If The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017) recently won the Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Score (for Alexandre Desplat), then clearly the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is completely incapable of discerning what makes a good film. Or rather, its concerns seem very far removed from mine, and its definition of cinema is vastly different from mine.
The Shape of Water is perfectly competent, and it has a few nice ideas. But it is nothing like the total masterclass in filmmaking that is You Were Never Really Here, which sees three of the finest filmmakers in the world (Lynne Ramsay, Joaquin Phoenix and Jonny Greenwood) at the absolute top of their game (which is not to mention the film’s excellence in cinematography, editing, general sound design and more).
Oscar has deemed fit to reward You Were Never Really Here with zero nominations, suggesting that it is not interested in what I would call mature storytelling, but rather the infantile fantasies that we see peddled in The Shape of Water.
(Although, if Oscar is going to reward kids’ movies, then why it has not honoured the superior Paddington 2, Paul King, UK/France/USA, 2017, seems incomprehensible to me.)
Anyway, a gripe about how the Oscars seem to revel in a kind of puerile conservatism aside (the recognition of Jordan Peele and Sebastián Lelio’s work notwithstanding), this blog just wants to offer up a few thoughts about Lynne Ramsay’s masterpiece, which seems unlikely to be topped for me between now and the end of the year.
Firstly, Lynne Ramsay seems to have seen and to have taken notice of the growing body of work by the Safdie brothers, with its moody, claustrophobic cinematography and Greenwood’s dark retro synth score bringing to mind the recent Good Time (Ben and Josh Safdie, USA, 2017), with which You Were Never Really Here is in many ways comparable, given its emphasis on New York by night, New York on the move, and the interiors of lower middle and working class domestic spaces.
The other recent film that You Were Never Really Here resembles is S. Craig Zahler’s equally moody Brawl in Cell Block 99 (USA, 2017) – with ‘moody’ here clearly being a by-word for an emphasis on darkness, confined spaces, and an ambulatory approach to violence that is physical, intimate and gory.
For, You Were Never Really Here and Brawl in Cell Block 99 are both re-tellings of the myth of Orpheus, who must descend into the underworld in order to rescue Eurydice. But unlike Marcel Camus’ Orfeu negro/Black Orpheus (Brazil/France/Italy, 1959), which casts the myth alongside carnival and the slums of Rio de Janeiro, thereby giving a sense in which poverty is hell, in both Ramsay and Zahler’s films, hell is entering into the dark corridors of power – be that of the state’s penitentiary system in the latter, or the kiddy dungeons of the rich in the former.
The motif of ‘descent’ is clear as on at least two occasions, we see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe drop into frame from above – giving a literal sense of downwardness to his journey.
But in addition to being about downwardness, the film is also about absence – as the title of the film makes clear.
Joe is a military veteran whose hulking frame carries numerous scars, and who seems to have been shot, or witnessed a shooting, by a kid in a vaguely Middle Eastern-seeming location during his service. Now home, he rescues missing children from sex traffickers, while also living with his mother (Judith Roberts), whose health is clearly not great. Both his mother and Joe suffered at the hands of an abusive husband/father, with both Joe’s childhood and his military experiences being given to us in flashbacks that are haunting both for their brevity and for their beauty.
Ramsay’s film time and again marries the brutal with the tender, with an especial emphasis being articulated time and again on human touch and the feel of objects (hands on windows, hands on hands, hands on feet, and so on). Culture also is able to bring humans together, as characters sing songs (including an astounding sequence that sees two characters sing along to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’).
What is more, Joe and his mother bond over Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960), a film that is most famous for achieving maximum shock value while also showing next to nothing.
And in this intertext we get a sense of Ramsay’s mastery. It is not just that a good amount of the violence in You Were Never Really Here takes place offscreen, as per Psycho. It is that the film repeatedly stages Joe leaving the frame, with the picture then simply showing the spaces of the film’s action, rather than the action itself. This includes the film’s utterly absorbing final image, in which we see nothing more than a table at a diner where human figures earlier sat.
(Apologies for the vagueness in not saying who those figures are. But where normally I do not care about giving away spoilers, here I think it works to give as little of the film away as possible.)
With its emphasis on ’empty space,’ the space within the film becomes a ‘character.’ But more than this, we get a sense that space shapes character and behaviour more than human agents shape space.
That is, You Were Never Really Here suggests that humans are in effect utterly mindless in their belief that they are in control of their destiny and their choice of action, with the film seeking to make us mindful of how it is the environments that we create that shape our actions. New York lends itself to violence and to the trafficking of children for sex – even if any reasonable person would say that it is humans who are responsible for their depravity. It is not that humans are not responsible for their depravity; but we build environments where depravity is encouraged, and so it inevitably will grow.
Perhaps we can get a sense of this through the film’s final sequence, in which Joe attempts a second rescue in the house of wealthy businessman and state Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola). The camera emphasises in particular a black statue of a woman, and a painting of a semi-nude woman at the end of a corridor.
We are surrounded by depictions in our contemporary world of women as objects. We divide our contemporary world into small capsules (houses, rooms in houses) that we divide for the purposes of ‘privacy,’ and increasingly we remove common spaces for the purpose of developing property (the city as a pit of property development).
In each of these processes, there is an ideology of separation – of separating humans from each other and from the world that surrounds them through the erection of walls, and through the reduction of humans to objects (statues, paintings). If humans do not view each other as humans but as objects, then it is clear that humans will enact on each other things that are not humane, but which instead reinforce separation and objecthood.
For this reason, I say that sex trafficking is almost a logical consequence of the city.
But in making a film, is Ramsay not herself creating objects? Clearly, this is a risk that she runs. But it is perhaps for this reason that the characters in her film regularly elude the camera’s gaze – Joe leaves the frame, or is obscured from view – such that his life (and the lives of other characters) is paradoxically conveyed to us through its absence (Joe cannot be captured), rather than through its presence (which would be to reduce life by rendering the person an object; life must necessarily be other – otherwise it is not alive; and if it is other, it must necessarily elude us, since in eluding us, we get a sense that it has a life of its own, rather than being something that is there for us to/that we can control).
Through Joe regularly being absent from the frame (in never really being here), You Were Never Really Here suggests how in order to get a sense of ourselves, we have in some senses to question our own reality, rather than simply unthinkingly accepting it and its values.
What I mean by this is that if I am a product of my environment as much as I am an autonomous agent, and if life consists in an otherness that by definition eludes us, then ‘I’ am not what I think I am. In seeing that ‘I’ am not an ‘I’ that is separate from, but rather which is entangled with, my environment, I realise that ‘I’ is not really here. Indeed, I realise that ‘I’ is both here and there. And that to say ‘here’ is to presume a fixed and autonomous ‘I.’ Properly to discover myself, I have to realise that I was never really here. You were never really here.
If you go with this perhaps necessarily obscure point (it is obscure in the sense that it is hard to see and, like Ramsay’s film, shrouded in darkness; we need to understand the importance of darkness and how to shine a light on darkness does not help us to understand it, but rather destroys it), then perhaps we can ask what cinema is.
For what cinema is, or what cinema can do, is to remind us that there is a world beyond us, and that we are thus not autonomous beings, but entangled beings.
How does cinema do this? Cinema does this by showing us other worlds.
Most films, however, show us other worlds as if they were objects for us to do with what we please. Like the statue and the painting, most films objectify the world that we see, and in the process they make us forget that we are watching a film (as the child molester forgets that he is molesting a human being). They do this through light and speed: there is nothing that eludes that mainstream film, but all is visible (darkness is destroyed), and everything moves so fast that it we do not have time to look at it for long enough to get a sense of its otherness.
In the film’s slowness and in Joe’s lumbering slowness, meanwhile, as well as in its emphasis on sheer physicality, we get a sense in You Were Not Really Here of how the film is other, moving at its own pace and not at the pace that we demand from it like slave drivers torturing their object-slaves into evermore accelerated productivity. Absent and slow, You Were Never Really Here runs the risk of alienating its audience (which is why Oscar does not and cannot acknowledge the film).
But through these very qualities, it takes on a life and shows us another world, reminding us not that we are immersed in a story-object as if we were there, but that we as viewers are seeing something other, and that we as viewers were never really here in the world where the story of You Were Never Really Here unfolds.
That is, the film in its title tells us to our faces that we are watching a film and that while this is a fiction, the power of its falseness lies in telling us that we are not autonomous beings, but that other people exist and that there are other ways of seeing the world beyond simply our own (paradoxically mass-produced) vision.
Not only were we never really here, but we’ve also never really been to me.
In 2010, Joaquin Phoenix returned to cinema after a hiatus with I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck, USA, 2010). In casting Phoenix (as well as in its references to Psycho), Ramsay seems once again to be making a film that self-consciously is a film – and one that approaches the critique of solipsism that we also find in Affleck’s film.
For, in Affleck’s mockumentary, Phoenix plays a would-be rapper called Joaquin Phoenix who is so out of touch with reality that he has absolutely no understanding of himself, so corrupted has he become by celebrity and self-absorption.
With Ramsay, Phoenix seems perhaps to be the only person who can see others as human beings and not as objects – the only person who is not solipsistic (and who rejects suicide on multiple occasions in spite of the pull towards it as an expression of how he regularly is made to feel alone in the world; perhaps it is noteworthy that his sense of otherness is experienced as a trauma undertaken both at home and at war, as if the family were as much a tool for war as military service itself).
What is more, Phoenix embodies arch solipsism in another film where he has to learn that he was never really Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 2013). That is, Theodore in that film must come to understand that the AI called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) eludes him, even though she/it should be an object that he can control.
We are all connected. But we are connected by difference, and not by an ability to control each other. To reduce each other and our world to objects is to destroy the life of that world and those people, much like shining a light on darkness destroys it. Its otherness is a marker of its life.
Lynne Ramsay’s latest film is from start to finish a masterpiece, filled with pregnant images that promise great meaning. Greenwood’s score and Phoenix’s performance are as good as they get.
As Oscar struggles forever to get to grips with otherness (issues of gender, issues of race in the American film industry), it seems a shame that a masterpiece like this one should get overlooked. Perhaps Hollywood cannot recognise otherness when it sees it (and when it does, perhaps it seeks to control it, perhaps even by giving an award to it). In this way, perhaps You Were Never Really Here is better off outside of the Oscars. But I for one feel that my world has improved by having seen it.