It’s silly and barely credible and probably half an idea which simply won’t shift, but water trickles between David Mackenzie’s feature films.
It’s silly and barely credible and probably half an idea which simply won’t shift, but water trickles between David Mackenzie’s feature films. It drenches his characters, it drowns some of them, it soothes them, it flows past others, it provides status to a couple of them, and generally gushes out in some fashion or another. Admittedly this might be a specious theme to point out. Anyone making films might conceivably run their camera past some water on a blue planet. Maybe it just rains a lot in Mackenzie’s home country of Scotland.
Yet when considering some of Mackenzie’s characters the allegory of the ship of fools comes to mind or John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia floating in the river, or the hydrogen bonding between water molecules which make it so distinctive and necessary for life. Blue symbolises melancholia.
Fittingly for an argument that may not hold water, the substance plays a limited role in Perfect Sense, the film that sums up lots of these ideas. The world experiences a gradual loss of its senses in a horrifying pandemic that strips them away one by one. It’s an artistic take on the zombie or outbreak genre similar to Blindness or Melancholia. Sight is the last to go – there wouldn’t be much of a film past this point! Here Mackenzie immerses his characters and his audience, into a sensory deprivation tank, into water effectively. As each sense departs, panic and anger and other extreme emotions give way to celebration at the senses that remain. For an apocalyptic scenario it’s a remarkably optimistic film. Some run riot but more carry on and try to cope with life, embracing it more keenly as it ebbs away.
Other than Ewan McGregor cycling along the River Clyde, water in Perfect Sense is generally absent. Elsewhere it tends to be more obviously prominent. Young Adam, the Alexander Trocchi adaptation, is set in part aboard a barge and opens with the protagonist finding a drowned body in the water. Asylum again has a drowning. So too does Hallam Foe, where the title character’s family own a country house with its own loch. Then in Spread, Mackenzie’s American excursion starring Ashton Kutcher, status is indicated by owning a house in the Hollywood hills with a swimming pool. Finally in You Instead moody rain clouds overhang the music festival setting with mud all around. Regrettably for this argument there’s little water in Mackenzie’s debut feature The Last Great Wilderness other than the lead’s intention to head to the Isle of Skye to burn down the house of the musician who stole his wife, and another character’s surprising method of scrubbing his testicles in a service-station wash room sink.<
More convincingly relationships are key in Mackenzie’s films. Weighed down with the ‘anti-romantic’ moniker around his neck, his characters tend to be dysfunctional types who find therapy in relationships. All seven of his films have this to some degree with a about half turning out badly. Sophia Myles sums in up in Hallam Foe when she says that she “loves creepy guys”. The level of pathology spills over into the plots notably in The Last Great Wilderness and Asylum where it actively requires therapy. Both films are set around contrasting clinical settings. The Last Great Wilderness has its freewheeling RD Laing inspired commune. Asylum has its staid 1950s post-war all-in-it-together hierarchical mental institute.
More convincingly relationships are key in Mackenzie’s films
Every play, book or film has to be set somewhere and Mackenzie’s seem particularly insular. There are not quite as cloistered as, say, Wes Anderson’s dolls-houses but these groupings definitely draw attention to themselves. The commune in The Last Great Wilderness, the barge in Young Adam, the mental asylum in Asylum, the hotel in Hallam Foe, the pickup scene in Spread, the kitchen in Perfect Sense, the bands in You Instead and so on. All these characters could be on a ship floating down river trying to feel something.
The highlight of these people with problems would be Mackenzie’s two best films to date, Young Adam and Hallam Foe. McGregor’s character in Young Adam is a drifting writer wrecking lives all around him through inaction. The body in the river at the beginning is revealed to be his former girlfriend. He does nothing to betray that he knows her when they fish her corpse out. He does nothing when we discover in flashback that he was there when she fell in. He does nothing when an innocent man goes to the gallows for her murder. Not pathological behaviour, he does half-heartedly try to inform the authorities about his involvement, but not quite right by societal norms or hopes. Hallam Foe is much more obviously troubled failing to cope with the suicide of his mother and his spiky new American step-mother. He resorts to voyeurism and urban mountaineering across the rooftops and spires of Edinburgh.
Hallam Foe is considerably more uplifting than Young Adam. Foe resolves his emotional turbulence after some trauma for example; Joe in Young Adam simply drifts away at the end. Joe’s sole creation would appear to be custard. Even that ends up discarded and upended atop Emily Mortimer (as the doomed girlfriend Cathie) in one of the film’s more memorable sex scenes. Crucially, both of these films submerge their characters with a very present sense of danger. The Last Great Wilderness holds this menace also with its Monarch of the Glen meets The Wicker Man machinations.
Given that his stock-in-trade is messy relationships Mackenzie also handles messy sex of the kind that seems faintly realistic (perhaps the custard above goes too far…). Not an easy thing to do at all. You Instead is his sole feature without nudity of some kind. Young Adam again returns to the fore with its free spirited approach. The most memorable scene being a shot of a fly skittering around Tilda Swinton’s breast, more than earning her status of being an utterly fearless actress. In an instant the hopeless dead end relationship between Joe and the barge owning Ella fesses up. It’s repulsive; it’s magnificent. Otherwise the intimate stuff tends to be prominent but more conventional. Only Hallam Foe comes close to using it in anywhere near as interesting a way with Foe’s voyeurism. Once Foe’s finally made it into Sophia Myles’ bed he sees a doppelganger spying from above.
Spread deserves mention here for effort and for the benefits of a director being preoccupied with sex. An Ashton Kutcher vehicle running close to the plot of Alfie, it’s stuffed full of, well, stuffing. Running perilously close to idolising the vacuous lifestyle it’s knocking it redeems itself in the end. Spread dodges the usual ‘going to Hollywood’ trap and preserves some integrity for Mackenzie despite being one of his weaker efforts. Knowing when to use a sex scene never seems to hurt a director’s career.
As Trevor Johnston put it in Sight & Sound, David Mackenzie turns out his “own brand of not-quite-classifiable movies”. He hit his critical high with Young Adam and it continues to soak everything he’s done since. Somewhat unfairly it was his second film. The danger present there only really recurred in Hallam Foe and the very-occasional frenzied scenes in Perfect Sense. Mackenzie’s characters and films seem to work best when they are held kicking and screaming beneath the water line. Only then do they start to truly feel something.
16 July 2012