Friday, December 7, 2012

The Tyranny of Freedom, the Persistence of Structure

We all yearn for freedom, be it financial, political, emotional or otherwise, we forever strive to be the masters of our own destiny. We are told freedom is the optimal condition for humanity to exist in, but is it? Consider some of those who have come closest to living beyond societal or familial constraints. I'm speaking of the most wealthy and powerful. Initially, their freedom appears a good thing, but at some asymptotic point where they are converging on almost total free will and absolute independence from outside control, they begin being seduced by their own darkest desires and self-destruction soon follows. If "...absolute power corrupts absolutely" what effect does complete freedom from boundaries erected by the culture, institution or family have on the individual?
Not long ago, I watched an excellent documentary on Hulu called Shadow Billionaire. It's subject was Larry Hillblom, the man who co-founded the international transport service, DHL. A wizard in organization, Hillblom was largely responsible for breaking up the monopoly held by the US Postal Service in package delivery. I felt a special kind of kinship with Mr Hillblom as we both attended the same tiny, small town high school and graduated from the same modest, central valley college in California, albeit 17 years apart. So it was with some sadness that I watched his rags to riches story that ultimately culminated in his submission to his darkest desires. This behavior continued to have repercussions long after his demise in the form of several illegitimate offspring who laid claim to his estate. With a degree of financial, political and societal freedom that most of us will never know, Hillblom not only destroyed himself, but the empire he helped to establish by surrendering to his darkest desires and denying the families he created.


Ever since seeing Serge and Jane's little girl in the Fran├žois Truffaut penned story, La petite voleuse (The Little Thief)I've been hooked, and over the years, she's become my favorite actor, bar none. Soft-spoken, with doe eyes and long, gazelle-like limbs, Charlotte Gainsbourg doesn't appear to be a tough, iron-willed, risk taker but she's proved herself exactly that over the past two decades with film roles that range from the most avant garde, like Lemming, Antichrist and The Science of Sleep to classics like Jane Eyre and Les Miserables. Working with varied, artistically adept directors, everyone from long time partner Yvan Attal to Franco Zeffirelli, she's currently pulling the hat trick with her third Lars von Trier movie in the past four years. In addition, she's released three musical albums to critical acclaim and speaks flawless French and English. And if that's not enough, on the personal front, she had her third child in 2011 at age 39 after bouncing back from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2007. Did I mention she was tough?


SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains spoilers bigger than this car's for both The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and The Cement Garden.

In Laird Koenig's novel The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, a teenage girl goes to great lengths to maintain her freedom and independence. The evil in the story comes from characters both outside and within her family attempting to control the girl and manipulate her for their own corrupt desires or agendas. The little girl, Rynn, wishes only to be the master of her own fate and is not corrupted by her freedom, but does kill to defend it as the absence of family makes her vulnerable to various adult predators. The Koenig novel is kind of an independence manifesto that could apply to the underaged, women or really any oppressed minority. Along with its film adaptation, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane would make a great companion piece to Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden where the child protagonists find themselves exploring their own independence when they too suddenly become free from adult authority. The two stories are an odd reflection of each other in the striking plot parallels that occur in each. Both have dead mothers in the cellar, dead fathers elsewhere and willful kids left alone to fend for themselves. Theme, setting and character-wise, however, the stories couldn't be further apart. Koenig's novel speaks to the potential abuse the powerless must struggle with, whereas McEwan's novel concerns not only the corrupting aspects of absolute freedom, but the persistence of structure, in this case family, which always seems to reassert itself. 

Ian McEwan's novel was faithfully adapted into a film by writer/director Andrew Birkin in 1994. The Cement Garden is set in an aging cinder block tract house surrounded by abandoned, crumbling structures in a lower middle class section of London. A family of six live in the house including the middle-aged mother and father, eldest, 17-year old daughter, Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), 15-year old son Jack (Andrew Robertson), 13-year old Sue (Alice Coulthard) and youngest son Tom (Ned Birkin). Early on, both parents die of natural causes leaving the children on their own. To avoid the possibility of being broken up, they decide not to inform the authorities and encase their mother in cement in a basement locker.

Not long after their mother's death, a subtle entropy ensues and the family structure begins to break down. There's some nice imagery used by Birkin to show this slow disintegration including piles of unwashed dishes in the kitchen, broken masonry around the house and an ever scrungier Jack who ceases bathing. With the absence of authority, the four children begin acting out their heretofore hidden and questionable desires. Baby of the family, Tom, is tired of being a boy, and with the help and encouragement of his sisters, begins dressing as a girl. Jack, who is already a typical, taciturn, self-centered, testosterone-encumbered, onanistic, teenage boy, retreats even further into his self-absorbtion and fantasies. He is also obviously attracted to older sister, Julie, but she has only disdain for him initially. Julie herself begins an inappropriate relationship with a 33-year old, slick, upper class, manager-type, named Derek, who drives a sporty red car.

At a certain point, either family structure begins to reassert itself, or it simply implodes, I haven't really been able to figure out the ending to this day. I do know that Jack's transformation near the end plays a big role as does Julie's power sharing. Nonetheless, I think that both characters' actions can be interpreted as either defending or reestablishing the family structure. In the novel, Jack challenges Julie in a game of housecleaning. This simple act symbolically reverses the entropy and structural breakdown that has taken place reestablishing order in the house. I much prefer this device than the movie's in which Jack runs around naked in a rainstorm. The latter is more cinematic, but the former just makes more practical sense, although I guess both can be seen as a cleansing of sorts. Julie ultimately shuts out her older boyfriend Derek, who wants to be part of the family, in favor of Jack who obviously is family. This action further reestablishes and strengthens the family's structure (symbolically anyway, I wouldn't recommend sleeping with your sibling as a way to improve family relations). This is foreshadowed quite nicely earlier in the film when Jack finds little brother Tom dressed as a girl playing  "house" with one of his mates. Tom explains that sometimes he and his friend are pretending to be Derek and Julie, sometimes they are Jack and Julie. Jack realizes he's not only being cast in the father/husband role for the first time, but is a legitimate rival of Derek's.

Subsequently, Jack begins assuming the role of paternal protector by lying about the contents of the basement locker to Derek, even using one of his father's phrases to close out the conversation. It's at this point that Julie also begins to close ranks as well, siding with Jack and turning against Derek. Tom inadvertently spills the beans to Derek, but by then, the family has already reconstituted itself and Derek and the outside world become irrelevant. The last shot of the film, which is remarkably beautiful, is of Jack and Julie sleeping naked, entangled in each other post-coitus, while the blue strobe of a police car illuminates the bedroom.

In the novel, McEwan uses the phrase "still and fixed" no less than three times in describing the environment, or at least, Jack's impression of it. Andrew Birkin's direction picks up on that description with carefully framed still shots of the house, the characters and the surrounding desolate area. This helps amplify the bleakness described in the novel, and gives the film a strange, decaying beauty. This state of decay is further enhanced by the pale, almost sickly, bleached out green and beige color palette that is ubiquitous throughout the movie.

The original score for the film was Ed Shearmur's first crack at composing and it's quite good chamber music that comes in during bridge scenes and at the end but is used with restraint by Birkin as the dramatic scenes need little more to connect with the viewer.

The acting is outstanding, especially that of Gainsbourg and Robertson who carry most of the scenes and have to do a lot of emotionally raw stuff. Their sibling love/hate relationship feels very authentic with all of its arguments and power plays. One example that demonstrates this sibling rivalry early on in the film occurs when Gainsbourg's Julie basically accuses Jack of being self-centered, Jack replies, "If people really like me, they'll take me as I am" to which Julie, after a beautifully pregnant pause, responds simply and icily, "If". This was Gainsbourg's first English-speaking role and she absolutely knocks it out of the ball park. Her character is intimidating, beautiful and more than a little manipulative and Gainsbourg nails her in a quite subtle fashion. In the novel, McEwan describes her beauty as scary to Jack, and this aspect is brought to the screen in a very understated way by Gainsbourg. Every move her character makes in the film seems confident and un-self conscious. 

I don't know whether it was by design or serendipity that the inexperienced Robertson was cast opposite of Gainsbourg, but he acquits himself well in a role where he has to, among other uncomfortable things, pretend to masturbate while looking at himself in the mirror. He seems genuinely uncomfortable around Gainsbourg, up until the end, which suits the character perfectly. Since Jack is ultimately the central character (he's the narrator in the book), the movie wouldn't have worked without a believable performance from Robertson. The other two kids are also excellent representations of the novel's characters.

I don't think there are any weaknesses to the film, although it is intentionally plodding which may put some people off. It is an extremely faithful representation of the novel with only a few minor changes. I'm very surprised Burkin hasn't directed since this picture, though he continues to write, as he is an exceptionally talented director. It is nice to see his niece, Charlotte, continuing to be rewarded in the form of ever more risky and avant garde roles which arguably began with Julie in The Cement Garden.

Finally, I like the thematic notion that there are naturally occurring, freedom-limiting structural entities like family that can create order out of chaos. Too much freedom, as someone like Larry Hillbom might conclude, is not necessarily a healthy thing. We need certain institutions in place to keep some semblance of order and cleanliness even if, or especially if, it puts limits on our freedom and desires.

Final Score 8.75/10