A Time of Unhuman Bodies

By Emilie Bickerton

hole-in-my-body-lukas-moodysson.jpgA Hole in My Heart, 2004

Two controversial new features examine the alienated desires of contemporary society

To ‘live in the moment’ is often presented favourably, but what does it really suggest? A ‘freer’ existence perhaps, one without ties to people, profession or property. A full appreciation of the world as it is, unmediated by rational thought or reflection. Proceeding by reactions rather than actions, one is spontaneous, intuitive, impulsive. Counter to this immediacy, film, the moving image as expression, contains all the essential elements to represent human beings as historical (it can move backwards or forwards in time) and social (actors, characters, narratives, all made for an audience, for a public showing).

A feeling such as desire – a particularly popular muse that accompanies the impetus to live in the moment – challenges the medium because it is an internal sensation that also demands immediate satisfaction, a ‘wanting now’ that in film has found its most natural and blank expression in pornography. Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole in My Heart (on general release in the UK now) and Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs (out in the UK 11th March) are two current examples of a cinema driven by the appeal of immediacy but at the same time manifestations of anti-porn, attempts to wrestle sexual relations on screen from their traditional, and more vulgar, categorization.

They do so in contrasting ways. Moodysson’s self-consciously repulsive drama – the making of a porn film in a suburban Swedish home – is a disgusted scream at the workings and motivations of this filming industry. He has tried, by taking the dirtiness and brutality of his characters to their extremes, to show the true nature of the genre – the hole, so to speak, in its heart. As well as being a morality tale, the film also attacks the moving image as an artistic medium. The problem here of course is that the victims of this démarche are, inevitably, the audience subjected to the final product.

Nothing can draw you to watch Moodysson’s images of defecation, vomit and sex. There is a mixture of basic film-making and self-sabotage, a narrative exists but the digital-camera images constantly change, others flashing up from earlier or later moments, the music almost literally rips into the film, a high-pitched sound suddenly disrupting already scattered words and thoughts. The anti-porn carries within its project an anti-aesthetic. There is a contempt for both our times and the audience – the points Moodysson wants to make can only be done so through a string of nauseating pictures, because it is at this level, the level of confused disgust, that his own critique registers. He unleashes his anger on his audience and, without a greater mediation between this outrage and having grasped the reasons for it, the film is not more than a torrent of abuse to endure.

Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs received controversial attention at Cannes last year for the explicitness of the sex scenes, the most boldly revealing of any British film to date. The reputation the film has acquired is, however, largely disingenuous to its original aspirations. Again there is an anti-pornography impetus, an attempt to reclaim the filmic depiction of physical relations and integrate it instead into a film charting the progression of a relationship between two people: a young American woman and an Englishman living in Brixton. For Winterbottom, films have not given enough credence to an essential factor in the growing intimacy between two people: the development of their sexual life together.

His scenes of this, by contrast, are long and compose most of the film’s 65 minutes. Although they are tenderly and subtly constructed – Michael Nyman’s piano a kind recurrence – Winterbottom eventually confirms the validity of his own criticisms. It may be fair to claim a historical misrepresentation: films too often allude to a physical relationship between two characters by providing a staple bed-moment as a mechanical nod to the audience, confirmation that this stage has been reached. But what Nine Songs proves is that the reason for this historical absence is more than mere prudishness or censorship constraints. Audience understanding of the film’s two characters still comes from the snatched moments of dialogue, glimpses of domesticity and an intermittent retrospective narrative. The sex scenes are always dependent on this parallel development of character; by themselves they mean little.

Both films attempt to explain the emotions and contemporary afflictions of human beings through the body. Humans here engage primarily through their physicality. Despite Moodysson and Winterbottom’s attempts to subvert it, the script, or absence of it, is taken directly from pornography and can’t but reproduce the genre’s anti-humanism. Rather than holding up reflective, articulate social beings, we have isolated bodies who have ceased to try understanding each other through talking and instead struggle desperately to feel something themselves.

The fixation on the body and bodily functions, the asocial settings of the stories (single rooms or houses, the absence of friends circulating around), are all the consequence of an alienation the film-directors, in trying to express and critique it, serve only to reproduce in their work. Defecation, vomit, or cannibalism and rape – the long list of human excrement or brute physicality expresses little more than this without, in addition, the development of reflexive human beings within it. Taxi Driver, the obvious referent example of a film concentrating on what the protagonist calls the ‘scum’ and ‘filth’ of society, presents Travis Bickle as alienated, but precisely through his relationship to society, driving around and observing, he is an outsider for his particular definition against those around him. In these recent films, the social is entirely ignored; isolation exists independently of the reasons for it. The only rebellion succumbs to the problem, becomes just another unhuman body: the brooding, predictably reflective teenager from A Hole in My Heart (the unfortunate son of the film’s fictional director) eventually sticks plasters over his eyes, shutting out the world but relegating himself, like the pornography he despises, to being a mere body in it.

Moodysson’s characters only ‘think’ when they seem to have been trapped; like animals in headlights they sit in a green room, staring up with illuminated cat’s eyes, to what could be a surveillance camera. They interact with no-one even at the heights of their communication. Winterbottom’s characters talk and you want them to say more, but he won’t allow it, bored it seems with conventional chatter. This points not at any new conception of being human, but a regression. At one point in Moodysson’s film, Tess, the young ‘actress’, leaves the house in a moment of realisation at the bleak nature of their games. But she returns quickly. “It’s horrible out there”, she explains, “it’s so boring.” The ‘out there’, the world, is not the place for action, exploration and change but instead seems banal, neutral, frozen.

It is more appropriate to say that rather than living in the moment, living for  the moment is more common – desiring immediacy. But the former (the aspiration) essentially means forgetting about what makes us human, that commitments, and plans and reflection are the exercise of our freedom rather than its foreclosure. An unfettered existence would also be a primordial one.

Emilie Bickerton writes on film and literature and currently reads English at the University of Cambridge.