Gilbey on Film: you say you want a revolution

Don't believe the hype about Kick-Ass.

As I wrote in the NS two weeks ago, I was amused and entertained by Kick-Ass, a violent comedy about a wave of DIY superheroes. Parts of the film have been described as shocking, but surely the biggest shock has been the adoration the movie has attracted from some quarters -- especially the Guardian, which described Kick-Ass on its website as "defiantly unconventional" and a "remarkable vision". Then Peter Bradshaw's frothing five-star rave ("thoroughly outrageous . . . fantastically anarchic . . . surrealist . . . monumentally mad and addled . . . a genius for incorrectness and pure provocation . . . . more energy and satire and craziness in its lycra-gloved little finger than other films have everywhere else. . . ") was followed by an approving capsule review in the paper's Saturday supplement, the Guide, which insisted that the movie "doesnt play by the rules".

The truth is that it plays by every rule. It doesn't rip up the rule-book so much as rewrite it in eye-catching neon.

The Financial Times and the Telegraph were scathing about the film, while the Independent and Observer were mercifully level-headed. But feverish approval was not restricted to the Guardian. I had to laugh when I heard the picture being discussed on Radio 4's Saturday Review, where Ekow Eshun delivered possibly my favourite line spoken anywhere, about anything, so far this year. He praised the film for "this desire to go to offensive places and own them as collective spaces". That is definitely what he said: I just went back and checked on the iPlayer. That's not an express ticket to Pseuds' Corner -- it's more like lobbying for a residency there.

But back to Kick-Ass: a good night out, yes, but no revolution. Here are a few reasons why, in addition to the ones I mentioned in my original review. Beware -- here be spoilers.

Fathers and sons. Like virtually every other mainstream movie in the western world, Kick-Ass has no place for women. The hero's mother dies in the first ten minutes or so. The mother of the foul-mouthed, 11-year-old crime-fighter Hit-Girl dies in a comic-strip flashback. (I can't remember if she expired in childbirth but, if not, she may as well have done.) The mother of Red Mist is glimpsed briefly at the breakfast table, then never seen again. Perhaps she died, too. The important thing is: no females, not real ones at any rate. There's something callous about that; you'll notice it everywhere. The makers of the Disney film Chicken Little got to the stage of casting the hero's single mother before deciding that it would be more dramatic to give him a single father instead. If you see that movie, keep an eye out for the character of the (now deceased) mother, consigned to a framed photograph on the mantelpiece. Brutal.

Women. OK, I exaggerated. There are women in Kick-Ass, but they're not real like the men. Hit-Girl isnt really a girl, but an adolescent lad's idea of a cool kid sister, meaner than any boy and with a mouth to match. The hero's love interest is only there to set up a running joke: she thinks he's gay. When she finds out he's not, and leaps straight into bed with him, you may wonder why the writers bothered with the gag anyway, unless the idea of a straight man being mistaken for a gay man is inherently funny. Which it may well be, unless you happen to be looking for a B&B.

Uxoriousness. I did wonder why the camera gazed so lovingly at that billboard of Claudia Schiffer. I didn't realise until I read other people's reviews that she is married to the director, Matthew Vaughn. Now it just looks sinister in the context of the film's insistence elsewhere on keeping its women in their place. What better way than by putting them on billboards in lingerie? (Vaughn began his career as a producer for Guy Ritchie. Ritchie has similar trouble with female characters -- remember Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? You could use your thumbs to count that movie's non-decorative female roles. And you'd still have two thumbs left.)

The catchphrase. "With no power comes no responsibility." A neat line, you might think, and one which fans of the film have celebrated as both a jibe at Spider-Man (cheeky, really, since Kick-Ass steals most of its first 40 minutes from Sam Raimi's nicely judged 2002 adventure) and a symbol of the picture's amorality. What doesn't get mentioned is that the line is followed by the words: "Except that's not quite true . . ." The screenwriters giveth, and the screenwriters taketh away. If it wasn't quite true, why leave the line in? Oh, I see, because it gets a laugh. To which the only response can be: Get thee to a script editor.

You'll notice I haven't even included the highly dubious BBC cross-promotion that allows Jonathan Ross (whose wife, Jane Goldman, co-wrote the script) to plug the film on his Friday-night talk show in an interview with the star, Aaron Johnson. (Ross is also chums with the writer of the Kick-Ass comic-book, Mark Millar, who based a character in an earlier comic on the chat-show host.) And to think that the covers of children's story-books on the CBeebies channel are routinely blanked out to avoid accusations of on-screen advertising!

Why not add some of your reasons why Kick-Ass is nowhere near as subversive as its defenders would have us believe? Together we can own this debate. Maybe we can even take it to a collective place, weather permitting.

 

 

 

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.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism