Friday 6 October 2017

At the LFF: "Life Guidance"

It risks giving into lazy national stereotypes, but one could argue Life Guidance was a very Austrian sci-fi movie: all clean, straight lines and antiseptic spaces, unified by an underlying unease about the direction society is pointed in. The logical endpoint, according to writer-director Ruth Mader, is an Austria governed by the (very corporate) idea of optimalisation: her film, accordingly, evokes a nation-state where citizens are pressured to make the most money and own the nicest homes, housing the priciest things, with no time or space whatsoever permitted for frailty, jollity or indeed anything else in the realms of human feeling. As in all workable sci-fi speculations, we are invited to ponder the extent to which the future may be here already.

Such emotional austerity measures have left Mader's protagonist, family man Alexander (Fritz Karl), depressed beyond tables, and most often crying on the couch in his beautifully appointed property in the suburbs. One afternoon, however, there arrives on his doorstep an oddball advisor from the state's Life Guidance division, there to passively-aggressively turn Alex's frown upside down and generally steer him back onto what's been deemed the right course. Instead, in a film that doesn't lack for shots of its lead behind the wheel of a sleek company car, this intervention succeeds only in driving our man further astray: soon, he's bunking off work altogether to stalk his would-be counsellor, hang around suboptimal housing estates, and initiate some kind of relationship with an equally depressive divorcee. Life, so the film has it, is a messy business, and we owe it to ourselves and future selves to mitigate for that.

What the film describes is a carefully controlled rebellion: in his buttoned-down suit and tie, Karl projects a variation of that fragile self-containment widely associated with Colin Firth, and Mader keeps framing/trapping him within Austria's most striking modernist and postmodern properties. The deeper he's ensnared in this narrative, the more he starts to resemble Kafka's Josef K after another century of bureaucratic capitalism: entirely uncertain how to react, and whether there's anywhere left for him to run. The great pleasure of Life Guidance is how organically this story develops and flows: each scene opens a different window onto a brave new world that seems only a few miles or minutes down the road from our own. There are, perhaps inevitably, traces of Michael Haneke to be glimpsed: Alexander reacts with blank panic upon learning an agency has recorded his white-saviour dreams of escaping to Africa, as we note with alarm that one of his fellow travellers is played by Arno Frisch, one of the original Funny Games' home invaders. (You should see this guy's nightmares.)

Yet Mader tempers any severity with a sly, dry sense of humour. Such are the conditions imposed by the authorities that a kickaround in the back garden, usually a gentle gesture towards father-son bonding, here involves dad walloping the ball as hard as he can at his lad; meanwhile, businessmen are reeducated at afternoon arts-and-crafts sessions, experiencing self-improvement through macrame; and when, at his lowest ebb, Alexander finds himself among the sorry singletons at a down-at-heel noodle bar, the possibility is raised that Mader and co-writer Martin Leidenfrost may just be dramatising, even satirising, the kind of midlife crisis - a futile kicking against the pricks - which men will still be having decades from now. Between the surge in sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the rediscovery of Philip K. Dick by television and the new Blade Runner, philosophical sci-fi looks to be having a renaissance, perhaps as we look for guidance on how to navigate our present dystopias: Mader's scarcely less compelling fable offers high style and no little sociological food for thought.

Life Guidance screens tomorrow (8.45pm) at the ICA, then on Monday 9 (12.45pm) at BFI Southbank, and again on Saturday 14 (2.30pm) at the Vue Leicester Square.

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