To be human is to live with the assumption that, somewhere out there, other people are having more fun than you. These other people sit in VIP lounges enjoying better food, better sex, better clothes, better conversation and better access to all the fun stuff that the world has to offer. This assumption underpins literature’s obsession with what has come to be known as the demimonde (literally the ‘half-world’).
In the 19th Century, operas such as Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) and novels such as Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias (1848) and Le Demi-Monde (1855) described a sub-culture where the bourgeois values of respectability were flouted in favour of a lifestyle based upon decadent self-indulgence, pleasure and self-destructive hedonism. The success of these operas and novels reflect the fear amidst the European middle classes that all of their wealth and their social status came at the cost of being locked out of a world that was much more fun than the world they knew and created around them. The demimonde is as much a fantasy as it is a paranoid delusion; the tendency of the demimondaines to reach a sticky end represents the profound ambivalence that the middle classes felt about their own fantasies of hedonism and rebellion.
This ambivalence continued to hold true as 19th demimondes devoted to sensual indulgence transformed into demimondes based upon fantasies of power and influence. The 20th Century demimondaines were not consumptive courtesans but criminals, business leaders, Soviet officials and intelligence operatives. These were the people who were thought to be the true leaders of the world, those who dwell behind the velvet ropes and who get to have all the fun.
Joe Wright’s Hanna is an espionage thriller that draws extensively upon the idea of the demimonde as part of an exploration of the coming-of-age process. For Wright and his teenaged protagonist Hanna, the world is but a series of partly overlapping demimondes: the world of childhood is the world of the forest and the world of adulthood is the world of espionage. Each of these worlds has its own inhabitants and the viewpoints of these inhabitants are not only perfectly adapted to those worlds, they also help define the character of that world and the beliefs required to survive within it. However, as Hanna attempts to escape childhood and become an adult, the artificial nature of these demimondes becomes increasingly clear and ‘growing up’ becomes not so much a rite of passage as a choice between different – but equally flawed – ways of seeing the world.
The idea that people involved in international espionage constitute a demimonde is hardly a new one. For example, John Le Carre perfectly understood the nature of the demimonde when he twinned George Smiley’s crumbling Circus with the vanishing power of the British ruling classes in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974):
‘Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye world. You’re the last, George, you and Bill. – Pp. 116
Smiley inhabits a world of gentlemen’s clubs and Whitehall gossip. Of golf club cliques and ambitious civil servants. His rivalry with Soviet spymaster Karla is above mere politics just as dashing Bill Haydon’s betrayal has more to do with a hated of American vulgarity than it does with adherence to the precepts of socialism. The currency of Smiley’s demimonde is intellectual superiority but it is a currency that has no referent in the real world. Indeed, as Le Carre suggests in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), it does not matter how Clever Smiley is and it does not matter how many victories he notches up against the Soviet Union because the Americans run the world and so his triumphs and his prestige do not exist outside of the small demimonde made up by professional spies. They are largely irrelevant to the real world.
Contemporary filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch and Olivier Assayas further develop the peculiar relationship between the demimonde and the real world:
In his recent espionage thriller The Limits of Control (2009), Jarmusch’s film deconstructs the espionage thriller’s use of demimondes by taking larger-than-life characters and placing them in a series of tourist destinations where they have almost meaningless conversations alluding to missions, codes and political contexts that are never expanded upon let alone explained. The Limits of Control presents espionage as a demimonde but severs that demimonde from the sociological factors that might have pushed its inhabitants to create it. The larger-than-life denizens of The Limits of Control are not weird because they operate in a weird world of signs and cyphers, they are weird simply because they are weird. Indeed, at the end of the film, Jarmusch’s unnamed protagonist ‘returns’ to the real world by removing his shiny suit and donning jeans and a T-shirt, thereby returning him to civilian status. Evidently the clothes really did make the man.
Assayas’s Demonlover (2002) has a similarly deconstructive bent but its metaphysics are decidedly more complex. Like many of Assayas’s films, Demonlover is multilingual in that its characters speak a variety of languages to each other at different points in the film. This ease with multiple languages not only distances the characters from the ‘normal’ single-tongued ‘civilian’ population, it also creates the sense that these businessmen and women share a common world; a world stripped of geographical nationalism and cultural affiliation much like the ebb and flow of capital that carries them from one meeting to another. As Demonlover’s protagonist becomes more and more involved in the political machinations both within her office and between the different companies involved in the deal that she is involved in brokering, she comes to realise that beneath the airport lounges and bespoke suits lurks a world of online savagery that can reach out and snatch people almost at random. Demonlover is not only a film about demimondes, it is also a film about the radical instability of our worldviews and the demimondes that create and are sustained by them.
With Hanna, Joe Wright not only echoes Assayas in projecting the instability of the demimonde onto the world of international espionage, he also projects this sense of epistemic instability onto the idea of growing up. This instability is present not only in the film’s plot but also in its spectacular art direction.
Hanna Heller (Saorise Ronan) and her father Erik (Eric Banner) live in the snowy wastes of Finland. Isolated from all human contact, they spend their lives in perpetual training for the day on which Hanna will exit the forest and enter the world. Day after day, Erik teaches Hanna how to hunt, how to think and how to kill. He is teaching her these things because he knows that, when Hanna finally decides to venture into the outside world, CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchette) will attempt to kill her because she is the sole surviving remnant of an illegal genetic engineering programme. Hanna’s life is simple and it is a life that she enjoys but she also knows that life has much more to offer her than mere training and rehearsal. She wants to get out. She wants to grow up.
When Hanna finally activates her father’s transponder the American military turn up and whisk her off to a secret facility in North Africa from which Hanna duly escapes. Suddenly aware that Hanna is not a normal teenage girl, Marissa calls upon the expertise of louche German nightclub owner Isaacs (Tom Hollander) and his coterie of skinheads. Marissa’s decision to ‘out-source’ the tracking of Hanna reflects the fact that the espionage demimonde has its limitations: Isaacs sees things that Marissa cannot see and does things that Marissa cannot do and so he is of value to her. This admission mirrors Hanna’s realisation that the world of the forest is imperfect and overly limiting. Hanna’s world is made up of many interlocking and overlapping demimondes, each more singular and colourful than the last… but they are all finite and they are all incomplete.
Hanna’s realisation that neither the world of the forest nor the world of the spies fully encapsulates the real world comes at the behest of a British family that are travelling in North Africa. Sophie (Jessica Barden) is a normal teenaged girl: She is media-addled, hyper-sexualised and permanently cynical about the world and everything in it. When she first encounters Hanna she assumes that, because she might not speak English, Hanna is obviously a refugee from Sri Lanka. Despite Sophie’s unbearable worldliness and Hanna’s ethereal unworldliness, the pair bond and Sophie slowly introduces Hanna to a trivial world of fit boys, first kisses and melodramatic teenaged friendships. As Hanna travels around with Sophie’s family, she sits and listens to the jaded feminism of Sophie’s mother Rachel (Olivia Williams) as well as the North London liberal bohemianism of Sophie’s father Sebastian (Jason Flemyng) and realises that the world is made up of many different ways of seeing and that, while these different ways of seeing are not necessarily compatible with each other, they all have value and substance.
The ending of Hanna finds her fighting for her life in a crumbling theme park. The rotting fairy tale imagery of the rides and attractions reflect the sudden decay of the worldview imparted to her by her father. Erik trained Hanna to operate in the spy demimonde on the assumption that Hanna would eventually grow up and enter this world. However, having escaped the forest and spent time with normal people, Hanna realises that the demimonde populated by spies and killers is just as limited and artificial as the childish world of the forest. Hanna knows that she has to grow up but growing up does not mean becoming a spy. The final denouement shows Hanna attempting to turn her back on both the world of her childhood and the world of the spies but, like her father, she finds the spy demimonde deceptively hard to leave.
Hanna is an intriguing take on the traditional coming of age story that seeks to blur the lines between a childish and an adult way of seeing the world. Reality, for Wright, is something that is permanently out of reach, forcing us to buy into a series of incomplete worldviews. As we move from one worldview to the next, we are effectively entering and exiting different worlds that seem to be beautiful and yet bizarrely distorted refractions of the truth. However, as comforting as these demimondes might be, they are inherently unstable and collapse at the slightest touch of reality. What makes Hanna such a compelling film is the fact that this heady mixture of reality, delusion and fantasy is explored through its distinctive direction.
Hanna is, first and foremost, a heavily stylised action film and, as such, its primary source of visual impact lies in its action sequences. Wright’s approach to action direction draws upon two normally incompatible styles of direction:
The first, made famous by traditional Hong Kong martial arts cinema, combines impossible grace of movement with absolute visual realism. Indeed, most traditional martial arts sequences are shot in real time and with minimal editing, crosscutting and changes of viewpoint. When Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan fight, they fight in real time and the impact of their fight scenes comes not from directorial flourish but from the truly inhuman grace and coordination of their movements.
The second, made famous by the Bourne films but also the recent works of Tony Scott, is known as run-and-gun. Run-and-gun relies heavily upon hand-held camerawork and fast editing as well as a certain visual ‘roughness’ created by an intentional failure to centre the action and keep everything in focus. Run-and-gun directors not only keep their cameras in perpetual motion but also edit the footage they shoot in such a way that cameras are never allowed to complete a full movement before the director moves on to the next shot. The result of this is an intensely stylised sense of energy and fight scenes that are almost impossible to reconstruct; limbs flail, people fly through the air and bodies slump, the only fixed guide to what is happening is usually the bone-crunching sound effects deployed without musical support. The ‘roughness’ of the visuals adds to the sense of energy by making it seem as though the camera operator is struggling to keep up with the frenetic pace of what is going on in front of them. Run-and-gun is a highly stylised and ‘artificial’ form of cinematography but its impact comes from the fact that it draws upon the cinema verite style of news reports and films that ape them such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966).
Though run-and-gun is perhaps the least ‘authentic’ of the two approaches, styles play quite complex games with reality; both are primarily about spectacle and so both styles attempt to film action sequences in such a way as to impress and excite the audience. However, the ability of these scenes to impress us is partly due to the perception that these actions are taking place in the real world. Indeed, many CGI-based action sequences such as those in Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing (2004) are deemed ineffective because they lack a sense of physical gravity and substance: They do not feel real. Both run-and-gun and Hong Kong action direction work because they go out of their way to anchor themselves in the real world. In the case of traditional Hong Kong direction, this sense of reality comes from the vanilla realism of the camera movements and staging while, in run-and-gun the realism comes from the chaotic sense of energy and the scoreless soundtrack. Despite its stylised nature, run-and-gun feels real in a way that the action scenes in Van Helsing do not.
Hanna’s fight scenes employ a combination of Hong Kong realism and run-and-gun stylisation. There are times when Hanna and Erik’s fight sequences are clearly mapped out and easy to follow and there are times when they devolve into a flurry of flailing limbs and baroque lighting queues. However, what makes Hanna’s direction so interesting is that Wright attempts to sever the link with the real. Indeed, rather than relying upon bone-crunching sound effects, Hanna’s fight scenes are frequently accompanied by a powerful electronic score created by The Chemical Brothers and reminiscent of the trip-hop infused oddity of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love (2004). Similarly, even when Hanna’s fights are easy to follow they take place not in the austere real world of traditional martial arts cinema but in a fairy tale-like dream world filled with surreal imagery and larger-than-life characters.
Wright’s deconstruction of established action film techniques creates a sense of cognitive dissonance as we are trained, by the Bourne films and others, to anchor ourselves in a reality of bone-crunching sound effects and camera work that self-consciously reflects the artificial nature of the film. Indeed, what is the failure to centre the action and keep everything in focus except a means of reminding us that we are watching a film? The ‘roughness’ of the images implies that what is happening on screen is actually real because the intentional ‘mistakes’ of the camera operator echo the unintentional ones that we see in live footage from war zones. By replacing ‘realistic’ sound effects with highly artificial electronic music and replacing traditionally ‘realistic’ backdrops with a fantastical dream world, Wright is suggesting that there is no real to which we can anchor ourselves. Wright’s refusal to ground his special effects in a sense of the real supports the idea that the different worldviews and demimondes that Hanna passes through are not simply incomplete and flawed reflections of The Truth but rather the world as it really is: There is no world, there are only worldviews. There is no monde, there are only demimondes. The fact that our limited perceptions effectively exhaust al the truth that the world might have is further explored by means of Hanna’s relationship with Sophie.
When Sophie first appears in the film, her worldliness is distinctly off-putting. It is as though she is talking in code. This sense of strangeness is created by the fact that, up until that point, we have experienced Hanna’s world solely through the eyes of Hanna and her father and, because they see the world as spies, so do we. What is remarkable about this effect is the fact that it is Sophie who is like us and not Hanna. Hanna is a genetically engineered killing-machine who grew up eating reindeer on the arctic tundra… Sophie grew up in north London. By making Sophie appear strange, Wright is suggesting that all worldviews are fundamentally limited and unstable. The world is made up of demimondes and our perceptions are attuned to the demimondes that created us. By using a cast of characters born of different worlds and by using elements of realism merely as parts of a strange contrapuntal metaphysical melody, Joe Wright creates a film that is both thoroughly infused with the fantastic and thoroughly disconcerting.