“Put your finger on the wound and press hard,” counselled Michel Houellebecq in his early manifesto for poetry, Rester Vivant. “Dig into the subjects that nobody wants to hear talked about. The other side of the picture. Insist on illness, agony, ugliness. Talk of death, and oblivion. Of jealousy, indifference, frustration and the absence of love. Be abject, you will be true.”
Harry Wootliff made her feature debut as a director with Only You in 2018, an extraordinarily good film about a subject that many people would rather not hear about: the pressure that undergoing IVF treatment and confronting infertility puts on couples. Laia Costa plays 35-year-old Elena, whose friends have all started having babies. On New Year’s Eve she bumps into 26-year-old DJ Jake (Josh O’Connor), who’s just about perfect – good-looking, kind, funny – and almost at once he suggests to her that they should have a baby together.
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They try. It doesn’t happen. They move on to IVF. All of that process – the sex timed to ovulation, the painful, bruising self-injections, the procedures of egg collection and embryo transfer, the counting of days, the repeated trauma of negative pregnancy tests, the grief, guilt and anger, the near-intolerable stress it places on a relationship – is presented with unwavering clarity and precision. Anybody who has been through that experience or been close to those who have will recognise the film’s truthfulness and originality.
True Things is Wootliff’s second feature, based on the Welsh writer Deborah Kay Davies’s debut novel True Things About Me (2010), the first-person testimony of a woman whose sanity dissolves as she becomes sexually in thrall to a bad man. In the novel, we never learn the woman’s name, location or history.
Wootliff fills in a few of the details. Kate Perkin (Ruth Wilson, also the film’s producer) is in her mid-thirties, single, and working as a benefits assessment officer in Ramsgate. It’s a job she hates and subverts, passing her time browsing exotic holidays. She’s on final warning for dismissal. Then a claimant appears in front of her: a burly man just released from prison, with badly peroxided hair and a lot of attitude (Tom Burke). When she asks him if he has any questions, he replies: “What are you doing for lunch?”
They meet in a multi-storey car park. They kiss, and a few seconds later he says: “Take yer tights off.” She does. “And yer knickers.” During sex her head collides with the concrete wall. “Y’awright, darlin’?” he pauses to enquire, his most extravagant courtesy. Panting, she tells him to keep going. And there we are, she’s a goner herself.
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“Blond” (the only name she has for him) is not much in the way of a preux chevalier: he’s rude, unreliable, manipulative and deceitful, even for a crim. But she wants him. “I’d like to be your girlfriend,” she tells him. “How old are you, 12?” he sneers. He says her shoes are horrid and her breath smells, but she only desires him more.
Her parents are shocked, her mother reproving, her father hopefully proffering fresh vegetables from his garden. Her one friend Alison (Hayley Squires) tells her she needs to find a proper boyfriend and sets her up on a blind date with a normal, hard-working guy, but he’s horrified when she strips off in his car, telling her to put her dress back on and give him her postcode.
We’re given no backstory for Kate, no reason to invest in her, expressive though Wilson’s performance is. As Blond, a roughed-up version of the posh fraudster he played in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, looking like an unholy hybrid of Gazza and mid-period Eddie Izzard, Burke is neither compelling nor fundamentally credible. What’s best about True Things is the fluid, intimate cinematography by Ashley Connor (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), coming so close to Kate the camera almost, but not quite, merges with her point of view, taking us right into the sex but without lapsing into an objectifying gaze, easily transitioning into fantasy and dream sequences, too. It’s seductive and innovative.
Wootliff suggests that losing control in a relationship as Kate does is a common experience, immediately recognisable to men as well as women. “Everybody’s been there!” But True Things is much too easily assimilated into a familiar and dismaying narrative of female attraction to male brutishness. Sometimes truth-telling takes a bit more than putting a finger on the wound and pressing hard.
“True Things” is in cinemas now
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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain