Thursday, November 28, 2013

'Powder Room' (2013) directed by M.J. Delaney ★★★★

A mark of a good film is showing an audience something new: be it exploring strange science-fiction worlds, heightened pulp realities or just letting us experience the limits of human experience.  Powder Room show us something exciting and new, something not really seen before in cinema - an impressive feat considering the film takes place almost entirely in a women's toilet.  This is consciously mundane subject matter, yet with a clever script, excellent acting and some stylish directing the film transcends a (literally) bog-standard location and emerges a compelling and warm piece of cinema.

The film takes place over one big night out at a club.  Our heroine Sam (Sheridan Smith) is miserable, frustrated and determined never to let anyone find out.  She's stuck in some provincial town grinding through the days in a crap job while her Facebook wall is plastered with pictures of her friends getting married, travelling the world, having successful careers: -basically living the dream.  

Joining her are two friends, Michelle (Kate Nash) and Jess (Oona Chaplin). Both are stylish, attractive and successful.  Michelle is engaged and living the high life, and Jess lives a Parisian dream life with her husband, child and art collection.  Every moment Sam spends with them makes her feel ever more inferior - their success accentuating her own failings. Further adding to her woes is the unexpected appearance of her local friends: Chanel (Jaime Winstone), Paige (Riann Steele) and Saskia (Sarah Hoare).  From Sam's point of view their presence is an embarrassing reminder of a dull life that, just for one night, she'd like to pretend isn't happening.

As Sam battles to keep these two worlds colliding, her friends experience their own personal miseries and joys.  We take in snapshots of other groups of girls within the club; some teenagers who've snuck in with an older sister's ID, a woman looking for tips on phone sex, a girl who's turned up in fancy dress by mistake and many other glimpsed stories.  The women's bathroom thus becomes the stage for a byzantine psychodrama of recriminations, bitchy backstabbing, puking, sexual frustration and black rivers of mascara tears.

That Powder Room stands out so much in having an all-female cast is a bit depressing.  It's inevitable that this film is going to be pigeonholed as a 'chick flick' purely because it's concerned with emotional development and takes place in a location heavily coded as feminine.  I think an interesting way to look at it is as an sibling to Reservoir Dogs; a film largely set in one increasingly claustrophobic location and with all male cast. No-one thinks of Reservoir Dogs as a film particularly 'for' men - they just consider it a great film.

Powder Room deserves to be thought of in the same way.  Even though the film takes pains to accurately depict the relationships, neuroses and psychology of women, the roots of their problems are by no means uniquely feminine.  I found it exceptionally easy to relate to Sam's predicament, sympathetic to her embarrassment and sadly familiar with her frustrations. Male or female, we all know the shame of a close friend discovering that we've cruelly bitched about them behind their back.  We're all familiar with that bottomless sinkhole that opens up in our guts as we realise we're about to be caught out in a lie.  Most importantly, if we're being honest, we're all achingly aware of the gaping gulf between what our lives are and what we want them to be.

This core of the film is pitch perfect, but thankfully the film also functions brilliantly as a piece of cinema.  The obvious danger in setting the majority of your film within a bathroom is visual boredom.  But for the film's 86 minutes running time Delaney continually finds new ways of visually exploring the space; surprising us new perspective of the room's geography or lighting.  In addition, there's the occasional shot that dazzles in terms of composition. Something as simple as a wide shot of a smoking area is obviously put together with a careful eye for balance within the frame. Similarly there's a lovely shot of two girls sitting outside the club with blue and red dancefloor lights flashing through windows, contrasting the flat streetlit concrete around them.

Credit also has to go to way they shoot the club, which captures the chaotic drunken, drugged out nature of a nightclub pretty much perfectly.  In most films nigthclubs feel a bit sterile; a room full of extras gently swaying to a song added in post production. Perhaps  Powder Room did this too, but the closely packed shots with unfamiliar, oddly lit faces moving in and out of frame mark visual stylings borne of close personal observation.

Complimenting all this is an absolutely kickass soundtrack curated by Fake Club - a band I like very much.  The band themselves appear in the film, functioning as a loose Greek chorus.  Their brand of trashpunky, snarling, dissolute rock compliments the drama nicely, giving the film a rebellious dynamism and acting as a breather between long swathes of dialogue.  I particularly enjoyed their song Midnight at KOKO, a tribute to finding yourself on the dancefloor in the famous Camden club surrounding by bouncing, beautiful people

For all that, this is an actor's film.  Everything revolves around Sheridan Smith's performance, an actor can communicate a scarily large amount with a twitch of her eyebrows or curl of her lip. Still, everyone gets a moment to shine, my favourite moments being Sarah Hoare's impulsive, gleeful hug when her friend finally agrees to do MDMA with her, Jaime Winstone postcoitally fixing her makeup and cleaning her knees (!) and the tiny dialogue free moment where Kate Nash's Michelle realises her nose is bleeding from too much coke and tries to sniff the blood back up whilst remaining her composure.  

Perhaps the only fly in the ointment is the odd overly theatrical line of dialogue.  The film has its roots in When Women Wee, a play by Rachel Hirons, and very occasionally there are moments of dialogue or scenes blocked in a way that feel suited to stage rather than screen. But these are very small flies, and this is top class ointment.

It's a damn stylish film from the laser-projected opening sequence to the final musical number, containing dollops of pain and humour obviously drawn from personal experience.   Delaney manages the rare trick of being sad and funny at the same time - sometimes even within the same shot! Powder Room really deserves to do well, and though it feels destined to become a cult classic for women who like to drink, smoke and dance themselves through the night, anyone should be able to appreciate the quality here.  A hilarious, touching and deeply impressive directorial debut.

Powder Room is released on December 6th

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