Friday 8 October 2010

Desire, a film by Gareth Jones.

I happened to be re-reading some of the classics of English literature, in this particular case, Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, when I watched Desire:

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”

Desire drives the heart of those breasts, the creative impulses of not only artists, but of all of us, is what  I read from Gareth Jones' film.

The apparently innocuous façade of a London suburban house hides a universe of emotions, passions, human fragility, untold secrets and longings. We never see the exterior of the house, or indeed the outside world apart from glimpses through windows until the very end of the film, a cathartic scene.

We first see Ralph (Oscar Pearce, from Roegs’s Puffball and Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil), a writer holed on the top floor of the house, on a series of close-ups of his hands typing on a computer keyboard, like the hands of a musician on a piano keys; and his intense gaze, a kind of leitmotif running throughout the film, the gaze of an intellectual and emotional vampire lusting for the inner lives and bodies of those surrounding him to feed his writing and, thus, allowing him to survive as a human being. The proposition that desire, longing, sexuality, sensuality and survival are inextricable linked seems to be the subtext of this film “of ideas”.

Phoebe (Daisy Smith), his wife, is a soap opera star whose career is rapidly running downhill, her acting skills and career being wasted by increasingly banal plot lines and dialogues. She knows it, although she is outwardly in denial until this fact is slapped on her face in a brutal scene later on in the film. Ralph’s script for a film called Desire is vital to salvage her career, and the small universe that this family has constructed (a device that allows blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction). After all, Phoebe pays the mortgage. As she says in the film, if Ralph fails to produce the screenplay for Christmas, then there will be no more house, no more Chinese and African antiques, and no more Néné.

So, Néné (wonderfully played by Tella Kpomahou in a part that grows as the film progresses, her face and body expressing a myriad of emotions) enters the picture as the au pair in a morning scene repeated uncountable times in millions of homes on this planet: breakfast, and getting the kids ready for school.

So, who is Néné? Phoebe, and us, ask. We know that she is African, we know that she speaks French, we know that she was living in Paris, we know that she is learning English. We also know that she is one of those creatures that Dickens referred a couple of centuries ago: a face whose contours hides a deep unknown, and unknowable, world; we are only able to catch glimpses of it, a song by Malian singer Oumou Sangare here and there, like peeping into a room we think is full of marvels through a half open door. Language itself becomes both a barrier and a bridge, particularly when she rewrites her part that Ralph had concocted from hearsay and assumptions in his script (and to hell with “authorial rights”, life has taken over), in a powerfully acted scene, where Tella Kpomahou as Néné exerts her seductive powers on Ralph (and on us, the audience). Do we know what is driving her heart? We never do, although we can glimpse it, as her gaze teases Ralph and Phoebe, or when we glimpse (this word, again) a photograph of a child.

This stranger, whom Phoebe strongly distrusted that first morning in the kitchen, has become an inextricable part of this family, yet she remains a mystery, still a stranger in their hearts, unspoken desires driving them apart, yet gluing them together with a different structure of relationships, particularly when Phoebe brings her new co-star, Darren (Adam Slynn), a contributor to this redrawing of boundaries. I can read here parallels with Pasolini’s “Teorema”, where the inner fragility of a family hidden by its apparent bourgeois solidity is disrupted and reassembled by the catalytic visit of a stranger, like an angel (of Death, of Life?).

Néné’s capacity to reassemble the inner structure of this world is as much due to its fragile foundations as the emotional strength driving her. Ralph, Phoebe, Néné, Darren, they all circle around each other, all desiring the others, to suck their blood, to take over their bodies and their minds, to take them inside, to make them part of their selves. Underneath this dance, the intellectual, emotional and financial need for Ralph to finish the script.

Perhaps one of the reasons behind the popularity of vampire films, and books, is the need to exteriorize this inner desire to make the other part of our selves, this lust for their bodies, their lives, their entrails.

I do not know if by setting the film within the confined walls of a house was intentional or not in the sense defined by Dickens’ lines; or if it was a dramatic device to explore the simmering of emotions, exposed raw by unspoken desires, driving not only the creative processes of a writer, but their capacity to fundamentally alter the human relationships within what is, basically, a pressure cooker, a creative process in itself, where boundaries are redrawn.

Gareth Jones and Fiona Howe (who also composed the music for this film) states that “Desire explores the link between sex and creativity through the story of a screenwriter struggling with a character who threatens to take over not just his creative life but his sanity.” However, my reading makes it a far more complex film. It is not only Ralph who evolves and gains within these relationships, but Néné also gains, her rewriting of her own life within the script is a clear act of defiance and reasserting her own self as a woman who happens to be African, but who is, firstly, a woman. Intellectual colonialism is, thus, exposed.

Perhaps the strength of this film is also its weakness: the clinical coldness of the camera work, which, whilst allowing us, the viewers, to keep a critical distance from this emotional nest of vipers and, therefore, safeguard our own sanity, it makes very difficult for us to feel sympathy for any of the characters, with the possible exception of Néné, Tella Kpomahou’s injection of inner warm winning us over. Phoebe is played by Daisy Smith, revealing the essential shallowness of the character, not much different from that of the character of the soap opera within the film; while the vampiric intensity of Ralph is developed by Oscar Pearce, and the greed of upcoming boy Darren by Adam Slynn.

However, the complexity of this film, and the several possible readings of it, conspires against Desire, as, somehow, Gareth Jones seems to have lost control. There are just too many strands and ideas floating around, and the device to deliver this cinema of ideas, the voice over, is, at times, clumsy.

Alex Ryle’s intelligent use of a subdued and chiaroscuro palette, and his controlled camerawork, deserves special mention: without this restraint (and that of Gareth Jones), this film in less capable hands could have well ended up as an over emotional soap opera. Fiona Howe’s score also is commendable for its beauty and restraint. The voice over, whilst being essential for Gareth Jones’ aspiration to develop a cinema of ideas (and Desire certainly succeeds as such, setting it apart from much of the recent crop of British cinema) and being beautifully written, words that cut through the calm of my living room, is at times drowning the visual imagery.

Director/Screenwriter: Gareth Jones
Producer/Composer/Designer: Fiona Howe
Cast: Oscar Pearce (Puffball; Resident Evil), Tella Kpomahou (Les oiseaux du ciel - Birds of the Sky; Il va pleuvoir sur Conakry - Rain over Conakry), Daisy Smith, Adam Slynn

Desire will be released in the UK later in the year.


Stills and trailers © Scenario Films Ltd.

Post revised on October 19th, 2010

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