Europe is not just another geopolitical power block. Photo: Getty
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Slavoj Žižek: Only a radicalised left can save Europe

Austerity is not “too radical”, as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis, says Slavoj Žižek.

After the electoral triumph of the anti-immigrant eurosceptic parties in countries like France and UK, many liberals expressed their shock and worry. However, there was something of a feigned naivety in their surprise and indignation, in their wonder at how the victory of the populist right was possible. What one should wonder about is why it took the anti-immigrant right so long to make a decisive breakthrough.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen made a tasteless gas-chamber joke about a French Jewish pop singer – “we’ll do an oven load next time” (Le Pen denies this was intended to be anti-Semitic) – his daughter Marine Le Pen publicly criticised him, thereby promoting her image as her father’s human face. It is irrelevant if this family conflict is staged or real – the oscillation between the two faces, the brutal one and the civilised one, is what defines today’s populist right. Beneath the civilised public face, there lurks its obscene, brutal underside, and the difference concerns only the degree to which this underside is openly admitted. Even if this obscene underside remains totally out of sight, even if it there are no slips in which it breaks through, it is there as a silent presupposition, as an invisible point of reference. Without her father’s spectre, Marine Le Pen doesn’t exist.

There is no surprise in Le Pen’s message: the usual anti-elitist working class patriotism which targets trans-national financial powers and the alienated Bruxelles bureaucracy. And, effectively, Le Pen forms a clear contrast to the sterile European technocrats: addressing the worries of ordinary people, she brings passion back to politics. Even some disoriented leftists succumbed to the temptation to defend her: she rejects the non-elected Bruxelles financial technocrats who brutally enforce the interest of the international financial capital, prohibiting individual states prioritising the welfare of their own population; she thus advocates a politics that would be in contact with worries and cares of the ordinary working people – her party’s fascist outbursts are a thing of the past. . . What unites Le Pen and the European leftists who sympathise with her is their shared rejection of a strong Europe, and the return to the full sovereignty of nation states.

The problem with this shared rejection is that, as they say in a joke, Le Pen is not looking for the causes of the distresses in the dark corner where they really are, but under the light, because one sees better there. It begins with the right premise: the failure of the austerity politics practised by the Bruxelles experts. When the Romanian leftist writer Panait Istrati visited Soviet Union in the 1930s, the time of the big purges and show trials, a Soviet apologist tried to convince him of the need for violence against enemies, evoking the proverb “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, to which Istrati tersely replied: “All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelette of yours?” We should say the same about the austerity measures imposed by the Bruxelles technocrats: “OK, you are breaking our eggs all around Europe, but where’s the omelette you are promising us?”

The least one can say is that the economic crisis of 2008 offers large proofs of how is it not the people but these experts themselves who, in their large majority, don’t know what they are doing. In western Europe, we are effectively witnessing a growing inability of the ruling elite – they know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with the Greek crisis: putting pressure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruining its economy through imposed austerity measures and thereby making it sure the Greek debt will never be repaid. At the end of December 2012, the IMF itself released research showing that the economic damage from aggressive austerity measures may be as much as three times larger than previously assumed, thereby cancelling its own advice on austerity in the eurozone crisis. Now, the IMF admits that forcing Greece and other debt-burdened countries to reduce their deficits too quickly would be counterproductive… now, after hundreds of thousands of job have been lost because of such “miscalculations”.

It is as if the providers and caretakers of debt accuse the indebted countries of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. Recall the ongoing EU pressure on Greece to implement austerity measures – this pressure fits perfectly what psychoanalysis calls superego. Superego is not an ethical agency proper, but a sadistic agent which bombards the subject with impossible demands, obscenely enjoying the subject’s failure to comply with them; the paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw it clearly, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty. Imagine a vicious teacher who gives his pupils impossible tasks, and then sadistically jeers when he sees their anxiety and panic. This is what is so terribly wrong with the EU’s demands andcommands: they don’t even give a chance to Greece, because Greek failure is part of the game.

Therein resides the true message of the “irrational” popular protests all around Europe: the protesters know very well what they don’t know, they don’t pretend to have fast and easy answers, but what their instinct is telling them is nonetheless true – that those in power also don’t know it. In Europe today, the blind are leading the blind. Austerity politics is not really science, not even in a minimal sense; it is much closer to a contemporary form of superstition – a kind of gut reaction to an impenetrable complex situation, a blind common sense reaction of “things went wrong, we are somehow guilty, we have to pay the price and suffers, so let’s do something that hurts and spend less…”. Austerity is not “too radical”, as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis.

However, can the idea of a united Europe be reduced to the reign of the Bruxelles technocrats? The proof that this is not the case is that the US and Israel, two exemplary nation states obsessed with their sovereignty, at some deep and often obfuscated level perceive European Union as the enemy. This perception, kept under control in the public political discourse, explodes in its underground obscene double, the extreme right Christian fundamentalist political vision with its obsessive fear of the New World Order (Obama is in secret collusion with the United Nations, international forces will intervene in the US and put in concentration camps all true American patriots – a couple of years ago, there were already rumors that Latino American troupes are already in the Midwest planes, building concentration camps. . .). This vision is deployed in hard-line Christian fundamentalism, exemplarily in the works of Tim LaHaye et consortes – the title of one of LaHaye’s novels points in this direction: The Europa Conspiracy. The true enemy of the US are not Muslim terrorists, they are merely puppets secretly manipulated by the European secularists, the true forces of the anti-Christ who want to weaken the US and establish the New World Order under the domination of the United Nations… In a way, they are right in this perception: Europe is not just another geopolitical power block, but a global vision which is ultimately incompatible with nation-states, a vision of a transnational order that guarantees certain rights (welfare, freedom, etc). This dimension of the EU provides the key to the so-called European “weakness”: there is a surprising correlation between European unification and its loss of global military-political power.

So what is wrong with the Bruxelles technocrats? Not only their measures, their false expertise, but even more their modus operandi. The basic mode of politics today is a depoliticised expert administration and coordination of interests. The only way to introduce passion into this field, to actively mobilise people, is through fear: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive state itself, with its burden of high taxation, fear of ecological catastrophe, fear of harassment (Political Correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear). Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by populist racism; however, a closer look soon reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect for (ethnic, religious, sexual) others shares a basic premise with anti-immigrants: the fear of others clearly discernible in the liberals’ obsession with harassment. The other is fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this other is not really other. . .

No wonder the topic of “toxic subjects” is gaining ground recently. While this notion originates from popular psychology that warns us against the emotional vampires who prey on us out there, this topic is expanding much further than immediate interpersonal relations: the predicate “toxic” covers a series properties which belong to totally different levels (natural, cultural, psychological, political). A “toxic subject” can be an immigrant with a deadly disease who should be quarantined; a terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented and who belongs to Guantanamo, the empty zone exempted from the rule of law; a fundamentalist ideologue who should be silenced because he is spreading hatred; a parent, teacher or priest who abuses and corrupts children. What is toxic is ultimately the foreign neighbour as such, so that the ultimate aim of all rules governing interpersonal relations is to quarantine or at least neutralise and contain this toxic dimension.

On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. . . And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the other deprived of its otherness – the decaffeinated other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight. . .

Is this detoxification of the immigrant Other not the main point of Nigel Farage’s Ukip programme? Farage repeatedly emphasises that he is not against the presence of foreign workers in the UK, that he highly appreciates the hard-working Poles and their contribution to the British economy. When he was asked on LBC about why he said that people wouldn't like to have Romanians living in the appartment next to their own, the contrast was immediately drawn with German neighbours – what worried him, he said, were people with criminal records being allowed to enter the UK. This is the stance of the “civilised” anti-immigrant right: the politics of the detoxified neighbour – good Germans versus bad Romanians or Roma. This vision of the detoxification of the Neighbour presents a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face. In what conditions does it arise?

Walter Benjamin’s old thesis that behind every rise of fascism there is a failed revolution not only still holds today, but is perhaps more pertinent than ever. Rightist liberals like to point out similarities between left and right “extremisms”: Hitler’s terror and camps imitated Bolshevik terror, the Leninist party is today alive in al-Qaeda – does this not rather indicate how fascism replaces (takes the place of) a failed leftist revolution? Its rise is the left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction which the left was not able to mobilise. And does the same not hold for today’s so-called “islamo-fascism”? Is the rise of radical Islamism not correlative to the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries? Today, when Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that, 30 years ago, it was a country with strong secular tradition, up to a powerful Communist party which took power there independently of the Soviet Union? As Thomas Frank has shown, the same goes for Kansas, the homegrown US version of Afghanistan: the very state which was till the 1970s the bedrock of radical leftist populism, is today the bedrock of Christian fundamentalism. And the same goes for Europe: the failure of the leftist alternative to global capitalism gives birth to anti-immigrant populism.

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban are regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror – however, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat Valley in Pakistan, New York Times reported that they engineered “a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. If, by taking advantage of the farmers’ plight, the Taliban are “raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal”, what stops liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US similarly “taking advantage” of this plight and trying to help the landless farmers? The sad implication of this fact is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the “natural ally” of the liberal democracy. . . And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for Farage and Le Pen: their rise is the obverse of the demise of the radical left.

The lesson that the frightened liberals should learn is thus: only a radicalised left can save what is worth saving from the liberal legacy. The sad prospect that lurks if this doesn’t happen is the unity of the two poles: the rule of nameless financial technocrats wearing a mask of populist pseudo-passions.

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

***

Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

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

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?