10th Belfast Film Festival review
It’s almost a tradition that there is at least one dystopian nightmare vision of the future in the selections every year in the Belfast Film Festival, and without exception each of those films have a powerful aesthetic quality or technique with a unique approach that lends itself to an inevitably dark worldview. Last year’s selection, Ditching, went for a low-budget, lo-fi approach that suited its particular back-to-roots vision of a post-apocalyptic Northern Ireland, but previous years have seen as varied an appraoch as the Metropolis-inspired retro silent-movie stylisations of Esteban Sapir’s vision of Argentinean dictatorships in The Aerial (La Antena), and the tasteful, clean-cut, Scandinavian designer look of Jens Lien’s nightmarish view of social conformity in The Bothersome Man (Den Brysomme Mannen). Taking computer animation techniques to a new level, this year’s dark future, Tarik Saleh’s Metropia, finds perhaps the most eerie and unsettling visual qualities to depict its worrying vision of a united Europe in the year 2024.
And it is indeed the animation techniques themselves – even more than the central concept of the film which is a Big Brother world where even your thoughts are monitored – that are the most unsettling aspect of Metropia. Finding a way to use and animate photo-realistic models and through a minimum of movements and some slight deformation, director Tarik Saleh manages to evoke a palpable sense of oppression in this dark, futuristic world where the subway systems of all the European countries of Europe been joined-up into one vast Metro network controlled by a somewhat sinister organisation called Trexx, managed by Ivan Bahn (Udo Kier). The world itself, although expertly designed, looking like a cold miserable place to live, conforms to a large degree with many other visions of a dark, oppressive future – most notably the Kafka-influenced world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (Gilliam’s early surreal Monty Python animations almost certainly also being a major influence here as well).
Unfortunately, as brilliantly and unsettlingly the manner that the world of Metropia is depicted, there’s a lot less thought that has gone into the actual script to make it either credible or meaningful, the filmmakers instead settling for the standard by-the-numbers plot of a weak-willed individual who finds a way to empower himself through love to beat the system. That individual is Roger – wonderfully voiced with a hesitant, whining quality by Vincent Gallo – a call-centre worker in Stockholm (the call-centre worker being inevitably the mindless, routine, soul-destroying occupation of choice that stands in for the coldness, distance that lack of humanity and social responsibility in contemporary visions of the future). Roger is becoming increasingly paranoid about his work colleagues informing on his bizarre – not to mention illegal – use of a bike to go to work, rather than using the Metro system. His concerns and dissatisfaction at work however feed back into his home life, placing a strain on his relationship with Anna (Sofia Helin), who he suspects is having an affair. Then there’s those voices in his head at night...
Our reluctant hero however unexpectedly takes matters into his own hands and, without quite knowing why, fails to turn up to work when he follows a woman he sees on the Metro who looks uncannily like the woman in the ads and on the distinctive packaging for a ubiquitous brand of shampoo. The woman is Nina (Juliette Lewis), and she’s about to let him into a secret about those voices he is hearing in his head – but can the paranoid Roger trust her any more than he can trust anyone else?
Rather like in The Aerial (La Antena) mentioned earlier, the execution here is marvellous and innovative, but Metropia is similarly lacking in substance, with its vague conspiracy-theory allusions to faceless evil multinational enterprises (the television is predictably shown as the primary tool for controlling and subduing the populace), and no concrete application to the realities of the world around us, or even a credible or meaningful purpose that is consistent within its own internal worldview. How did things get into this state (this incredibly bleak vision of a joined-up Europe could only be a credible future to UKIP and some of the Conservative Party’s extremist European friends) and if it is just an imaginary world unrelated to the one we know, why should we be concerned about it? Without any reason to make a personal investment in the characters or the situations they find themselves in, Metropia is little more than a fine spectacle, a fascinating exercise in style and paranoia and worth seeing for those reasons alone – but it doesn’t really have anything new or relevant to say about the world we live in today.