Wednesday 8 February 2017

Prevenge (UK 2016: Dir Alice Lowe)

Prevenge, Alice Lowe's directorial debut, is, and please forgive the pun, a real labour of love. Filmed while Lowe was actually pregnant, it develops from the actress's feelings - ones apparently shared by many expectant mums - that the baby growing inside her was somehow in charge of its host, leaving the nascent parent a mere puppet to its needs. In Prevenge Lowe, who also wrote and produced the film, takes this idea to extremes as lead character Ruth.

Ruth is heavily pregnant and seemingly homeless, living in a hotel room which is her base for the entire film. She is lost, both within herself and, possibly, geographically. Ruth is also a killer, as we see in the first scene where she savagely murders a sleazy pet shop owner - although Ruth seems oblivious to the salesman's creepy come on lines and his death appears random and unmotivated.

Ruth is directed to kill by her unborn child, who maintains a near constant monologue of chiding, cajoling and instruction from within the womb; what Lowe has described as 'the ventriloquist's puppet who whispers in her mother's ear.' Although as Prevenge unfolds, a different and more tragic story is revealed, and much of the film's complexity stems from trying to understand the true motivation for Ruth's anger and bloodlust.

Oh sorry. I forgot to mention that this is a comedy. As bone dry and caustic a one as you're likely to see all year, but a comedy nonetheless, although with few belly laughs (oh, there I go again) - Lowe admits that having written comedy for so long she kind of forgot she was writing a humorous script, and it certainly shows. Prevenge's characters emanate from the kind of 'comedy of embarrassment' archetypes popular with TV writers of tragi-humour these days. DJ Dan, for instance, an unjustifiably overconfident 1970s/80s mobile disco owner, who Ruth meets when she strolls into a sparsely populated basement disco, could have been created for a Edgar Wright movie or something from a Ricky Gervais TV series. And Jo Hartley's note perfect, professionally courteous but hideously condescending midwife could have strolled in from an episode of Green Wing.

Lowe, who made this film quickly, and almost spontaneously it seems, is as comfortable writing these characters as we are seeing them. There's an immediate shared understanding of what we're being shown - the downplayed performances, the flat, drab interiors (nearly all of the film is shot inside, in often very cramped locations) - that derive from 'modern' UK TV comedy, and maybe it's this that makes the intermittent but very credible violence easier to stomach. Happily (although that's perhaps not quite the right word) Lowe uses this is a basis for something far darker than anything you'd see on TV. She is able to indulge her cinematic obsessions freely; camera shots have a Kubrickian emptiness, the murder scenes are as callous and stylised as anything found in a Dario Argento flick, and Lowe's reality divorced performance reminded me of a home counties version of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965) or maybe Scarlett Johannsen's alien lost in Scotland in Jonathan Glazer's 2013 Under the Skin.There's also a literary subtext to Ruth's character; we see her identify with - and later facially re-enact - the dancing 'Furies' in the 1934 film Crime Without Passion which she watches on TV; the Furies of course being mythological goddesses of revenge who sprang from the blood of the castrated Uranus.

Despite the range of competent supports, this is Lowe's film, and not just behind the camera either. She gives herself all the best lines - her fellow players are little more than stooges setting up her payoff comments, delivered in her understated Coventry burr. And why shouldn't she? Lowe has the track record - 15 plus years as part of comedy writing teams, and previously impressive performances in anything from Dark Marenghi's Dark Place (2004) to Ben Wheatley's brilliant Sightseers (2012) which Lowe co-wrote.

Prevenge isn't perfect by any means - there are some pacing issues inherent in a piece devised and executed within a relatively short time span, and once the overall surprise of seeing a (real) heavily pregnant woman killing people has worn off, the movie becomes slightly repetitive. But the film is all about the performances and the unsettling mood; Ruth (short for ruthless?) is that rare thing, a killer with whom we can sympathise. Lowe perfectly captures the anxieties and fears of pregnancy, and of course turns them up to ten, while never resorting to a cross word. Ruth is a woman done to by the system - homeless, refused employment because of the bump in front of her, and treated icily by the authorities. Who wouldn't go a bit chicken oriental? Ruth's (and Lowe's) fear of the gore and horror of childbirth are inexorably wrapped up in the violence meted out to others. This is a film about creation and destruction - perhaps the first true account of pregnancy stripped of the bows and ribbons that cinema usually places on the 'condition.' Oh, and did I mention that it was a comedy? 

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