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.