Gilbey on Film: Against orthodoxy

Beware the over-hasty critical consensus.

A consensus is something to sniff at. Whether a movie is widely fêted as a masterpiece or strung up like a birthday piñata, I can't help feeling a touch suspicious of any kind of pack mentality among commentators. Witness the largely hostile reaction to the unveiling at the Venice Film Festival of W.E., a movie about Wallis Simpson directed by Madonna. Plenty of fine, sane-headed critics found the film wanting, to put it mildly -- among them Xan Brooks at the Guardian, who called W.E. "a primped and simpering folly", and Guy Lodge at In Contention, predicting "future camp-classic value" for an "irredeemably silly, self-admiring ode to life, love and all the fabulous bed linens in between ..."

But it's not the veracity or wisdom of anyone's opinions which worries me, so much as the way these initial impressions will calcify into received wisdom. W.E. has already become a marker of awfulness, despite the fact that only a tiny selection of people in the world have actually seen it; a few days ago, the Guardian asked whether it was destined to rank as a classic of bad cinema, and the comments section has already filled up with people casting aspersions on this movie which they have not yet seen (and probably won't even bother with -- not that this will stop them mouthing off about it).

Reading Mark Kermode's feverishly argued new book, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex: What's Wrong with Modern Movies?, I came across several mentions of movies which had been comprehensively battered and bruised by critics over the years, and which were given another going-over in passing by Kermode. You know the sort of thing -- Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake. It isn't Kermode's dislike of those movies which rankles, even though I adore Ishtar and have already devoted more than enough space on this site to defending Van Sant's bold and delicious experiment. After all, Kermode has seen and assessed those movies, and they have become for him the sort of touchstones of mediocrity or plain wretchedness that we all have filed away in our memory.

(My own bugbear at the moment, in case you're interested, is the shockingly inept new version of Brighton Rock. It was the surprise movie at last year's London Film Festival. Then again, no one specified that it had to be a pleasant surprise.)

What doesn't sit well for me is when the same titles come in for a bashing across reviews, film history books, blogs, comments sections; I feel the same sort of fatigue setting in when Citizen Kane dominates the Best Of lists. We owe it to ourselves to interrogate the critical orthodoxy wherever possible, even if that means reversing a previously-held position or risking a social faux pas.

Let me give you an example: Michael Winner. No, wait -- come back. His films are ghastly, I know, but I must tell you that some time last year I found myself watching Death Wish 3 on late-night television and... well, I'm not going to say that Winner was rehabilitated in my eyes, but that movie is so gloriously berserk, so detached from any other kind of filmmaking grammar, that I began to admire it (the New York street scenes shot in London are only the start of the madness). The misanthropic nastiness and racism of the first two Death Wish instalments has been replaced by a sense of abandon and excess. It seems I'm not the only one to feel this way about Death Wish 3, as this fond post by Joshua Miller over at Chud.com proves:

As straight cinema, the movie is slap-you-in-the-face terrible, with zero redeeming qualities (other than maybe offering some nice sized roles to senior citizens). Yet the film is also kind of amazing. It is kitsch. But it isn't camp. Nor is it so-bad-it's-good. It is slightly too knowing for that. Yet, somehow, it also isn't tongue-in-cheek. Death Wish 3 belongs to the same bizarro group of exploitation cinema as Commando -- movies that are just so ridiculous and off-the-rails over-the-top that it is almost as though they've pushed the very framework of their genre so hard that it broke and now all we're left with is some ethereal vapour of unquantifiable mad terrible genius.

There's more where that came from, with in-depth discussions of the various perverse embellishments and inconsistencies that help substantiate that claim of "mad terrible genius."

But I am not here to praise Michael Winner, or to encourage you to rush out and buy Death Wish 3, so much as to say that I no longer feel able to dismiss Winner, despite some of his crimes against cinema. I'm sure we all have a Michael Winner in our lives (if you see what I mean). Perhaps yours was once Elizabeth Hurley, who came in for a lot of flak in the 1990s, much of it tinged with misogyny. But if you can be cruel and cutting about her talents once you have witnessed her exquisite timing and jauntiness in the first Austin Powers movie, or her anarchic sense of fun in the absurd Ice Cube action film Dangerous Ground, then you have a hard heart indeed.

All of which is brings me back to W.E. It may be ghastly, and worthy of uncomplicated disdain. But before you add your voice to the clamour, wouldn't you prefer to find out for yourself?

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