Middle class dementia
The middle life crisis is the staple diet of the “art film.” I is the parenthesis through which most of this creative output finds its birthstone and is twisted into various cinematic shapes until it grows into adulthood waiting to be devoured by the prudence of cinephiles. I use the phrase art film in this context sparingly, considering that the cross pollination of genres now renders it difficult to distinguishe a film of artist merit against those of pretentious intellectual philandering. On the issue of the latter, British cinema is often a setting where this psychedelic impotence finds its most ruthless grip. In this vein I am thinking of films like Stephen Frears’ Tamara drew which is a regrettable engraving in recent cinematic memory.
It must own up to my immediate skepticism with watching We need to talk about Kevin because of the multiple complexities that could add up to a spirit crushing viewing experience. It’s an adaptation of a unsettlingly descriptive book, it’s a film made by the BBC and directed by a filmmaker of moderate yet admirable talent. The perspective seems to point towards nothing more than a flat film that adds nothing of value to the genre of the psychological art thriller. A cinematic form which the likes of Almadovar and even Heneke have made their won in recent history.
But this is a film that sets its self apart. It is based on a fundamentally flawed yet worryingly plausible premise. The idea that the continued erosion of hope is the only way in which we can experience and test our humanity. We follow Eva (played by Tilda Swinton), A woman of venerable class standing and an explorer as she transitions into the new frontier of motherhood. Unfortunately for her she gives birth to a child who has a constant and sustained state of psychosis. A multiple personality dementia that allows him to love his father and behave admirably whilst simultaneously telling his mother he doesn’t “give a rats ass.”
This is a neo-post modern cinematic rendition. What Lynne Ramsay has done is create a film that is a parallel to the text on which it is based on not a translation or an interpretation of it. She appreciates that any attempt at trying to accurately superimpose the novel into a film will fail. The result is a multitude of visually distinction and sustained shots mixed with rapid editing resulting in a sustained sense of pending doom and psychosis. The characters in this film have been stripped of their identity and are often viewed in their current state and are void of back-story. Throughout the film they never really refer to each other by name, resulting in a sense of nervousness that you are with someone that you regard as family and supposedly love but never really know. The only name ever really mentioned is that of Kevin and often when he is not around, a clear manifestation of the fear that he breeds particularly in his absence.
In Kevin we are given a small glimpse into the mind of a growing existentialist, one who finds that life has no meaning and thus gives himself complete immunity from his behavior including hurting his younger sister who he sees as a temporary quandary. This is a claustrophobic film built entirely on the idea of testing the limits of human paranoia and the often middle class notion of trying to purposely add layers of emotion in order to feel more worthy or even human. This is principally apparent in a scene in a waiting room, where a woman walks in crying and Eva just holds her hand. It’s crude and unsettling but does not in any way lack authenticity.
But what makes the film most engaging is its visual palette. For some reason I have never knew why I have never been impressed by Swinton’s acting. In this film Ramsay has managed to use Swinton’s wooden facial features to add a grandiose disposition of emotion to the character. She somehow looks like a modern Van Dyck painting surrounded by various colours and a sometimes invasive red, as if ideas are randomly passing through her head and she is an inactive bystander to it all.
Films of this nature have a tendency to be too literal it is an admirable act of creative courage that the film pushes us towards the psychological edge and dwells in the realm of the insane, lets us see it and then brings us right back. In one of the best mind montages I have seen in a long time we experience and relive an act of cruelty conducted by Kevin through Eva’s mind as tries and imagines how he carried it out. This is a ruthless act of cinematic voyeurism and Ramsay stretches and examines the limits of the imagination and how we experience memory. This is a film that has if nothing else added a new visual technique to the psychological film form. By using this narrative as a vessel, Ramsay seems to be telling us that madness can be both visually beautiful and ultimately redeeming.