High-Rise: The Gospel of Ballard according to Ben Wheatley
by Alfonso Rivera
- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2015: The eagerly awaited fifth film by the director of Sightseers is a free and frenzied adaptation of the novel by the dystopian British author
Back in 1996, the by no means accommodating Jeremy Thomas had the courage to trust in Cronenberg so that he could adapt the morbid novel Crash by JG Ballard: the resulting film earned the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival, generated a fair amount of controversy (its sex scenes, blood, general derangement and twisted metal led to booing on the Croisette) and divided opinions. While the Canadian director is distinguishable by his strong perspective that is as far from orthodox as you can get, something similar could be said about Ben Wheatley, a director whose cult status has gone viral; he has earned this through his own hard work, thanks to the biting, awkward humour of his previous films, which can certainly not be accused of being unoriginal.
This is why High-Rise [+see also:
film profile] has been awaited with such a huge degree of excitement, and the massive queue to gain access to the press screening at the 63rd San Sebastián Film Festival was proof of that: the movie had just come from the 40th Toronto Film Festival, radiating good vibes left, right and centre. But the spectacle that Wheatley unfurls before the eyes of those who were not forewarned, during the (excessive) two-hour running time, is not suitable – just as Crash wasn’t – for all eyes… and tempers: there was no lack of walk-outs from the theatre, although others did applaud once it had finished. Good old Ben says that, while respecting the original literary work, and in collusion with his top screenwriter (Amy Jump), he has made a spectacle of pure bewilderment, excess and chaos. In it, we see how, in 1975, a psychiatrist moves into a sterile flat in an enormous skyscraper; in the penthouse lives its creator, an architect played by Jeremy Irons. Gradually, the strange people who inhabit this building begin to interact with the man, and the problems of this microcosm – his neighbours have no reason to leave: right there, inside, there is a gym, a supermarket and all kinds of temptations – will start to affect him more than he had expected. And so, while everything crumbles around him without him even leaving this monstrosity – like in a Buñuelian The Exterminating Angel 2.0 – our hero’s mind begins to imitate the architectural and collective deterioration that surrounds him: social statuses are distinguished from one another perfectly and are made all the more strained by extreme situations in this world of technology, which gets increasingly violent and wildly sexual.
Actor of the moment Tom Hiddleston, with his Gary Cooper-like, elegant ladies’ man appearance, plays the lead character, Doctor Robert Laing, who dreams of being surrounded by beautiful women, just like in a Robert Palmer music video. The disturbing and unpredictable soundtrack, courtesy of Clint Mansell, a regular collaborator with Aronofsky, helps us to understand the characters’ deterioration, further emphasised by a priceless cover version of Abba’s SOS by Portishead, one of the most nihilistic bands of all time. Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss round off the cast of leading actors who also coexist in this modern-day prison forged from cement. Like an ecstatic DJ, Wheatley makes the human and technical elements of High-Rise dance with each other, changing the rhythm and melody as he pleases, generating astonishment and turmoil, as well as something akin to fever pitch.
Some people are already talking about the influence of Kubrick and Terry Gilliam in this tremendously free and overly schizoid film, but its inordinate excesses are more closely linked to Ken Russell, a provocative filmmaker who left no one indifferent: you either loved him or hated him, something that also happens with this audacious High-Rise that Wheatley has fearlessly brought to San Sebastián.
(Translated from Spanish)