Gilbey on Film: 44 Inch Chest -- and a very naughty word

Our film critic on swearing in movies.

Rich, vigorous and inventive swearing on film is hard to come by now -- either that or I'm inured to it -- but there's a foul-mouthed feast for the ears in 44 Inch Chest. This Pinteresque British film, released last month, is about a group of splenetic thugs who kidnap a young waiter who has cuckolded one of their number. While not especially distinguished, the picture has three things going for it: a rasping, rancid-looking John Hurt; the honey-voiced, smooth-as-a-bullet Ian McShane; and some of the ripest, most rhythmic use of verbal obscenities since David Mamet sustained a paper cut immediately after stubbing his toe.

In his New Yorker review of 44 Inch Chest, David Denby wrote: "The men take turns screaming at the silent Loverboy, as they call him, relying on extensive use of Britain's favorite four-letter word (not the same as America's favorite four-letter word)."

Woah there! Now wait just a minute. Is this really how the Manhattan cognoscenti regard us? (And have they never seen Curb Your Enthusiasm?) It's true that I haven't heard the word to which Mr Denby is referring -- we'll call it "clod" -- spill from the mouth of an actual American person, as opposed to a movie character, whereas in Britain you need only reach for the last tube of Werther's Originals in the shop to be branded a clod by the seething shopper who's next in line. But if all you had to go on was TV and cinema, you could hardly argue that we are a nation of clod-utterers. Unless, that is, you spent all your free time watching Danny Dyer movie marathons, and that's something you wouldn't wish on anyone, not even Danny Dyer.

I'm not sure where to cast my vote for Best Use of "Clod" In a Motion Picture. Withnail and I ("Monty, you terrible clod!") has to be a contender, but I find the word even more abrasive in the generally softer American accent, where it takes a moment to register what's been said. What a shock it was to hear Woody Allen deploy the insult in Deconstructing Harry; the BBFC clearly agreed, and gave Allen his first 18-certificate (for its "coarse language"). Even nastier was hearing Al Pacino use the word to diminish Kevin Spacey in the scalding film version of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

I'll put an early bet on young Chloe Moretz to steal Pacino's crown when Kick-Ass, the forthcoming movie about DIY superheroes, opens here in April. Looking like a kid who should be plaiting the manes of her My Little Ponies, Moretz (a veteran of the TV series My Friends Tigger and Pooh, and just 12 when Kick-Ass was shot) delivers the "British" word with a lip-smacking ferociousness that would make Danny Dyer sob into his monogrammed West Ham handkerchief. The director of Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn, is British, while the comic-book series from which it is adapted is American. Under the rules of the Denby test, we'll call that one a draw.

The picture has already caused a minor storm in Australia, where it has been rated "MA". I'm not entirely familiar with the Aussie ratings system, but this denotes either that anyone under 15 can see the film only in the company of an adult, or that admission is granted only to those with a postgraduate degree.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder