Friday, February 9, 2018


High-rise (2017) is a garish, train-wreck of a movie that may well acquire cult status some day.  After all, what other movie affords you the spectacle of a gorgeous movie star riding a white horse into an orgy where extras are busily copulating all around the edges of the frame.  The woman has white skin and red hair and looks like someone painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and, forthwith, she plunges to the ground, sticks her haunches up in the air, and cries out:  "Now who's gonna line up to fuck me in the arse!"  This is only one of any number of over-the-top moments in Ben Wheatley's version of J. G. Ballard's 1975 novel, but it's characteristic.  I can't exactly recommend High-Rise -- it's a confused and confusing mess of a movie but hot, steaming chaos on screen is not something from which you'll readily look away. 

The first third of the movie is relatively clear:  a physiologist named Dr. R. Laing (an obvious reference to the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing) moves into a high-rise in the Docklands in East London.  The high-rise has a grocery store, a fitness center, even, a brothel supposedly.  It is also class-stratified -- the lower levels are for the proletariat while the upper stories harbor the well-to-do who are variously sexually perverse, cruel and foppish.  In the penthouse, the Architect, Mr. Royal, resides with his red-haired and beautiful wife, a number of dogs, and his wife's white horse.  Mr.  Royal has a spacious rooftop garden with fountains like Versailles.  (Royal is played by Jeremy Irons -- if there is any difference between the gaunt and earnest Jeremy Irons and the equally gaunt and earnest Daniel Day-Lewis, I must confess that I am unable to detect it.)   Laing is played by Tim Hiddleston and the movie keeps him semi-naked for as long as possible -- Laing is always taking showers or sunbathing in the nude and, of course, he is intensely fancied by all the women on the premises, several of whom he indulges in extra-marital romps.  There is an intimation that Royal has been exercising droit du seigneur -- at least, one child in the high-rise is said to be his son and another woman, Mrs. Wilder, is pregnant, apparently with another of the Architect's bastards. (Someone remarks that the Zeus-like Architect is "colonizing the high-rise.")  Mr. Wilder is a documentary film maker who lives on the 2nd floor and, therefore, enjoys low status.  But he's a natural rebel, a violent thug, and begins to stir up the folks on the lower levels to an uprising against those higher in the building.  This is all relatively clear and effectively presented notwithstanding some baffling sequences -- in one scene Laing dissects a human head by cutting through the scalp and pulling off the face like a mask.  This is all accomplished in gruesome close-up with amplified sound of hammers and bone saws and it causes one of the students attending the seminar to faint.  (This is wholly irrelevant as far as I can see, although it provides some garish images for Laing's delirium). Laing is mid-level -- this means he has access to women at various elevations in the tower.  In one scene, he gets invited to a top-level party -- everyone is dressed in 18th century white powdered wigs and waistcoats and tightly corseted gowns with bustles.  Apparently, no one clued-in Laing that he was supposed to come dressed like Alexander Pope and so the hoity-toity aristocrats are mean to him and, in fact, throw him into an elevator as a kind of prison and stall it mid-floor.  It's at this point that the scrupulously designed allegory starts to go off-track.  Laing is tossed into the elevator to punish him but we aren't shown how long he has to stay in the elevator or how he gets out.  (In fact, one of the characters seems as puzzled as the audience and asks "So how did you get out of the elevator? -- I don't recall an answer.)  British art is prone of allegory -- the tendency goes back to Langland's Piers Plowman, extends through Spenser's Faerie Queen and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.  Of course, in the modern era, two noteworthy allegories both made into movies have come out of the U. K. -- Goldings The Lord of the Flies and Orwell's Animal Farm.  Everything in High-Rise points in the direction of Orwell's Animal Farm -- the lower levels of the building will revolt against the foppish aristocrats on the heights and will, in fact, have the Promethean audacity to challenge Mr Royal, the Architect with a capital "A" and the King of the realm.  The film is laden with references to the French revolution and the viewer begins to interpret the unruly, malevolent, and violent Wilder as a sort of Danton.  Indeed, at the midpoint of the movie, Wilder who learns that his children have been excluded from the pool located in the mid-section of the building leads an orgiastic procession of toddlers and children to the pool to disrupt a genteel cocktail party that the rich folks are having pool-side.  All of this is quite gripping.  But, then, the movie literally falls apart -- in the course of a four or five minute montage, all hell breaks loose:  the power breaks down, the high-rise is lit by candles, and everyone starts sponsoring elaborate cocaine and booze-fueled orgies.  Here is what I think happened:  at the mid-point of the picture, Wheatley suddenly realized that he was re-creating Orwell's Animal Farm.  But Animal Farm is essentially conservative -- it is anti-revolutionary, anti-Marxist, and, certainly, anti-communist.  By contrast, Wheatley is a good left-leaning anti-Thatcher liberal and he reacts with panic when he sees that he is about to replicate Animal Farm.  So, instead, he turns the film into the equally anti-revolutionary but Hobbesian Lord of the Flies.  Without proper authority, the high-rise goes mad and collapses into total violent anarchy.  The film ends with Mr. Royal murdered and, then, lovingly laid to rest in the murky, blood-filled waters of the 30th floor swimming pool -- by this time, the pool is full of bottles and its water is a horrific green-brown.  There are all sorts of beatings and rapes in the last half of the picture and any real sense of narrative is abandoned.  The Architect's child is born after a lengthy and painful labor and, at the end of the movie, we see the Architect's other son, Toby, seated atop a high throne-like contraption suggesting that he will be the new lord of the structure.   As the allegory collapses, Wheatley suggests alternative meanings -- the High-rise is the body-politic, the cosmos itself, or, in fact, a massive macro-cosmic body.  At one point, the hero, Laing, suggests that the high-rise is an "unconscious diagram of some kind of psychic event."  The lay-out of the five high-rises comprising the Brutalist project of the Architect is said to resemble an open-hand with fingers stretched upward.  The Architect acknowledges that he has built the high-rise on uncertain ground -- "it is still settling" and this results in the several power outages.  Soon enough, the narrative completely collapses under the weight of alternative meanings, most of them simply evasions of Animal Farm and its implications.  But the descent of the High-Rise into chaos, something that occurs during the five minute central montage, is spectacular -- the building's parking lot ends up strewn with debris, burning torches, smashed cars and corpses.  The interiors, which become increasingly smashed to pieces, also have a sinister force -- it's dark with bonfire burning, the orange light reflected in mirrored surfaces.  At  one point, Wilder eats canned dog food while his battered wife looks out from the concrete balcony toward apocalyptic skies over London.  Later, Laing cooks and eats one of the Architect's dogs while there are corpses picturesquely strewn all around his suite.  The editing, imagery, and composition of the film reflect the woozy, but precisionist prose that Ballard affects -- there is a pop art glisten to everything, trick perspectives and weird morbid allusions -- the Architect has a big mural painting, one of Goya's witches Sabbaths on his wall.  And, curiously, the film is set in 1975 -- there are transistor radios, posters of Che Guevara,  boxy TVs, and everyone has long stringy hair, side-burns and dresses like the boys on Monty Python.  At one point, we hear a morbid-sounding Portishead version of Abba's "S.O.S".  It's not a good movie and, certainly, doesn't hang together, but, in some ways, the picture is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil -- when that film came out it was regarded as half-crazed and profoundly flawed.  But it became a midnight cult hit and, later, was accorded the dignity of a Criterion re-issue in DVD.                        

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