst.
Initially, we proposed that the decision to give the Palm d’Or to I, Daniel Blake over Toni Erdmann was an error of judgement, but it might be more accurate to say it was an error of aesthetic pertinence. Both I, Daniel Blake and The Measure of a Man are fine, angry and necessary films, but they are confined within the limits of their realism and cannot quite show the absurdity of their situations. This isn’t to insist on an absurdist nor abstract cinema that only confronts the problems of the time at a remove. There is a place for Brize and Loach’s films, and perhaps all the more so as they fight for a social programme within an aesthetic simplicity. Some will see that artificiality of film that increasingly uses CGI isn’t too far removed from a digital economy, where the surplus individual is removed from the economic landscape just as blue screen can digitise in and out details that are deemed unsuitable. While computer generated imagery can remove blemishes and flaws to make actors look better, in contrast Brize, we have noted, talks of the importance of natural light and making things as real as possible. Just as Auge frets over the problem of the supermodern, so Brize resists the problems of the hyperreal, a point nicely encapsulated by cinematographer Chris Doyle when he couldn’t believe Life of Pi won a best cinematography Oscar. “Let me be blunt. Ah, fuck. I don’t care, I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy [Claudio Miranda] and I’m sure he cares so much, but since 97 per cent of the film is not under his control, what the fuck are you talking about cinematography, sorry. I’m sorry. I have to be blunt and I don’t care, you can write it. I think it’s a fucking insult to cinematography.” (IndieWire) Yet one reason why Doyle has been such an important contemporary cinematographer for Wong Kar-wai, Gus van Sant and Stanley Kwan is that he gave a new, more mobile, more tactile aesthetic to film. He expanded our notion of realism, and in this sense might be closer to Ade and Lanthimos than Loach and Brize. Loach and Brize’s films have a resistant significance, but Lanthimos and Ade’s works are properly refreshing ones – they refresh our way of thinking about relationships and homes, false belonging and the corporate reconfiguration of place and self. If they might not be great films it resides in a relative conservatism next to anyone from Jia Zhangke, Tsai Ming-Liang, Philippe Grandrieux. Jose Luis Guerin or indeed even the Lanthimos of Dogtooth. But if I, Daniel Blake and The Measure of the Man are usefully resistant works, The Lobster and Toni Erdmann are fine progressive films, progressive in the sense that they are speculating often absurdly on the nature of the way in which we are living now that might be oddly contrary to our nature, and the oddness of the films’ humour resides in capturing this gap.