Brexit broke a lot of people’s brains. In one corner, the nationalists who get upset if someone forgets to wear a poppy or, god-forbid, kneels for racial justice; in the other, the Follow Back Pro EU types who never stop talking about how European they feel. It’s a never-ending national nightmare. Unable to move on, the UK is threatened with complete stagnation.
But perhaps there’s also the chance for reinvention. Not the usual kitchen-sink dramas that define so much of British cinema — calcifying misery with stories of people cheated by a heartless government. Cinema that pops off the screen, uses an array of tricks, that calls attention to itself and probes discursively and violently into the heart of Englishness, the Queen and the psychic break between ourselves and Europe… someone like Romania’s Radu Jude or Mexico’s Michel Franco.
Enter Alice, Through the Looking: À la recherche d’un lapin perdu. The multilingual title, referencing Lewis Carroll and Marcel Proust in the same breath, shows off the film’s often exhausting ambition, attempting to create a kitchen-sink fantasy that comments on everything from the nature of art to the impossibility of storytelling to the problem of England. Incredibly ambitious for a first feature, it might falter regularly, but at least shows a willingness to inject some Godardian spirit into British filmmaking.
The French New Wave might appear on the surface to have arisen as a result of café culture, rarefied intellectualism and the influence of Hollywood cinema in Paris. While that is true to a certain extent, artists like Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Melville were also responding to the atrocities of the Algerian War — finding new language to explore the unimaginable. For the #FBPE-types, Brexit is still a trauma they cannot comprehend, and must revisit again and again, unable to engage in the necessary therapy needed to process their grief.
If it feels like I am digressing in my review, it’s more like I’m responding in kind to the discursive elements of Alice, Through the Looking — which meanders, refracts, retracts and contradicts itself with blinding regularity. Using Carroll’s tale as mere scaffolding for its essayistic and philosophical inquiry, it tells the story of a French girl named Alice (Saskia Axten) looking for a man named Rabbit (Elijah Rowen) after they shared a one-night stand. Sadly for her, this is just after the EU referendum; plunging the expat into a universe where nothing makes sense.
Which takes us back to the French. Godard’s aim with a film like Weekend (1967) was to cram every frame with so much symbols that the meaning was completely lost — which itself was the point. He was presumably inspired by T.S. Eliot (also making an appearance here…) whose “The Waste Land” collides so many fragments of metaphor and conversation together, it’s hard to make heads or tails of it at a first reading.
What those two have is the ability to create a love of the art as it unfolds in the moment. This film has flashes of brilliance here and there, but we are often left with empty philosophising, wooden line deliveries and awkward cutting in favour of genuinely compelling moments. Like the cameo appearances seen in Godard’s masterpiece, Slavoj Zizek’s plays himself, making comments about appearance and essence or something (I zoned out); Steven Berkoff (appearing as both mentor and actor, like Melville in Breathless (Godard, 1960)) gives feedback on cuts of the film itself; the legend Vanessa Redgrave narrates. But ultimately the film finally belongs to Donen — gravitating to film from opera, pop music and radio dramas — himself, both in its success and its failures, the jokes that land and the many (many, many) that do not. He owns it completely and if it doesn’t all work, the ambition is still to be respected.
Social realism feels completely inadequate to our current, absurd moment. If Alice, Through the Looking contains various missteps throughout its runtime, at least those are missteps in a welcome different direction.
Alice, Through the Looking plays in the First Feature section of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 12-28th November.