I have long suspected that there is a great book to be written about the spread of existentialism throughout European film and literature. Born of middle-class alienation from 19th Century spirituality, existentialism was a requiem for lost faith and a roar of disgust at the less-than-flattering lighting conditions left by the departure of the divine light. God is Dead, O God… This Sucks.
As time passed, the post-religiosity of existentialism was shuffled into the background as the movement came to focus upon the psychological hardships of a life without meaning. Existentialism’s obsession with the grim futility of everyday life caught the imagination of people returning from war and so Raskolnikov trying to make sense of his own actions in Crime and Punishment and Meursault refusing to defend himself at trial in The Stranger came to seem like beautiful expressions of what it meant to be human.
Having long enjoyed a close relationship with mainstream literature, existentialism spread to film and when critics from the Cahiers du Cinema transitioned from seeing existential themes in the work of others to replicating those themes in their own work, they went straight to feelings of anger and despair at a world that refused to abide by human expectations.
Cruelty and nihilism are everywhere in the films of the French New Wave and when art house cinema began to become its own thing, the canon was formed of films like Au Hazard Balthazar, Mouchette and Le Beau Serge… films in which women suffer while men brood.
Looking back at the post-War years, I cannot help but wonder whether existentialism’s appeal might not have had something to do with either its flight from responsibility or its lack of psychological precision. Think about it… existentialism is a philosophy that takes in the cruelty, pointlessness and arbitrariness of life and proscribes only directionless and unresolvable angst. Do not examine your role in making the world a worse place or consider why you feel the way you do, just shrug your shoulders and light up another cigarette as your actions count for nothing in a world that was born plain bad. Existentialism is a philosophy designed by emotionally stunted men and its popular success owes a lot to the fact that an entire generation of men came home from World War II and pointedly refused to deal with the trauma of what they had seen and done. Existentialism legitimises the refusal to deal with your own shit and that dead-eyed passivity was decanted into countless noir thrillers and stories in which lovely young women are destroyed by the world while men stand around looking glum.
Very much a part of the European art house tradition, Daniel Wolfe’s debut film Catch Me Daddy is a beautifully shot and relentlessly nihilistic film in which yet another young woman is destroyed by the cruelty of the world. Filled with dead-eyed tough guys muttering into mobile phones whilst staring into the middle-distance, it trots through every post-existential cliché in the European art house canon before arriving at a climax that shows just enough self-awareness to highlight the thoughtlessness of the preceding 90 minutes.
Set just on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, Catch Me Daddy opens with an obliquely dark poem before introducing us to a mixed-race couple who are manifestly living on the lam. Laila is a British Asian with (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) blond hair, blue contact lenses, and a Scottish boyfriend called Aaron (Connor McCarron) who seems to be something of a disappointment. With no money and no real hopes, the pair spend their evenings getting wasted and dancing because whenever they sober up they wind up talking about Aaron’s refusal to get a job and his weird reluctance to let Laila leave their rented caravan.
Aaron’s insistence that Laila isn’t safe going out on her own is sexist and infuriating but it also serves to foreshadow the arrival of men sent by Laila’s family to track her down.
Co-written with his brother Matthew, Wolfe’s script is wonderfully minimalist in so far as it keeps introducing characters without letting us know very much about them. This has the effect of filling each additional piece of exposition with dread as we learn that the Asian dudes are looking for Laila, that they’re professional bounty-hunters, and that one of them is Laila’s brother.
Laila and Aaron live very quietly on very little money but Laila has fallen into a good job at a local salon with a boss who seems to generally care about her wellbeing. Joints are shared, invitations are extended, and yet the noose is being pulled tighter and tighter as the dudes in trek suits ask their questions and edge ever closer to finding the couple. By the time the couple are tracked down, the film is almost overwhelmingly claustrophobic and the mood only gets darker from there.
Catch Me Daddy is a deliberately unpredictable film and so I’ll gloss over the details of the second act except to say that each scene complicates the film’s relationships and each complication brings with it an extra layer of dread as people drink, snort coke, and fuck up in a way that makes the situation go from bad to worse. It is here that the film really plumbs the existential depths as Laila and Aaron are relentlessly brutalised by a world full of amped-up ambiguity. Nothing is safe, nothing is sacred, and everything that can go bad most certainly will.
Laila winds up being dragged back to her father who is visibly drunk and upset, prowling around the inside of his restaurant like some kind of caged animal. The ostensible reasons for his anger are laid out earlier in the film when Laila’s brother argues that Laila must come home because:
- Her dad loves her
- Her dad has been sick
- Her brother is sick of dealing with her unhappy father
Nowhere even close to being convincing when you consider the fact that Laila’s father reportedly threatened to kill her, these arguments did remind me of the arguments wheeled out by Iranian men in Kim Longinotto’s documentaries Divorce Iranian Style (1998) and Runaway (2001). In these films, men are always pleading for their wives and daughters to come home because they love them, they have been sick and it’s not fair to ask men to do the work that is expected of women. These common refrains are often augmented by arguments that are similar to those put forward by Laila’s disappointing boyfriend Aaron: You must do as I say because the world is a dangerous place. As Longinotto’s films suggest, while these arguments may resonate with women who understandably want to be loved and appreciated, they are really nothing more than manipulations born of the patriarchal will: Love, devotion, duty… call it what you will but at the end of the day, women must obey men because otherwise men look and feel bad.
Laila’s father grinds his way through the usual patriarchal staples, getting progressively more drunk on his own self-righteousness as he goes. Sedated and depressed, Laila breaks down in tears and sobs “I am your Chum Chum” in reference to the fact that her father would always refer to her by the name of a small pink dumpling. For a moment, the father’s manner abruptly changes and you begin to suspect that Laila might walk away from all of this in one piece… suddenly she is no longer a disobedient daughter but his disobedient daughter with all the emotional baggage this entails.
I referenced the existential habits of European art house film at the beginning of this essay as I think the ‘Chum Chum’ stuff is an attempt to deliberately infantilise the character of Laila and so transform her into yet another lovely, vivacious young woman whose tragic death serves to demonstrate that life is shit. Chum Chum needs to suffer because suffering is what women do… they get cut and raped and beaten to death because men need to be reminded that life isn’t always a bed of roses. Note that the reminder is never quite forceful enough to provoke change or a real prise de conscience but it’s enough to give someone a dark backstory and encourage him to start smoking or wearing sunglasses at night.
Sameena Jabeen Ahmed plays Laila with a combination of inner strength and outward fragility that recalls all the great brutalised women in the history of art house film. Like Nadine Mortier’s Mouchette and Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas, she deserves better from the film and the imagination of the men who created it. Some would argue that the injustice of these characters’ lives proves the point the filmmakers set out to make but I would argue that all of these brutalisations stem from precisely the kind of intellectual cowardice that existentialism was supposed to address.
Films that demonstrate the brutality of the world in a way that suggests this brutality is somehow ‘normal’ legitimise said brutality by suggesting that it is somehow nobody’s fault. Catch Me Daddy falls into this trap quite early on by having Aaron and Laila’s tiny lives needlessly destroyed by a group of amped-up thugs who compound incompetence with cruelty. Choosing a young woman as primary victim of this nihilistic clusterfuck is not only a sexist cliché but a real failure of the imagination. The world did not turn into a vale of tears by fucking magic… this hell was forged in the heat of humanity’s baser instincts. Blaming the world for our problems is no less cowardly and unimaginative than believing in a God who will magically make things better.
Unlike many of the films I’ve mentioned, Catch Me Daddy does go some way towards confronting its own failings. Despite refusing to spend much time considering why its thugs turned the world to shit, the film ends with an attempt to expose the source of the cruelty. Laila’s father is neither a monstrous drunk nor a psychotic who merely symbolises the unaccountable savagery of the world, he is a deeply flawed man and you can see him both trying to articulate his pain and talk himself out of making Laila pay the ultimate price for all of his bad decisions.
Shuffling unpredictably between wounded patriarchal pride, parental sentimentality and inarticulate rage, Laila’s dad comes to represent the film’s own lack of moral compass. Should he let his daughter go? Should he exact revenge? Should he punish the wayward daughter? The character doesn’t seem to know and neither does the film. This too is both an abdication of responsibility and cliché in its own right.
Catch Me Daddy shows more self-awareness than many films of its kind but eye-catching visuals and ambiguity were never going to compensate for a systematic lack of vision. I can imagine Daniel Wolfe doing great work with other people’s scripts but reciting a series of sexist, grimdark clichés does not an auteur make.