Wednesday 18 September 2019

North of Uranus: "Aniara"

The distinctively odd Aniara is something like the trash High Life, and I don't altogether mean that as a diss. Where Claire Denis quarantined a cross-section of Eurothesps in the furthest reaches of the galaxy so as to float an academia-ready thesis on the ways men and women interact in confined spaces, here the Swedish duo of Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja observe the breakdown of polite society that follows when a craft travelling from a dying Earth to the distant new hope of Mars is knocked irreversibly off-course by asteroids. Naturally, this breakdown will involve a certain loosening of collars and pants; Kågerman and Lilja's own thesis is that if you're heading towards a black hole, you may as well get your freak on. Had it emerged in the 1970s, Aniara would have had twenty minutes of sociology cut out of it by opportunistic distributors and been reissued to certain down-at-heel Soho cinemas under the gaudier title of Interstellar Love Boat or Scandie Swingers in Space. In the version we have, however, the sociology is still very much present, front and centre.

It has an unusual point of first contact in that the heroine observing the ship's drift into potential oblivion isn't some buff, can-do Ripley clone who might notionally steer everybody towards safety but a sensitive, redheaded mindfulness tutor (Emelie Jonsson), in charge of the Aniara's inflight entertainment: a VR room that allows passengers to revisualise their time on Earth, and would be useful pushback against the generally panicky air aboard were it not suddenly overloaded. One consequence of having a protagonist more New Agey than kick-ass is that, for at least an hour of Aniara's running time, there's some uncertainty about where we're headed; this may or may not chime with the filmmakers' existential doubts over where society might be going. Either way, for some while, the shape of the film is the shape of the ship. This is a movie that elects to go looking for a plot along these corridors, allowing the viewer time to note the filmmakers' not inconsiderable feat of logistics, production design and cinematography in getting gleaming yet presumably disparate airports, shopping malls, swimming pools and nightclubs to cohere and convince as the most upwardly mobile cruise liner Earth's finest minds could come up with. Once we're checked in, however, the main activity lies in watching that gleam come ever so gradually off, the roving camera noting the corridors filling up with junk and the guest rooms giving up slashed-wrist suicide attempts and victims, the living lying in their own filth.

There's undeniably an element of Scandinavian bleakness in the mix, but Kågerman and Lilja seem far keener to observe the consolations the remaining passengers take, be that in religion, booze or what those opportunistic distribs would doubtless refer to as how's your father. I suspect they'd cut much of the studied dilapidation to hasten us towards the woman-on-woman shower scene, and the introduction of the cult whose initiation ritual involves everybody stripping naked and holding mirrors over their midriffs. (Hey, whatever floats your spaceboat.) By this point, you'll either be baffled, tickled, turned on or some combination of all three, but you probably won't be bored, as you may have been by, say, Tarkovsky's Solaris. It helps that Kågerman and Lilja have a sense of humour: even the video messages the captain broadcasts to the ship are soon reduced to the production values of an old-school porno. The further out there the Aniara drifts, the more its rudderlessness becomes an issue for the film: there are several sidebars that really don't lead anywhere (and scream to be excised, opportunism or not), and I'm not entirely sure it has the gravity to fully position this ship as another Earth, despite the myriad reasons for despair and hope the camera lands upon. You will at least be diverted for a stretch, though, and you may come away admiring the quiet care and craft Kågerman and Lilja have taken over a film with no message more profound than: fuck it, we're fucked, let's fuck.

Aniara is still playing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on October 21.

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