On Chesil Beach (2017)

Written (the screenplay and the original novel) by: Ian McEwan

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

On_Chesil_Beach_(film)          When a film is “so good that its bad” that generally means it was written to be appreciated in one way (eg as a serious drama) and ends up appreciated in another (as a comedy). I would not consider On Chesil Beach to be amongst the ranks of “Bad Movies,” however, it’s certainly got a small dose of their character. The film opens to newlyweds Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) walking on a beach before returning to a hotel where they dine together. The set up and the dialogue is cartoonishly posh. Perhaps its just because I’m used to thinking of Ronan as a “young” actor, but there’s something about her character’s wedding night that feels fake : it is as if we are watching a parody of proper British couple eating. Having not read the novel on which the film is based, I was left in those moments wondering: “am I about to watch a piece of absurd comedy?”

My hypothesis about the film being a comedy was able to linger a few scenes longer.  For example, I was struck by a flashback scene which features a character abruptly being hit by a train. Something about the delivery was off. It resembled the slapstick violence of Amelie rather than the tragic moment that it was supposed to be.

Soon, however, the film’s seriousness became apparent as the plot went back and forth between present and future: Florence and Edward’s joyous courtship, and their troubled wedding night. This contrast at times felt interesting, however, the darker side of the film’s plot felt poorly paced. It is revealed that Florence has a tragic secret. The nature of this secret quickly becomes obvious, however,  making the build up to it feel underwhelming.

On Chesil Beach thus starts which tonal weirdness, and has a predictable middle. As for its ending: it’s rather sentimental. It’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you’re particularly invested in the story, but will dismiss as predictable if you are not particularly in love with the characters. That said, I have recently written about the danger of using heuristics (words like “predictable,” sentimental” or “subtle”) in criticizing films.Yes, On Chesil Beach has all of those flaws, but the film is an example of how the sum of parts can be greater than the whole.

Sure, on its own, “the end” of On Chesil Beach is too sentimental to feel interesting, yet when viewed with “the middle” in mind, “the end” feels like a stroke of genius. The middle of the film seems to imply the story will be about the revelation of the dark secret, yet that dark secret ultimately takes a back seat to another problem. This other problem, we learn, is what the story was, in a way, about the whole time.

It’s hard to say what the film is ultimately about with out giving too much away, so I’ll say this much. The film sets us up to believe it is a story with a “bad guy.” When the sort of plot-twist happens, however, the film becomes about a different kind of story, one in which there isn’t a bad character, but a good character made bad by the rigidity of social convention. This theme in turn enriches the film’s awkward beginning. The poshness displayed in the early dinner seen can no longer be written off as awkward, unintentional comedy. Instead it comes to fit in within the film’s theme that people can undermine their own best interests, and perhaps principles, because they are actors rigidly playing roles as written in the script of social convention.

On Chesil Beach does not feel like a subtle film, but upon reflection, you may find there’s more to it than immediately meets the eye. It is a film that speaks to how alien and unpleasant the social politics of “the past” can feel. And by default, it also begs the question of how social convention continues to turn people against each other to this day.

Advertisements

“Horror” May be a Lowbrow Genre: but Genre is a Lie:

A Response to James’ Granger’s Toronto Star Op-Ed

It_Follows_(poster)On July 22nd, the front page of the Toronto Star entertainment section featured a small picture of a terrified Chris from Get Out, topped with the headline “Horror films are at heart lowbrow art”. As someone whose relationship to film has been nurtured by the recent emergence of “highbrow” horror, I decided to challenge my views and check out the op-ed. The side of me that wanted to have my views criticized was left disappointed.

The first half of the article builds up to being a critique of Get Out (and It Follows, and potentially other recent highbrow horror highlights). We learn that the critic, James Granger, sees the films as unoriginal—“The Stepford Wives substituting race relations for feminism.” He then makes an unrelated critique of It Follows, saying the film abandons (what he interprets to be its premise) of dealing with post-rape trauma in favour of “a mumble-core coming of age story.” Finally Granger dismisses new film A Ghost Story, simply because he knows it features a man in a two-holes-and-a-sheet ghost costume (never mind that A Ghost Story isn’t really a horror film).

How does Granger unite his, arguably idiosyncratic, unrelated critiques of these three films? He reverses on himself and praises them, saying they are “too smart…to scare the audience for very long.” Granger’s thesis ultimately comes as a surprise. His claim that horror is lowbrow art, named after a “primitive” emotion, is not meant as a criticism but a respectful observation. He is not saying that Get Out is a lowbrow film, but that it fails because it is not a lowbrow film.

Now maybe I’m not the right person to be responding to this piece. I can’t begin to relate to the kind of people who say they like amusement parks because they like getting scared, so perhaps I can’t relate to the kind of viewer who wants their horror to be as gory and traumatizing as possible. For me, the thrill of watching so-called horror-films is experiencing the psychological struggles of characters as they are confronted with exceptions to the norms of reality. The genius of much of today’s highbrow horror is how it tinkers with that formula. Get Out, for instance, depicts a fantastical-source of terror that does exist in the real world (racism), leaving viewers to juggle with the question of where the line between magic and realism in Get Out truly lies. The Witch similarly experimented with the horror formula by depicting a historical moment in which witches and other horrific beings were accepted as part of reality. Viewers of The Witch are thus in the unique position of knowing they are watching a horror story, while the film’s characters do not understand themselves as participating in one.

Another strength of “highbrow horror” is that it often substitutes graphic visuals of monsters/evil, with simple, realistic shots. It Follows and It Comes at Night, are both examples of works in which the monster was never shown to be more than “it.” In Granger’s eyes this makes the films disappointments. If anything, however, the (non)presence of “its” makes these films better as audiences are dealt with the dual horror of both knowing that an “it” exists, while also experiencing the horrific ways in which the fluid entity that is it permeates into the characters—scaring them and becoming part of them. I should add here, that as someone who partially enjoys art not just as a viewer but as a (very, very amateur) creator, there’s a certain thrill in seeing low budget horror. I might not be able to make home movies about zombies, but I can certainly be inspired to create projects featuring “its” and “sheet-ghosts.”

Is highbrow horror possible? On the one hand, recent innovations in the genre, such as the explicit conscientiousness of Get Out, the subtle horror of Colossal and the magical-historical-fiction of The Witch show that of course it is possible, even as these films are not above criticism. To call these films “non-horror” or disappointments in the genre is to miss that their strength stems from a constant eerie sense that something is not quite right, and that that may be due to a supernatural force being at play. Perhaps these films should not be considered good horror for failing to meet Granger’s standard for scariness. But if that’s the only problem, then let’s do all of ourselves a favour and stop worrying about the lie that is genre. Just as Willie Nelson should not be kept out of the rock and roll hall of fame because some voters think “country” (which is folk-rock music sung with a southern accent) is a “different genre” than “rock,” great horror films like “It Comes at Night,” should not be dismissed because they are “not scary.”