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Archipelago (2011) – Genre not as Tyrant but as Vocabulary

March 10, 2011

There are times when you wish that Ayn Rand had been a literary critic. Who else could ever hope to capture the sense of adolescent rebellion with which critics and authors alike invoke the word ‘genre’? In contemporary culture, genre boundaries seem to exist solely as things to be transgressed. But so many works now ‘redraw the boundaries of genre’ and ‘confound genre expectations’ that genre labels are effectively meaningless. They are empty suits, paper tigers and straw men that exist purely so that authors and critics can claim them to have been defeated by some new towering work of genius. Might it not be time to accept that genre has been so thoroughly transgressed, redefined and deconstructed that there is no longer any glory to be found in escaping its clutches? Might it not be time for a more grown-up attitude towards the idea of genre?

Genre is like a long-suffering parent. Endlessly forgiving and endlessly patient, it responds to its children’s professions of hatred with an affectionate pat on the head and a mug of hot chocolate to calm them down. You can scream, “I hate you! I wish you were dead!” at genre till you are blue in the face and genre will still be there when you need your next film financing or a convention circuit for your book tour. There is nothing heroic or original in transgressing genre because that is precisely what it is there for. So perhaps we should look upon genre not as some cartoon tyrant that artists can easily defeat but rather as a part of what makes up a work of fiction no different to language or lighting or pace. Joanna Hogg’s second film Archipelago displays just this attitude towards genre.

Every inch the genre film, Archipelago sees Hogg taking the basic template of French art house drama (the Victorian novel’s obsession with psychological nuance combined with the system-under-pressure psychological mechanics of psychoanalysis and the sense of perpetual loss of identity forged in existentialism) and applies it to an upper-class English family that simply cannot say how it feels or what it wants. The result is a beautifully shot, exquisitely observed and surprisingly original work of cinema that uses genre expectations not as things to be transgressed but as a means of eliciting an emotional response from the audience.

 

Film Poster

Shot on the Scilly isle of Tresco, Archipelago is an intensely visual piece of filmmaking. Ed Rutherford’s cinematography makes extensive use of clashing colours and textures to repeatedly draw our attention towards the tensions between the characters’ outer calm and their inner emotional turmoil. For example, early in the film Hogg juxtaposes a painting of Tresco with the landscape itself and while the landscape is a gloomy maze of blacks, greys, greens and purples, the canvas is a chorus of reds, yellows and oranges. It is as though the artist, having stared upon the bleakness of the landscape, could only reproduce it in cheerful tones.

 

Edward on a Bike

When Edward (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on Tresco, he is warmly greeted by his mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) and his sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard). For a few moments, the family seem united in happiness as hugs are met with smiles and smiles are accompanied by kisses. However, by the time the family get to their rented house, the rot has begun to set in. Almost immediately, Edward and Cynthia spark off each other over who should have the second bedroom and who should sleep in the attic. This unpleasant confrontation is rendered all the more difficult to watch by the fact that it takes place in an almost absurdly passive-aggressive register. Indeed, neither sibling actually claims the nicer bedroom, instead they squabble over the other’s refusal to take it: “well why don’t you take it?” one says. “I don’t care… really… I don’t mind…” replies the other. The scene rumbles on for what seems like an eternity with both siblings unwilling to either take the room or surrender the right to be the one who ‘graciously’ allows the other to have it.

One of the ways in which genre provides a safety net (even to those people who are desperate to transgress it) is by letting the audience know where the story is headed and what they should and should not be paying attention to. We arrive at Archipelago with a clear set of expectations as to what kind of film it is. These expectations are built up by trailers and reviews as well as such stylistic elements as the sedate pacing, the artful cinematography and the fact that there is nothing going on in the film other than a family interacting. By having Cynthia and Edward over-react to such a trifling issue as who will get the nicer bedroom, Hogg is both further signalling her genre affiliations and drawing our attention to what she thinks we should be paying attention to.

What we should be paying attention to is the fact that this is a deeply unhappy family that is utterly incapable of voicing that unhappiness and so chooses to express itself using the medium insincere and misleading positivity. A style of discourse just as disconnected from reality as the artist’s joyful colours are disconnected from the reality of Tresco.

This attempt to draw our attention to a particular focal point prompts us to start looking around for clues. We know that something is wrong and we know that art house dramas tend to revolve around confronting long-buried issues and so we begin to sniff for clues as to what the real source of tension behind the first argument might be. However, Hogg is surprisingly coy when it comes to revealing what it is that is actually ailing the family. In fact, she never really lets us know what the problem is.

 

Edward and Patricia

Further skirmishes take place as the film progresses. In one scene, Cynthia announces that a picnic lunch has been cancelled because Patricia did not sleep well. “I can’t stand it,” moans Edward with his head in his hands while Cynthia flies into full-on crisis management mode, trying to coax her mother out of bed by promising minimal “faff”. In another scene, the family argue about whether or not Edward should invite the cook to join them at the dinner table for a drink. “He has too much empathy” Patricia opines while Cynthia grinds her teeth in frustration.

Further clues as to the real source of tension come in the shape of gnomic utterances by the artist giving painting lessons to Patricia and Cynthia. As articulate and analytical as the family are not, the artist muses on the need to both surrender oneself to the possibility of chaos and harness the power of abstraction in order to rise above it all and get a clear perspective on things. But for a family as tightly controlled as this, abstraction can never be achieved. In fact, Hogg seems quite intent on denying us any kind of overview.

 

Patricia on the phone

One possible source of tension rears its head when Edward mentions that he is about the fly off to Africa for eleven months in order to council people on reproductive health. With this elephant finally revealed to be in the room, Edward’s family begin to evade it. First Cynthia snipes as Edward over his decision to take what she calls a “gap year” and then Edward decides to confront his family not over their lack of support but for their refusal to allow him to bring his latest girlfriend on holiday with them. As the intensity of the tantrums increases, so does the acrobatic grace with which they evade any particular issue of substance. Particularly brilliant is a very nearly unwatchable scene in which Patricia refuses to choose which table they should all sit at in an empty restaurant before Cynthia works herself into a lather over some food that she believes to be undercooked. “That’s quite dangerous actually” Cynthia sniffs. “It’s delicious actually” Patricia retorts after Cynthia is told that the food is supposed to be under-cooked. These emotional arabesques are so elaborate and so studied that one is tempted to assume that the real source of tension is Edward’s trip to Africa simply because, by the end of the film, it is the only thing not to have propelled the family into convulsions of passive-aggressive sniping. However, the truth seems to be a good deal more complex.

 

Edward and the artist

Most art house dramas surrender themselves to the Freudian notion that we are systems under pressure. Inner tensions boil the waters and, as steam pressure begins to build, our thin veneer of self-control cracks and cracks again. This is the psychological model that prompted us to begin to look for clues when Edward and Cynthia bickered over who should not have the nicer bedroom; We see the cracks and start looking for the safety valve and, all the time, the pressure is building and building. The climax of such films traditionally comes when the boiler explodes and the pressure is released in one huge gush of consolatory steam:

 

“You never came to my little league games!”

“You just let her die!”

“You knew that he was touching me and you did nothing to stop him!”

 

There is always an explosion. The tension that elevates good art house drama above mere kitchen sink realism derives from the fact that we that an explosion is coming, but we do not know when and we do not know why. The tension that flows from this uncertainty means that when an explosion does come, we experience the consolation of catharsis: Vicarious consolation through the characters we are emotionally invested in and structural consolation from the resolution of the narrative, a narrative whose ending we know and expect thanks to our awareness of genre boundaries.

 

Note the gloomy lighting

What makes Archipelago such a compelling film is the fact that, while Hogg proves astonishingly adept at building tension both in the film’s structure and the character’s lives, she is utterly ruthless when it comes to denying us the consolations of catharsis and genre. Indeed, when Archipelago’s explosion does finally come, it takes place off stage.

Cynthia bites into a forkful of pheasant and hurts her tooth on some shot, she then bursts into tears and runs off into the stormy night. Edward pursues her but she is not found and when she does come home her emotional meltdown takes place in another room. Cynthia’s voice is muffled and her accusations are incomprehensible. Even when Edward apologises the following morning he manages to avoid confronting the issue by using a toy badger to issue his apology. This means that even when the explosion does eventually come, it does not clear the air and it brings neither breakthrough nor consolation. It is simply another issue to dance around.

Watching Archipelago, one is always acutely aware of the pressures of genre expectations. As the family grinds through its problems, we know precisely what should happen and what they should do and yet they never seem to do it. This positioning of the audience vis-à-vis the expectations of the genre mirrors the positioning of the characters vis-à-vis what is psychologically healthy. The characters know that if they talk they will feel better and yet they do not talk. We know that if the plot resolved itself in the standard way then we would feel better and yet the plot refuses to resolve itself. The frustration we feel at the film’s stubborn refusal to grant us the consolation of a formulaic ending reproduces the frustration felt by the characters as a result of their own stubborn refusal to confront their problems. The fact that the film’s position with regards to genre is used to create a particular emotional response demonstrates how a less confrontational attitude to genre expectations can yield extraordinary artistic results.

 

Icy

Art is an inherently manipulative activity, artists are aware of the ways in which our brains process information and the various shortcuts used by generations of artists to create certain effects. At a technical level, art is about using these cues to coax particular intellectual and emotional responses from an audience. For example, when Hogg and Rutherford decided to under-light the film, they knew that the gloomy palate and lack of visual heat would create an impression of emotional suffocation. Similarly, when Hogg decided to fill the film with scenes that linger for ages in awkward silence, she knew full well that it would make the audience feel anxious and desperate for some kind of emotional release. Hogg’s decision to place Archipelago in a very self-conscious attitude of genre contravention constitutes an attempt to deploy genre expectations as a part of the technical vocabulary of filmmaking. Archipelago confounds genre expectations in order to produce a very specific emotional response from the audience.

For too long, genre has served as a postmodern whipping boy. A paper tiger fit only to be stuffed and mounted on the wall of critics and artists as a part of some onanistic fantasy in which the artist is a kind of Nietzschean superman whose art refuses to be constrained by convention. But there is no glory to be found in transgressing genre because anyone and everyone is free to thumb their nose at its rules. Hogg’s Archipelago shows what can be accomplished when artists are willing to adopt more sophisticated attitudes to genre.

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