Today’s essay topic is: “The only parts of the world still obsessed with the servant problem are the poorest parts. Discuss.” While barely anyone in a Group of Seven country would admit to having a live-in cook-housekeeper-nanny, such as the title character in Chile’s slyly entertaining, macabre The Maid (), in South America and south-east Asia – I feel a Noël Coward song coming on – they are part of the class we call “lei-sure”. Rich nations gibber at disparity. Poor nations like social clarity.
That Sebastián Silva’s class fable won the Grand Prix at Sundance proves my point. In Robert Redford Land there is a near-zoological curiosity about a foreign culture where the middle class incubates inequality. The maid Raquel, stupendously played by Catalina Saavedra, works for a Santiago family much like the director’s own. In fact Silva filmed in his own house while his parents were away.
Raquel, 41, is entering mid-life crisis. Her face looks as if it were hit by a frying pan; every day is a bad-hair day; she consumes headache pills. Fast mutating into a Jean Genet character, her mood is not helped when the mistress (Claudia Celedón) drafts in successive helpers. Raquel sends them packing, after torturing them psychologically. A favoured device is shutting the front door on them when they wander into the garden. When a third helper (Mariana Loyola) outwits her by stripping and sunbathing on the front lawn, Raquel knows she has met her fiercest foe – or possibly her first friend.
It’s the story of a lonely person clinging to a surrogate family. Long before the faultlines go seismic, little veins and fissures run through this relationship. Raquel is besotted with the teenage son, coyly smiling each time she strips his puberty-stained sheets. She dislikes the mouthy daughter (“You’re just the maid here”). She indulges the henpecked dad, who enjoins secrecy each time he runs off to play golf. She is a little world of tectonic feelings, slipping and sliding below the behavioural surface.
Silva shoots fast and is sometimes casual about detail. A loved cat goes missing and is forgotten about. The second maid is suddenly there, without being introduced. But Saavedra’s performance as Raquel is what matters, glittering with the hard sparkle of anthracite. The film is often funny but also to the right degree scary. Those who put themselves in the hands of servants, especially ones who live-in, cannot expect to remain master or mistress. That is why rich nations have given up servants, or have tried or pretended to, while poor nations see in them an endless, living fund of comedy, fright and fable.
Dog Pound () does for America what Scum did for Britain. Put more succinctly: Scum “did for” Britain while Dog Pound “does for” America. Juvenile prisons in both countries are a disgrace (say the films). The 1979 UK shockudrama made Ray Winstone a star and featured bullying, torture, rape and riot. Dog Pound assembles the same porridge-party essentials. But the ensemble of young actors doesn’t produce a star and the older actors are a bit naff and stilted. Were the screws and wardens given script pages while the teenagers were let off the leash and told, “Improvise”?
Graphic and gonzo at best, at worst Dog Pound suffers from a lack of viewpoint. It’s a film about “attitude” with no attitude. The boys beat each other up in the showers, chuck chairs in anger-management class, swap dirty stories in the dorm, and go the full rebellious charge towards lock-down. We still say, as the credits roll: “Yes, and … ?”
Scott Pilgrim vs the World (), a US comedy about growing pains, is such a lot of fun that I wanted to give up my share so someone else could have it. Critics are sometimes slow to laugh at 10 on a Monday morning. But this week we were swelled by members of the public, brought in to set a Stakhanovite example.
That they didn’t laugh either was due to a technicality: the film wasn’t funny. But no one can begrudge Michael Cera (Juno etc) his star quality, plying that angel smile and helium monotone until one wants, in the fondest way, to strangle him. Nor can one avoid admiring the kooky dialogue, the optical gimmicks (comic-book exclamations, split screens) and the ability to spin out a single plot idea, a suitor’s war against the villainous “exes” of his girlfriend, to 112 minutes, reduced just before the press show from 150. To the question scientists and philosophers have been asking for centuries, “Can whimsical comedy be irritating?”, the answer is Yes. Scott Pilgrim tries so hard to be loved that it ends up very trying indeed.
The Girl Who Played with Fire () is part two of novelist Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, following The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What a plot. Characters take turns to be shot, burned, beaten, axed or buried-for-dead, before taking their next turn in the cyclical development to come back to life. Noomi Rapace is again the heroine, a pierced, punkish bisexual detective with childhood brutalisation issues, and the time flies by, as so often when you cannot believe the tale(s) someone is trying to get away with telling you.
Likewise with The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (). Imagine an evil German surgeon (Dieter Laser) suturing three people to each other, mouth to, er, rhymes-with-a-famous-planet, so that they form the title insect. Then imagine how the “insect” looks and behaves; then imagine it running amok; then imagine, since it is true, that part two – THC (Full Sequence) – is already in the can. Which is where many of us will be, seeking relief for emetically affected stomachs.