Any filmgoers reading this blog will likely have numerous anecdotes about poor behaviour during films. I can remember as far back as 1989, during a screening of Sex, Lies and Videotape at the Showcase Cinema just outside Walsall, one particularly aggrieved fellow standing up mid-film to scream, “This. Movie. Is SHIT!” before storming out, presumably to ask for a refund seeing as how this wasn’t porn like he’d been promised. Since then I’ve experienced a spectrum of memorable audience reactions, from spontaneous bursts of applause to threats of violence if I dare to ask someone to shut up twenty minutes into Blade (no, I didn’t take him up on his offer of a fight; yes, sitting there for 70 minutes next to the same furious guy was a bit awkward).
Then there are the infamous festival reactions you hear of in Cannes and Venice; 22 minute ovations (surely unsustainable; does the audience delegate changing shifts of applauders to maintain the illusion?) or booing. Terrible behaviour, with the filmmakers in the room. The London Film Festival’s more polite than that, with only a mass walkout during Irreversible entering into LFF lore. Of course I’ve applauded after a movie (I nearly clapped my hands off after Black Swan), but I’ve resisted the urge to boo (though it was hard with Essential Killing and It’s Kind Of A Funny Story), and have yet to vomit (though it was a close call after Take Shelter). The audiences I’ve been a part of have similarly kept to the British code; polite applause then post-screening bile.
This year saw that change, and the unexpected sense of solidarity or outrage shown during the screenings of Helter Skelter and Compliance that I attended were among the most amusing things I’ve experienced at the LFF. Fashion photographer Mika Ninagawa‘s adaptation of Kyoko Okazaki’s manga Helter Skelter is a hit in Japan but has yet to get an international release schedule. For much of the movie I thought this was a shame, and was prepared to use SoC to promote it as hard as I could, especially to a number of people I know online who would find its commentary on feminism, sexuality, celebrity culture and the media’s exploitation of women fascinating. And then…
First thing’s first. Helter Skelter‘s protagonist, Lilico (played by model and musician Erika Sawajiri) is a model and budding actress, famous across Japan, beloved by teenage girls and one of the biggest stars in the stable of Hiroko Tada (Kaori Momoi). Her public persona is at odds with her true self; an egotistical, paranoid, sexually manipulative child-woman whose image has been manufactured by her manager to the point of changing her appearance using advanced cosmetic surgery techniques requiring drugs to prevent tissue rejection. Lilico treats everyone around her like dirt, especially her assistant Michiko Hata (Shinobu Terajima), who becomes embroiled in the model’s psychosexual meltdowns and descent into criminality.
Lilico’s mental and physical state deteriorates further once rival model Kozue Yoshikawa (US model Kiko Mizuhara) begins to surpass her success, leading her to make greater demands of those around her to consolidate her shrinking empire. Her choices become wilder, her psyche more fractured, while the police get closer to shutting down the clinic that has been keeping her image intact. By the end of the second act, Ninagawa’s movie has moved into a realm of berserk sexual fantasy that mimics the gaudy, sexually-charged cinema of De Palma, Argento and Almodovar, her imagery saturated with vivid crimson; All About Eve by way of Body Double, The Skin I Live In and Black Swan. If you know me, you’ll know I’m absolutely fine with that.
It was going great at this point. Lilico enlisting her assistant’s help in terrible crimes and creepy bondage sex games, having tantrums about her waning influence and fame, concocting sickening plans against her rivals; all gold. Sawajiri — a Japanese icon similarly suffering a dip in fortunes, as well as much gossiped-about health issues — plays Lilico brilliantly, giving this toweringly awful primadonna enough of an inner life that, between crimes, she’s almost sympathetic, humanised by the arrival of her sister and flashes of vulnerability, as well as the recognisable fear of obsolescence that we all feel. As for Ninagawa, even occasional rocky moments and overconfident flourishes seem to work, probably because the tale is familiar, and we can relax with it.
But it is not to be. Ninagawa proceeds to overbake her movie with a final half hour designed to break our endurance, offering a number of unsatisfying scenes all of which would make poor endings, but would at least have been an ending, instead of the patience-sapping, repetitious trudge we get. All good will deserted me from the moment Lilico finally met the pretentious cop who has been obsessing over her throughout (Nao Omori, unintentionally hilarious as the profundity-spouting Makoto Asada), in a scene shot in an aquarium that must have been at least two years long. My bodyclock melted, Dali-style, as the scene trickled onward, the dance of the shoal behind them hypnotising me into a trance, if trances can be considered “increasingly annoyed”.
Any points made by Ninagawa and screenwriter Arisa Kaneko about the cruelty of celebrity culture, and the damage caused by the passing fancies of a hungry public are repeated over and over again to decreasing effect. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. As one subsequent scene faded to black, a woman behind me began half-heartedly applauding, only to stop when another scene started. Two scenes later, the screen again faded to black, only to come up again for yet another shot of Tokyo, triggering an outburst of “JESUS!” from the back of the room. When the credits finally rolled ten minutes later, no one applauded, probably waiting to be sure the credits wouldn’t stop for one last recap of the film’s theme.
I had intended to stay for the Q&A in order to ask Ninagawa who her influences were but I was so annoyed by this mood-tainting ordeal that I got out of there and raced across town to catch another screening instead (Blancanieves, which I didn’t like much either. That was a crap day). This misjudgement of the narrative’s sell-by date made me re-evaluate everything else about Helter Skelter. All the tonal mistakes and plot confusions from earlier were suddenly disastrous folly, not forgivable errors of an overly ambitious thriller. Even though I’d enjoyed Sawajiri’s hysterical performance, all I could remember after were the ponderous, risible scenes of Omori’s policeman staring out of a window talking about butterflies and ash or other cod-profound things.
And yet this audience reaction was nothing compared to that afforded Craig Zobel’s Compliance, a thriller based on real events (spoilers on that page, sort of). It tells of a put-upon fast food restaurant manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), who receives a call from a policeman (Officer Daniels, superbly creepy work from Pat Healy) claiming that one of her staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer. Already distracted because of concerns over a refrigerator mishap that may get her in trouble with her superiors, as well as a possible visit from one of the chain’s secret customers, Sandra takes the policeman’s claim at face value, despite her ambivalent feelings about Becky.
Officer Daniels makes numerous claims about not being able to come straight to the restaurant to interrogate Becky, but threatens that unless the staff do as he orders, she will be taken into custody. This threat is enough to make Becky commit an increasingly outlandish series of acts in order to placate the alternately charming / sinister policeman, all with the compliance of Sandra, who is so frazzled by pressure and fear that she begins to delegate the job of monitoring the young woman to other people, who also take the authority of the voice on the other end of the line at face value, so to speak. There follows a chain of events I’m loath to spoil.
By the midpoint of the film it’s obvious that Officer Daniels is not to be trusted, and the gullibility of the restaurant’s staff is shocking. But it’s easy for us to say that. After the film ended my main complaint was that it was simply unbelievable that any human would go along with the insane orders given by Daniels, which meant the most controversial and upsetting scene, which occurs late in the film, struck me as a step too far. And yet it all happened, even to the point that the Wikipedia page for this specific case (one of many) mentions a line from one of the actual participants that is included in the film (spoilers for the actual film, again).
There’s that old writing rule that even if something really happened, it doesn’t mean it will seem believable in a story, and this is no exception. But it did happen, and with that knowledge I can look back on Compliance with a clearer head, especially as, during the film, I experienced a cognitive meltdown so complete that I could hardly concentrate. The agonisingly slow pace of events, and the increasingly bizarre demands made on Becky, are almost too much to bear, made worse by Sandra’s cluelessness — Dowd is excellent, playing the manager as a deluded oaf whose well-meaning nature is overwhelmed by the threat of censure — and Becky’s youthful insecurity, meaning she barely has a voice, and certainly no agency at all.
This tension became too much to bear for our audience. As Sandra enlists her fiancee Van (Bill Camp) to help watch over Becky, the earlier hints that Officer Daniels has a much darker motive than we had feared become an actuality, and the audience rebelled. Someone at the back of the room shouted out something along the lines of, “You don’t have to just sit here and watch it, you know”; an admonition directed at us, not the characters onscreen. A couple of minutes later we heard, “That’s it, you have to leave now,” which could either have been security or the aggrieved viewer yelling at us again. Some audience members took this cue and got up; about thirty people left, with the rest of us openly grumbling and complaining at the events on the screen.
I asked the ushers afterwards what had happened; turns out some audience members had indeed been thrown out for causing a commotion. By now this audience rejection has become a common reaction to Zobel’s movie. As I came out I tweeted that the screening was extremely controversial, and thanks to @ScottEweinberg and @jamieandaston my words reached the ears of Officer Daniels himself, Mr. @Pat_Healy, who revealed that there had been similar problems at an SAG screening, not to mention the notoriously contentious post-movie Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival, which saw audience members argue with Zobel and the cast. This IndieWire article comments on Zobel’s intentions, listing other experiences of audience rebellion during the movie.
An excellent publicity stunt? As much as I’d like to say I would never behave like those audience members (and I didn’t), at numerous points in the movie I really did want to stand up and scream at the screen. Even Bigas Luna’s (literally) hypnotic Anguish didn’t affect me like that. The degradation of Becky by regular people who don’t have the courage to reject Daniels’ authority is so relentless that it feels like you’re having an electrical wire dragged across your nerves, especially as you are compelled to place yourself in that situation and think, “I wouldn’t do that”. The audience engages in a kind of combat with the film; we expect our good sense to prevail, but it doesn’t. The result is unbearable frustration, as Zobel intended.
The infamous Milgram experiments have shown that we are likely to respond to orders from authoritative individuals in ways that bypass our own sense of morality, leading to us doing terrible things. Zobel adds an extra layer by making the audience “complicit” in the events onscreen by daring us to stay in our seats as the lengthy debasement of Becky — cleverly played by Walker as a blank slate in some scenes and as a terrified, emotional human in others — begins to reach a point at which we will be forced to see things we don’t want to see. As Richard Corliss says here, this is a movie that works best when you’re trapped in a cinema, and turning the film off with the click of a button isn’t an option.
Some have said that Compliance‘s tricks are not enlightening, with some complaining that this is voyeurism with no purpose. Why put yourself through it? Is Zobel merely playing a Derren Brown prank on the audience just for laughs? Is this just a cruel game? While enduring the movie I thought back to the most chilling scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, in which we watch Henry and Otis murder a family, and then realise we are watching a video of the murder that they have recorded so that they too can rewatch it and enjoy it; our voyeurism thrown back in our faces. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is often cited as another influence on Compliance, though I haven’t found the courage to watch either version of it so I can’t say with authority.
But beyond the movie references, the person I kept thinking about was Lynndie England, whose disgusting acts in Abu Ghraib were explained by her as responses to orders from above. And not just her. As Zobel says, people are more likely to do terrible things when forced into a corner, or threatened with the loss of a job, or other forms of extreme official censure. “Some people have to eat shit for their jobs because they need the money,” he says, and this rings so true it hurts. I’m terrified of losing my job, knowing that there’s very little else out there. You don’t need anything as extreme as the fear of death or terrorism to make you accept loss of liberty or privacy; you just have to think about being broke and unemployed. That fear keeps me up at night.
What some see as cruelty, or games played on the audience to see how much discomfort they will swallow before walking out of a movie, Zobel is forcing us to look at our behaviour, waking us up to the sudden dip in critical thinking we face when threatened with loss of liberty. Post-9/11, post-financial-meltdown, we’re all more vulnerable, not only to danger or poverty in the real world, but to the change of view in which we accept privation or tyranny in order to maintain our status quo. Our civil liberties are being eroded every day, and sometimes we’re even complicit in this, using the internet to publicise details about ourselves without care (Daniels’ actions also smack of the most extreme form of trolling; Zobel might be making a point about that too).
Helter Skelter attempts to make the audience think about its complicity in the celebrity culture, making demands of stars that we build up and knock down almost as a game. These people are twisted by the passing fancies of the crowd, the chattering teenage girls who obsess over their idols and they cast them aside as soon as a new model comes along. Ninagawa does her best to express our part in this cruelty, but either through poor storytelling or some cultural barrier that I can’t get past Helter Skelter fails to make an emotional connection between the idea and our perception of ourselves, and as such is merely a garish exercise in hand-wringing, made worse by the movie’s lack of focus or resolute endpoint.
Compliance, on the other hand, brilliantly portrays recognisable humans doing terrible things out of fear and, by making us a part of that crime, reveals to us how close we are to becoming drones, our autonomy forever sacrificed because we don’t have the mental energy to think past the noise of the world we live in. This isn’t a movie about movie violence, like Henry and (so I gather) Funny Games; this is about the real world, and the way we have mutely accepted our own degradation. The precariousness of our situation in an economy as fragile as this has led to a situation where we can be easily manipulated by anyone, and Compliance makes that point personal by playing with our expectations. It’s a needle that prods us until we snap.
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” said Ben Franklin, and Zobel’s deeply upsetting but essential movie is arguably the most rigorous depiction in recent times of that concept, and the consequences of our ignorance / denial of our part in our own enslavement. My reaction to Compliance was so visceral that I’m tempted to say that it’s the most important film of the year. Perhaps that’s a bit too “poster quote”. However I have no qualms about saying it’s the one that will make you the most uncomfortable, intentionally rubbing its point in the audience’s face until it screams “UNCLE” and bolts for the door. See it in a room full of people, and prepare for fireworks.