I went to The Ritzy in Brixton to see the new film Men, written and directed by Alex Garland. The viewing was about half full and I think there was one walk-out.
The story is centred around Harper, a young professional woman living in central London. We don’t know exactly what she does but we do witness her working remotely on her laptop and having a business call with someone about some sort of financial report. She must be quite successful as she was living in a new apartment close to Tower Bridge. The time seems to be the present but there is no portrayal of or allusion to lockdown or the pandemic.
In the early parts of the film we see flashbacks that fill out the main details of her recent past: she was married, her husband James behaved badly in some unspecified way, and she wanted a divorce. He then threatened to kill himself, and in the tense confrontation that followed he struck her, and so she threw him out of the flat. Shortly after he tried to climb down from the window of the flat above, and fell and died from injuries sustained landing on a spiked metal fence, “wound details” presented graphically as noted in the BBFC notes at the start.
Harper has rented a house in the West Country in order to have a break away from her past. On arrival she bites from an apple in the garden outside, a rather obvious flash of symbolism. She meets the posh house owner Geoffrey, who is played by Rory Kinnear. Kinnear in fact plays all the male characters apart from James; the teenage boy Samuel has Kinnear’s adult face superimposed on his head and is voiced by him.
Whilst walking in the country nearby she wanders in to the tunnel under the old railway and seems to stir up a figure in the distance who was lying submerged in the earth. The figure pursues her and we see him standing naked and watching her as she passes a derelict farm building. The next day, in a very tense and scary sequence, we can see him wandering around Harper’s house and peering in the windows whilst she works and chats on the phone. We see him more closely as a scarred, bloodied, mute body. Although he tries to reach in through the letterbox he is apparently overcome easily by the police, who arrive quickly.
It’s not hard to see that the different Men that Harper encounters are all modern male stereotypes. Geoffrey is the chivalrous toff, Samuel is the sweary, leery teenage thug, and then come the nameless ones: the angry-faced brooding prole at the back of the pub with his mate, the sententious vicar, the cynical copper who doesn’t seem to care much that he can’t keep the naked wanderer locked-up, and the mystery mute himself. These are all the male voices of modern Britain addressing the solitary female, either patronizing from authority (and slowly turning the conversation to accusation and blame), or scowling from below with angry resentment. The former turns out in the end to be a mask for the latter: patriarchal religion is also an expression of anger against female sexuality. In the church are carvings that seem to depict a Pan-like forest God that the mute is slowly transforming into, covering his face in greenery; there is also a Sheela-Na-Gig.
This film is very much in the style of modern hauntological horror such as In The Earth and Censor and Here Before and the Peter Strickland films, which are now pretty much established as a distinct genre, with their own conventions. These are: ambient/electronic soundtrack; central character recovering from unspecified trauma/slow unwind in flashbacks; suggestions of perceptual instability and rapid bidirectional timeshifts; topical themes about modern middle class people struggling to understand what they should be struggling to understand; ambiguity about whether anything paranormal “really” occurs. Like any other kind of genre film we can judge how good or bad it holds the viewer’s attention and suggests its world has enough depth to care about. Men scores well as it scares very well, particularly once you realise the trick about how many actors there are. The twist that comes at the climax of the Male Pregnancy Sequence is rather predictable though. There is an ambiguous ending that shows that some incident definitely occurred overnight at the house, but leaves it open what caused the bloodstains in the hallway and what Harper is thinking about when she is discovered in the garden. There is a moment where we see the mute by himself, putting leaves in his wounds, which may presenting an event independent of Harper’s consciousness. In which case there is an alternative interpretation running through the film, in terms of class rather than gender: the well-off outsider is turning all these voiceless marginal men into figures of terror because she can only connect remotely. But the vicar never suggests that, and he’s the highest ranking mansplainer in this community. We have 7 different kinds of Man in this film but Harper alone has to be Woman, in the garden eating the fruit but not getting any knowledge of what goes on from it.
As we all know, “Sheela-Na-Gig” was a song by P.J.Harvey. It was also the title of a short story by B.S.Johnson. I did have a P.J.Harvey t-shirt from the old 1992 tour, which featured Polly’s palm-prints. She had a bit of bother with an obsessive French fan who did a palm-reading from it and claimed to learn all sorts of secrets about her.
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