High Rise

Directed by Ben Wheatley, with Tom Hiddleston

There were bits of this film that I watched with my eyes closed. The French Revolution staged in a tower block is bound to be a bit gory. “Sex and paranoia” seemed to be the themes. I’ve never read Ballard’s novel, so I have no idea how faithful this film is to the book.

It was a fascinating film, full of such capacious metaphors, symbols and allusions that I’ve spent a lot of waking time since trying to fill them with meaning.

First, there were the clunky names: Royal, the architect in the penthouse with the Petit Trianon garden on the rooftop; Wilder, the beefy bloke from one of the lower floors with designs on the elegant woman from an upper floor; and Dr Laing in the middle, the “sane” observer of the “madhouse”, who makes it all the way to the top.

The lower orders live on the ground floor and are the first to suffer from the power cuts in the shoddily-built block – a utopian building designed to enable its inhabitants to lead perfectible lives. It’s all very Unité d’Habitation, with its concrete stilts and integral supermarket. The added conceit is that Royal has designed the whole site to resemble the shape of his open hand, with five blocks to represent his digits and his own penthouse at the tip of his index finger. Michelangelo anyone?

But it’s about more than class conflict, even with the Thatcher voiceover at the end. (And, given the speed of the descent into brutality and bestial behaviour, you could be forgiven for preferring to stick with the ancien régime.) There’s also plenty of sex and violence. Wilder may have a sense of social justice – the swimming pool for all, attempting to document the reality – but he also enjoys the aggression and violence. Laing has his fantasy of a harem of adoring air-stewardesses and ends the film, amongst his troupe of adoring maenads, with a parody of it.

The allusions (or my interpretation of them) to humankind’s propensity to violence through the ages suggest that it’s always below the surface. The surface changes though  – here it is a modernist, alienated, quasi-robotised population living in a concrete hive.

Is there anything more ironic than a golf club as a lethal weapon?

And symbolism: the long-overdue child fathered by Wilder is eventually born as its father and Royal are killed. I was reminded of Robert Graves’s myths of matriarchy and the slaying of each year’s king. Le roi est mort . . .

It was also beautifully designed. Somewhere retro between the 1970s and 80s, with the sideburns and moustaches for him and heavy eye shadow for her. The women’s hair and clothes reminded me of Jackie graphic stories! In that sense, it makes sense of the comment that “it’s like the future has already happened”.

In a way, I would like to see it again to view what I missed . . . but I’m not sure I want to sit through it again.

The film that kept springing to mind was Themroc. Had it not been for the surreal and sublime pencil-sharpening scene, I would have hated that film. Which is probably the point: I’m the kind of representative of the bourgeoisie that it wanted to épater. I disliked the clunking, Neanderthal male gaze of the film, but it did make me think. It was also more daring than High Rise. We’ve grown so sophisticated that we can watch orgies and people’s heads being cut open (I assume – as I said, I had my eyes closed), but Themroc didn’t shrink from what films like High Rise turn their noses up at. Even with his bloodied shirt, Hiddleston was always beautiful and perfectly toned.  Michel Piccoli, in contrast, was ginger! He wore a vest and was fleshy. I swear the smell of his sweat came off the screen. I know that French films have a different standard of male attractiveness to Anglophone ones, but  even so . . ! And Piccoli roasts a gendarme on a spit and eats him: Hiddleston can only manage a dog.

And now I shall read the real critics and see what I have missed and misread.

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