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Red Road

Skin Deep


Scottish cinema may so often seem harsh, course and demotic, but its chief voices – including Bill Douglas, Lynne Ramsay, Gillies Mackinnon, the ‘Scottish’ Ken Loach, and now the English Andrea Arnold, with Red Road – search out a sensitive space against the onslaught of insensitivity. But we should of course be wary of assuming this insensitivity is a given of the other characters – frequently what we see in Scottish film is that the exterior is harsh but the interior soft. If we feel this interior chiefly in relation to the central characters and not the peripheral players, that is more because of the director’s focus on certain individuals, rather than cruelty in some and its absence in others. Thus if we see the sensitive in one character, we should see it as microcosmic: it’s potentially there in others, but illuminated directorially in only one or two.

This is central to the appeal of Red Road: the degree to which Arnold searches out the soul of characters in a harshly presented Glasgow of tower blocks and CCTV cameras, of fucks up against a wall and dog food laid-out on the kitchen floor without the aid of a bowl with which to put it in. This is what we can call an insensitive mise-en-scene, a mise-en-scene we might be tempted to say is simply class based, but that is much more about a certain sense of cinematic jaundice rather than a socio-economic given. For example there is a great passage in Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography The Magic Lantern where he describes an upper middle-class environment in terms that seems consistent with the ‘jaundiced mise-en-scene’ utilised constantly in Red Road. When he describes Laurence Olivier’s flat as at first sight elegant, Bergman then says “it turned out to be dirty, the expensive sofas grubby, the wallpaper torn, and there were interesting damp formations on the ceilings. Everything was dusty or stained. The breakfast cups were not properly washed up, the glasses had lip-marks on them, the wall-to-wall carpets were worn out, the picture windows streaky.” This is an exemplary jaundiced mise-en-scene and thus we should be wary of just accusing Arnold of condescension, and look at why she’s so determined to create out of the jaundiced the soulful, the spiritual, the meaningful, and how she nevertheless finally fails to achieve the depth of being she seems to be searching out.

The soulful, the spiritual and the meaningful are big terms, of course, but it is the place a certain realist strand has searched out to the detriment of the beautiful Gilberto Perez so eloquently describes in his The Material Ghost. Utilising the Straubs’ History Lessons, he talks about beauty and revolution. “As flowers in a rich man’s garden they represent privilege, seductive beauty, and their trembling in the wind represents the young man’s resistance to that privilege and that seduction, the readiness to blow up that beauty we may detect in his stern countenance.” But as Perez says, “the flowers are beautiful in a way that does not belong to the ruling class alone.” This is the externally beautiful Perez talks about, a beauty in nature many a filmmaker seeks; where somehow the beauty resides much more, or rather first and foremost, in the landscape and nature, not in the people. This is what fascinates Malick in almost all his work, in Godard in films like Le Mepris  and J.L.G. versus J. L.G., in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us.

But Scottish cinema, whilst occasionally tapping into this geographical beauty (Local Hero and Rob Roy, for example), usually utilises an interior beauty. Like other contemporary masters of this interior beauty (like, most especially, the Dardennes) Arnold wants to find the beauty in her characters not through the mise-en-scene, but, if you like, despite it. As her lead actress Kate Dickie says in The List magazine, “Arnold just doesn’t look at life the way you and I look at it. I mean, I could walk down the road and see nothing and she could see the most beautiful thing in the most mundane settings. She says “look at this, isn’t it beautiful.””

Here the central character is a woman who looks around thirty five and who seems to have suffered some tragedy, mishap or loss sometime in the past. As Jackie works as a CCTV operator, we see someone with almost no social life and a woman who clearly lives alone. Sure she attends a wedding, but with some reluctance, and she does occasionally get laid – sporadically and perfunctorily serviced in a colleague’s van in the middle of nowhere.  But most of both the excitement and the warmth in her life actually come from her job, from observing an owner’s care and consideration towards his dog each day, for example, or from protecting people in trouble by observing the development and quickly involving the police.

It is of course a vicarious life, and yet Arnold doesn’t especially want us to see her job as an act of ‘faulty mourning’, doesn’t want to see her as a  woman who cannot live her own life anymore, so lives it through the people she sees at various distances as she zooms in and out at the control panel. For if anything Arnold is more interested in immediacy than distance, so that though the film will call to mind anything from Rear Window, A Short Film About Love and Exotica, of the three it is only Kieslowski’s film which contains something of the same ‘beauty within ugly mise-en-scene’ that interests Arnold. But where Kieslowski allowed for a certain architectural despair, accepted the breeze-block soullessness of contemporary Communist architecture, Arnold uses Glasgow’s high-rise architecture as merely one element of her jaundiced mise-en-scene. It is also present in the rubbish strewn all over the Red Road tower blocks, in the graffiti that’s on walls and in the lift. It is also of course there in the aforementioned flat, (the flat where dog food is served directly onto the floor) where a mysterious man who fascinates Jackie lives with a friend. Devoid of carpets, yet hardly possessed of varnished floorboards, this is a flat as a temporary kip den: a place people don’t so much live in as reside between prison sentences.

There is plenty space for wallowing in working class cliché, then, but the question really is how does Arnold escape, or rather transcend, the mise-en-scene she traps her characters within: how does she extract beauty from the jaundice? Or does she fail to do so partly because at a certain point in the story she tries to extract it less with the truth than a certain type of narrative ‘lie’: that it isn’t in condescension of space, but manipulation of time that her film finally fails to achieve its soulfulness and settles for something less? Gavin Smith suggested in Film Comment that near the denouement “the action devolves in a heavily contrived, melodramatic revenge narrative”. It is as if Arnold lost patience, or faith, with the possibilities of finding meaningfulness within the jaundice, and tried to narrativise the jaundice, and thus tried to narrativise the hope also.

Thus the film plays tricks with the viewer that are remarkably similar to those we have come to expect in the romantic comedy. For what happens is that we find out Jackie’s tragedy is the death of her husband and son in a car accident, and that she starts to follow the man responsible, who’s recently been released from prison. But as she follows him around we notice sides to the man that suggests Clyde’s more than an overgrown ned who’s likely to flit from one prison sentence to the next. In one scene he wrestles his flatmate away from booting the living daylights out of what turns out to be the flatmate’s father, and on another, when Jackie gatecrashes a party at Clyde’s place he comes onto her with a convincing sexual assertiveness that leaves Jackie half desiring; half nauseous. The nauseous wins out as she runs out of the flat and quickly jumps into the lift, before violently throwing up.

Now these scenes humanise Clyde (Tony Curran) and problemitise Jackie – they suggest Clyde’s got a mind and charisma; that Jackie’s feelings are more complicated than we might think, or like to think. But this is where Gavin Smith’s comment comes in; because Arnold then reduces the problematic and ups the dramatic. It turns out Jackie is elaborately planning her revenge, and that she’s determined to send Clyde back to prison to do proper time. One evening she goes back to Clyde’s flat and they have sex. Afterwards, Jackie hides in the bathroom with the condom, removes the sperm and inserts it into her vagina, and smashes her cheekbone with a rock she’s been keeping in her handbag. She then coolly informs the police that she’s been raped, and Clyde gets locked up.

Now Arnold’s film is a lot better than the narrative twist here would suggest. Firstly there is texture and ambivalence to Jackie’s move towards revenge; and secondly, after the arrest, Jackie suddenly withdraws the charges: the film is no simple revenge fantasy. Watching the CCTV footage of the building in which Clyde lives, after Clyde’s been arrested, Jackie sees the daughter Clyde’s so desperately been trying to get back in touch with, after his prison term, paying him a visit. Only hours before, of course, Clyde’s been taken away by the police after Jackie’s reported him. How can she make amends? Yet we might say here that if the film eschews the revenge drama, it does so because it instead focuses on elements of the romantic comedy. It’s as if the film’s playing with the romantic film’s notion of second chances, where it looks like the couple have screwed up over some misunderstanding or other, and we know that they have to sort it out before the closing credits. Both Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill come to mind; where in the former film Andie McDowell leaves and it looks like Hugh Grant will marry someone else, only for McDowell to show up at the wedding; and in Notting Hill where Grant’s friends persuade him that though he and Julia Roberts have split up, that they love each other and thus he has to win her back.  But obviously Arnold wants the device to work not for the romantic through-line but for some low-key spiritual resonance.

However, we see how cinematic conventions superimpose themselves on the jaundiced mise-en-scene: conventions adopted from of course a very different form of visualisation: what we might call the ‘metrotopian mise-en-scene’, a world of day-glo cafes serving frothy cappuccinos and fine red wines, the sort of milieu Irvine Welsh described in a Cineaste piece on contemporary British cinema as “a bland Four Weddings and a Funeral sort of place.” So when Smith says “is the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, where the film was developed, aware of the uniformly flattening effect it has on screenwriting?” we can see just how the formula allies itself to the wrong type of film. Why go to such great lengths to create a jaundiced mise-en-scene only to superimpose upon it the tricks of the romantic comedy trade?

Perhaps though, some will say that the very films Arnold’s work in many ways evokes – the Dardennes’ Rosetta and The Son, with their equally jaundiced mise-en-scenes – play with the notion of second chances also. Does Rosetta not want the character whom she betrays half way through the film to forgive her by the end of it? This is the waffle seller, Rigione, who befriends her and confesses to selling his own waffles under the counter to make a bit of extra cash and whom temporary worker Rosetta tells her boss about, thus enabling her to take his job.  As he revs the engine of his bike trying to make her aware of the magnitude of her betrayal, are we not up to a point in the will she or won’t she narrative devices of the romantic film? And in The Son, is there not a very low key suspense involved in how the carpenter will deal with the boy he takes on as his apprentice, a boy responsible for killing his own child?

The answer in both instances is yes, but the answer is in the affirmative without us feeling the film forces upon us narrative devices. First of all we have no idea in Rosetta what will happen between Rosetta and Rigione, all we need to know is that he’s determined to force upon Rosetta a moral conscience  broader and more complex than just the desire to have a job at all costs. In The Son, sure the young boy is coincidentally paroled out to the carpenter whose son he killed, but from there, again, the film searches out the ethical problem, the issue of forgiveness, and does not do so with narrative twists. Instead, it focuses on the burgeoning relationship that suggests within all of us there is both the potential to forgive (on the father’s part) and the potential to transcend one’s previous actions (on the boy’s). Now this is also the theme in Red Road, but it’s developed at perhaps too high a narrative price – the price of narrative convention.

After all, it isn’t especially a stretch convincing us that Jackie would be attracted to Clyde, and there is an undercurrent of irony in the idea that Jackie’s attracted to him partly because of the emptiness of her own life: a life emptied by the very man she’s finding herself attracted to. When she says at one stage to Clyde that he’s a man who’s lived close to the edge, who’s taken risks, we’re not so sure whether it’s being offered in admiration or scorn. This is of course before the rape charge when she’s still ingratiating herself with him. But even though she has to convince him that she’s saying it out of admiration, and convince herself that she’s saying it out of contempt, actually it seems somewhere in between. But what’s interesting, and finally limiting, about Red Road is that it chooses to narrativise rather than psychologise this problematic: it chooses to create a narrative of ambivalence that turns it into text, over leaving it as a sub-textual problematic. This is presumably what Smith means when he talks about the flattening effects of screenwriting.

This is all the more of a pity because Arnold already has enough to play with: the jaundiced mise-en-scene earlier mentioned, and also a sub-textual moral through-line that contains plenty thematic and emotional paradoxes to work on in her minimalist narrative. Yet there is a sense here of all the sub-textual elements functioning less as thematic undercurrents, but more potential narrative strands, and this might be where the main differences between the Dardennes and Arnold lie. For example, when Emilie Bickerton in Cineaste writes on the Dardenness saying, of The Son, “Why does Olivier accept Francis as apprentice? Does he want revenge? To kill? Or perhaps to forgive? For so much of the film the character simply does not know. In turn, as spectators, we experience this confusion and searching through watching the enigma of [Olivier] Gourmet [the actor] on screen.” Here Bickerton is really talking about thematic undercurrents, where Smith, when mentioning the Screenwriting lab, is talking about narrative strands. In the former we have the problem probed, and the irresolvable and the ineffable working in conjunction. By the end of the film if we feel a strong emotional release, then this is much more our empathic projection than it is the Dardennes’ narrative manipulation. Certainly the filmmakers have shaped the material in such a way that the emotional release is probable; but they haven’t arranged the material narratively to make it inevitable. There is something in Arnold’s narrative strands, however, that suggest the dramatically insistent, that pushes for a certain emotional resolution finally not too far removed from that of the romantic comedy.

Thus for much of the film we wonder exactly what the narrative strand will be concerning the wedding that she attends early in the film, the older man there who seems to half snub her, and exactly how and why Clyde is responsible for ruining her life. Arnold’s doling out of narrative information is narratively portentous, but the portent seems to demand explanation. It wants to play with our expectations and raise questions that we expect the film to answer come the conclusion. The Son, on the other hand, wants to get the narrative guesswork out of the way as quickly as possible, and thus passes for the narratively perfunctory as it promptly wants to create projective questions for the viewer, the sort of projective questions that can’t be narratively answered, but must be psychologically probed. It is a little like Kiarostami’s claims on The Taste of Cherry, where he hopes viewers will come out of the film with very different perspectives: one assuming the central character committed suicide, another viewer insisting he didn’t.  This is ontologically probing cinema, where we cannot find the answer in narrative resolution, but in, to use Paul Coates’s fine phrase in The Story of the Lost Reflection, “speculative probing”.

Hence if we concentrate so much on the rom-com device we do so because it crystallises the film’s narrative focus over its possible speculative probing. The speculative question of what exactly her feelings are towards this man responsible for killing her husband and child, is reduced to a ‘twist’ question of why didn’t we see the revenge coming. Now partly because of Arnold’s jaundiced mise-en-scene and the texture the actors bring to the roles, there remains a speculative possibility within the film even as Arnold at the same time all but obliterates it narratively. Thus not only does she play tricks with us with the revenge twist, but she also tops it with Jackie dropping the charges after she sees Clyde’s daughter in danger of losing a father just as she’s lost a husband and child. But then she does it again near the end of the film, where Clyde’s released from prison and Jackie wants to talk. Understandably he doesn’t want anything to do with a woman who recently set him up on a rape charge, and gets the bus. But of course then Arnold has him get off the bus a minute later and allows the film to have its resolute moment, its moment of humanity as Clyde and Jackie once again talk. Now maybe if Arnold had merely shown the bus stop, and offered a point of view shot of Jackie waiting to see whether Clyde will get off or not, the film would have allowed, despite its earlier twists, to offer a speculative probe, but instead she insists that the scene possesses a high degree of resolution.

Arnold, then, undeniably finds space for sensitivity against the onslaught of insensitivity we proposed at the beginning of this piece, but this seems to be too narratively manipulated. It is as if we’re not so much empathising with a plight, but being manipulated by an identificatory expectation. Jackie isn’t just our central character; she is also, and much more, a receptacle for our curiosity, for making cognitive connections rather than for emotional nuance. It is as if in a cognitive connection we expect the range of our feelings to be limited by the demands of the information that is given to us; and in the emotionally nuanced the information is limited to allow for an emotional expansion, for the speculative probing Coates mentions above. But if we feel that our emotional possibilities are being contained by the information the director feeds us, we’re not expanding but shrinking. It brings to mind Nicole Brenez’s comment in Fergus Daly’s film Experimental Conversations: “the so called standard cinema standardises the emotions”. By the same token we can say that when we’re following too closely the narrative thread over the thematic paradoxes we’re standardising our feelings, conventionalizing and too readily universalizing them.

In such conventions we’re no longer working with a jaundiced mise-en-scene that the director searches out, and finding within it shades, tones and hints of humanity. Instead we feel the jaundiced mise-en-scene becomes merely the set upon which a drama is played out, and that the story utilises the mise-en-scene for its own ends. The run-down locations, the rubbish littered all over the housing estate and the graffiti all over the walls don’t produce the characters, the elements justify them. They become the backdrop upon which we can explain their lives, most especially, it would seem, the life of Clyde, and also his flatmate Stevie (Martin Compston).  It becomes sociological, as Clyde just happens to be a guy who was out of his head on drugs and driving his car too fast, and just being silly and immature. Stevie’s violent outburst makes some sort of sense in relation to his father. Both lives make sense within the context of the milieu, certainly, but it’s as if the milieu serves them, offers them their alibi too readily.

Do they become victims rather than subjects? It is the issue of victims versus subjects that Emilie Bickerton raises in her article on the Dardennes, and that the Dardennes also discuss in a Film Ireland interview where they quote Robert Bresson saying “to make a movie you have to be against something…” For Bickerton what they’re against is this issue of victims versus subjects, and she quotes them insisting “filming a body of someone starving is, for the media, the same as filming a mute body”, so “filming a human being…who refuses to be reduced to the symbol of suffering, who refuses that pity be felt towards him, filming this human being has become an act of cinematographic resistance against the contempt of a man who holds onto the morbid pity contained in these images, derived from a victim centred aesthetic.”

It would be totally unfair to insist Red Road possesses merely a victim-centred approach, but it nevertheless fails to achieve the soul-centred aesthetic of the Dardennes, and it is because it catches itself in the narratively-driven and the sociologically explanatory. Hence, the central character crisis drives the story, and the jaundiced mise-en-scene justifies the supporting ones, most especially Clyde. The Dardennes great achievement has been to make social cinema without simply being social work cinema: without reducing characters to ciphers for our pity because of the unjustness of their environment. But one almost has the feeling that Arnold doesn’t quite trust her characters, or her audience: that she doesn’t quite trust that without the revenge narrative and without the second chance twist, we will accept the soul of the people upon whom she focuses. The jaundiced mise-en-scene isn’t enough, and she wants the sort of involvement that leaves us closer to identification than to empathy, taking into account our comments about cognitive connections.

And yet there is a moment in the film that suggests something more. In an interview in Film Ireland, Arnold says that she works not from a story but an image. “Usually I have an image that’s kind of bothering me a lot and it won’t go away and I have to investigate it…You know it’s like there’s an image, usually quite a strong image, and I’ll have to work it out.” Arnold chooses not to divulge to the reader what this image is, but the interviewee suggests that when we see it the moment will bring a lump to our throat. Now this could be the image where Jackie takes the urns with her husband and son’s ashes into bed with her. Within the context of the film that feels like the important image. But one senses if the film had worked more readily from another, recurring, image, we might have had the empathic over the cognitive. Running through the film is the story of a man and his dog, whom Jackie watches frequently on the CCTV screens. The dog is ill, and in one scene we see the owner scoop up the dog’s waste off the pavement with a carrier back for a glove. It is perhaps the most touching moment in the film because it’s based so little on our identification and so much on our empathy. There we are at several removes – after all, it is Jackie viewing it on the screen –and still the film evokes emotion. It reminds one of Gilles Deleuze’s comment in the interview collection Two Regimes of Madness: “Emotion does not say “I”. Emotion is not the order of the ego but of the event. It is very difficult to grasp the event, but I do not believe that this implies the first person.” Deleuze goes on to mention Maurice Blanchot’s claim “when he says that there is more intensity in the sentence “he suffers” than “I suffer”.

It is however that the film finally seems to be more about the first person than the third person that Red Road curiously fails, or rather reveals its limitations. Here we have a great opportunity for third person feeling, for creating feeling at one remove through a jaundiced mise-en-scene viewed through the one remove of CCTV, but then the film settles for an emotional equation that makes identification too direct and narratively driven. Thus when we suggested at the beginning of this piece that Arnold looks like she’s trying to work with the sensitivity that comes out of the desensitized environment, as in Douglas, Ramsay and others, we also have to add that unfortunately this is only the half of it. The other half concerns the degree that narrative strands are tied-up and story devices thrown in. This makes identification paramount and empathy secondary. It consequently also makes the possibilities of finding the soul of the characters less important than the social conventions that allow for an identificatory emotional relationship with them.

To conclude, however, we need to say a little more about how this is different from the other filmmakers we’ve evoked, and especially the Dardennes, whose close scrutiny of an existence would seem so similar to Arnold’s. After all, our notion of the jaundiced milieu in some ways seems to be echoed in the Dardennes’ claim that they “believe that in order to talk about spiritual and moral confusion, you have to start from material deprivation…” But maybe part of the difference lies in Arnold’s belief in the semiotics of despair and that the jaundiced mise-en-scene gives an alibi to the character’s behaviour. The Dardennes on the other hand are not so much looking at behavioural justification within appalling plights, but instead at a first principle ethics that asks, no matter the milieu, what is the right thing to do. Thus, Rosetta wonders: can it at all be justified to betray someone who has befriended us no matter the material difficulties? Should one sell one’s own child for profit even if one believes that the life we have to give it is inadequate in The Child; should we lie and protect our father when he’s responsible for a man’s death, La Promesse asks? In each instance the Dardennes would say no, because they’re not interested in semiotics of despair that can pass for an alibi, but fundamentals that ask us what is a man or a woman – where ought the self to reside?  Hence, we don’t identify especially with the characters’ narratively, but follow their inner being and see if it can rise to the surface despite the impossibility of their existence. If both Rosetta and The Child allow for epiphanies, for emotional release that contains within it a deeper spiritual release, it resides in the way the Dardennes search out this inner being against the onslaught of external despair, moral turpitude and unholy weakness. Arnold, frying much smaller fish, mobilises her catharsis with too many external ploys, and consequently never quite finds the souls of her characters, merely their misunderstandings, confusions and general foibles. Red Road is a fine film but its sensitivities feel skin deep.


©Tony McKibbin