Tuesday, January 14, 2014

'Belle' (2014) directed by Jon Max Spatz

In Belle we see a woman confronted with obsolescence. It's the morning of the sixteenth birthday of her beautiful daughter, Belle and time has come a-knockin' for her mother.  In painful scenes she, perhaps for the first time, truly understands the horror of oncoming decrepitude and suffers a hallucinatory freakout: a blur of bondage, blades, blood and thick gloopy, suffocating makeup.  This is an uncomfortable, claustrophobic and short horror film with the aim of inducing a nightmare state.  And it's all sponsored by the Jobcentre.

As I outlined in my previous article on Belle's production, every Head of Department on the film was assisted by a trainee supplied by the Jobcentre.  These are young people who, perhaps foolishly, explained to their adviser that they wanted to work in film.  As one of the trainees, Guy Larsen, explained, he was ready to be laughed out of the room when he said this, probably figuring his destiny was Workfare slavery in the Poundland salt mines.  But, (I imagine to his surprise) his advisor got him a placement as Assistant Director on Belle

That such a weird little short is preceded by the Jobcentre logo feels like one in the eye for bureaucracy, a subversion of a system designed to produce minimum-wage (or no-wage) slaves.  You'd assume that the natural product of a collaboration between artists and the Jobcentre would be neutered: horror playing it safe with all the awfulness that implies.  But Belle feels like its slipped through the cracks, bypassing the censor's pen and miraculously arriving fully-formed and odd as they come.

Even better, this isn't something the Jobcentre are trying to sweep under the rug; they appear genuinely proud of these results.  At the premiere John Paul-Marks, Work Services Director at Jobcentre Plus, explained his pride in placing young jobseekers in proper creative roles, looking pleased as punch to have something positive to talk for once.  Also speaking was Esther McVey, Minister for Employment, who, presumably after getting a whiff of potentially positive press, attached herself to proceedings like some horrible woman shaped barnacle.

I'm going to assume that neither of these people, especially not McVey, had seen the film prior to the screening.  I like to imagine they felt a quiver of apprehension when they saw what their organisations had begotten.  You can imagine the Daily Mail now; "Your taxes at work as Minister for Employment attends government funded bizarro art horror short." All this background gives the film a pinch of subversive spice that adds a nice extra-textual bite to the night.

Fortunately, though all this behind the scenes funding stuff is fascinating for film production and political geeks, Belle is a pretty wonderful short film.  Though the location is middle class domesticity, the real setting is the face of lead actor Lindsey Readman.  Her character works in fashion and is painfully aware of every crease and sag across her face and body, Spatz mercilessly subjects to her to endless clinical closeups, framing and lighting her features not with an eye to for unflattery, but rather towards honesty.

The pinnacle of this is a shot of Readman getting dressed in the bedroom.  It's full frontal nudity, though relaxed and entirely unsexualised.  This is the kind of image you just don't get to see often in film and works wonders in immediately summarising the aims and ambitions of Belle.  But it's in the facial close-ups, scored to woozily distorted piano that the short finds its true rhythm.  There's a bravery here both in front and behind the camera lens; the actors allowing the audience to scrutinise their beauty and the director in trusting that these images are interesting enough to keep the audience's attention. It's in the (perhaps unconscious) movements of her facial muscles that the mother's character lies, particularly in the scene where she applies makeup with a King Canute-ish weariness.  It's a performance marked by subtlety and attention to detail, and without Readman it's questionable whether the film would have worked half as well as it does.

So, tonally and visually Belle just plain works, my only criticism is the length. To properly grapple with something as weighty as the expectations on women to conform to standards of beauty and wider philosophical notions of mortality and being superceded by youth cries out for a longer run-time.  Though Belle successfully approaches these topics, the limited run time means that it only scratches the surface.  The short finishes at the precise moment it feels like we're going somewhere, the finale not so much a conclusion as the moment when things get really interesting.  The themes that Belle attempts to convey are so resonant that as the credits roll, we wish that we'd just seen the opening of a film rather than a self-contained short.

Still, hungering for more is definitely a good sign.  Belle isn't notable just because of the unique circumstances behind its production, it's an intelligent, technically competent and promising piece of cinema that deserves to be widely seen.  I have no idea if the production team have ambitions to turn it into a full-length feature, but if they do they've sown a fertile thematic field with Belle that should bear a bountiful cinematic harvest.


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