Subtle, Complex, Subversive

AQUARIUS (18) 2016 Brazil/France 146mins. Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, starring Sônia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos.

There’s been much talk recently about the so-called Alt-Right co-opting Jane Austen (see what I did there? getting in a Jane Austen reference never hurts) to their cause (their cause being xenophobia and bigotry) and one commentator in particular, Ross Douthat (not absolutely sure how to pronounce that) a right-of-centre opinion writer for the New York Times (yes, I read the liberal press, mostly) in humorously swatting away any significance suggested by such a storm in a thimble, does make the excellent point that however pertinent Jane Austen may be, there exists a danger, a kind of a peril of an idea with a powerful hold over the liberal mind, (and I quote) ‘that great literature and art inoculate against illiberalism, that high culture properly interpreted offers a natural rebuke to all that is cruel, hierarchical and unwoke (sic)’. He puts it another way: ‘Austen’s academic admirers promise one another that no true Jane-ite could ever be anything except rational, compassionate, liberal-minded.’ Or, and this is me speaking now, high culture is in some way performative, it can make things happen, like the magic spells in Harry Potter.

Austen (yes, I’m getting to Aquarius I promise) was writing at a time of great artistic transformation, Mozart to Beethoven, Fielding and Swift to Wordsworth and, well, Austen. The Classical to the Romantic, the Enlightenment giving way to the Sublime, outer life to inner life, thinking to feeling, etc. etc. so on and so forth. And that great change has hung on now for a couple of hundred years. Every time an artistic movement arises to challenge the primacy of the individual, feeling, emotion, inner life come roaring back.

But maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing it’s final, extravagant death agonies.

It’s easy, from the perspective of our own inner lives, to trust that our feelings are valid, honest, true in a deeply authentic way. In fact, in our complex and ever shifting times, our own feelings may be the only thing we can actually trust.

Down such a path madness and chaos lie (you know what I’m referring to). What to do?

Aquarius and another, recent South American film, The Clan, take a satisfyingly subversive approach to this very problem. Rather than making the political personal (setting a drama on the largest of scales and then focussing down onto the minutiae of individual feeling) these films make the personal political, feelings, interactions have wider implications, the part emblematic of the whole. From tiny beginnings they encompass the world. Both films take familiar tropes, the soap opera of family life in the case of The Clan, the challenges and isolation of growing old in the case of Aquarius and completely upend our expectations.

The Clan is the more straightforward - everything you would expect from warm and loving parents, security, help with homework, spending money, a little discipline, extends to kidnap and murder.

Aquarius is the more subtle and complex, subversive yes, but also employing metaphor, symbolism, allegory, allusion. Don’t panic, what I mean is that the film is about a great deal more than meets the eye. Does that make it sound a bit twee, damning with faint praise? I’m trying to imply the opposite. Every detail which seems individual, specific to one or other character, has a larger implication, a larger connection, a more expansive meaning.

I really don’t want to include any spoilers here because one of the joys of this film is the slowly dawning realisation of what’s going on, what the film is actually doing.

But maybe, just maybe, Aquarius represents the first shots in that great struggle to move on to a post-individual, post-inner life world. Brazil’s current political situation is complex (it has that in common with a number of its neighbours, not to say other regimes further afield) and the old- fashioned arguments, in the old-fashioned way seem like they aren’t going to make much sense anymore.

So much cinema, theatre can seem like the same old, same old, as can any discussion around the issues. Jane Austen and the performative qualities of high art can seem frustratingly beside the point, given what is actually going on.

This is a difficult film, which can leave you feeling a bit uneasy, a bit unsure. What am I supposed to think here? What am I supposed to be taking away from this?

The message is pretty tough, no-one gets off scot-free, we are all implicated. But we’ve got to keep at this. Nothing is more important. Otherwise nothing will change.

Paul Corcoran