August 3, 2016

70s interiors

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015). JG Ballard used to say that Britain lacked a homegrown surrealist tradition. One of the good things about Ben Wheatley’s crazed adaptation of High-Rise is that it restores the surrealism to Ballard, who is seen too often as some kind of severe futurist or Alvin Toffler figure. In Wheatley and regular writer Amy Jump’s hands, Ballard becomes a moral satirist with a vicious sense of humour. Wheatley also turns Ballard’s science-fiction-of-the-present into retro, keeping the setting at 1975 in a Britain on the edge of Thatcherism, amplifying a class war between a high-rise apartment block’s lower and upper levels and luxuriating in kitsch. Like many Ballardian heroes, Laing is a bystander in his own story, and Tom Hiddleston plays him as an effete, shallow figure who could have arrived from another time, like a preview of the 80s man (it makes sense that Hiddleston was told to watch The Conformist to prepare). The real mania goes on all around him, personified by a decrepit Jeremy Irons as Royal and a Luke Evans made up to look like Oliver Reed as Wilder. This High-Rise is 70s hedonism within a British-surrealist landscape of rubbish strikes, power cuts and smashed cars, where orgies and costume parties are soundtracked by orchestral or mournful covers of Abba’s “SOS”. There is an intriguing connection to David Cronenberg’s sexual revolution horror Shivers, released in 1975 and also set in a modernist apartment block (both films contain variations on wildly out-of-control pool parties). But where the feeling of Shivers was chilly and contemporary, Wheatley’s High-Rise is allowed the distancing effect of debauched retro. One other thing about Cronenberg: Crash was his Ballard adaptation but Dead Ringers might be his most Ballardian film and the journey from modernist luxury to death and ruin is similar to High-Rise, but slower, deeper and more tragic.