The Loneliness of the Exurban Dancer
From the synopsis, Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank would seem to be yet another entry in the Dance, Prole, Dance! subgenre. Set in an estate out in Tilbury, it charts the life of someone who one of the reviews said 'you wouldn't want to meet down a dark alley' (do a search on the reviews for Fish Tank to find an impressively consistent level of class snobbery across the papers, incidentally). Played by a 17 year-old picked up by a casting director who heard her shouting at her boyfriend in the street in Essex, our protagonist is bored, aggressive, stuck between a mouthy younger sister and a decidedly louche mother who looks barely ten years older than her. Yet now and then, she goes into an abandoned flat in her estate and has a bit of a dance ('only when I'm dancing can I feel this free', etc, delete as applicable). Around the same time, her mum's soft-spoken Irish boyfriend enters the picture, with his compliments on her dancing, his hep record collection (Bobby Womack, Basic Channel, Soul Jazz compilations) and his restorative trips to the countryside. It won the Jury Award at Cannes, as films which show the English lumpenproletariat behaving in a picturesquely venal fashion tend to do very well among continental intellectuals, no doubt for the same reason we apparently like Stella Artois adverts and Cinema Paradiso. Part of what makes Fish Tank so refreshing is that it subtly upends the expectation of how the above configuration will end up (which I'm not mentioning here, so as not to spoil), and it resists sentimentality, although not intensity or (suppressed) emotion. It skirts perilously close to social realist cliche, but always pulls away from it - with the exception of an outrageously bad final shot, where Arnold suddenly slips from being a Tilbury Tarkovsky into a sink estate Sam Mendes.
Ostensibly, this is fairly similar to Red Road, set on the titular Glasgow high-rises. Both deal with sociopathic women pursuing venal men round the remnants of post-war architecture, both have a visual intensity, an interest in light, place and style that is rare in the Calvinist world of Loachian realism, and both are torn between icy disconnection and incipient let's-all-have-a-hug reconnection. Red Road veers far too close to the latter near its end, where an existentialist thriller suddenly becomes bad telly, where the ferociously driven (and ferociously blank) heroine is suddenly revealed to have a past, to have her reasons, to have a constructed alibi for her previously compellingly impenetrable actions. Excepting said final shot, Fish Tank doesn't make the same mistake, and there is never a group hug, and nobody learns anything. Yet what takes it out of the realm of quite-good social realist film-making and into somewhere more extraordinary is the use of music and setting, which are picked with a subtlety and drama decidedly lacking in Red Road, where Oasis memorably soundtracked one tower block party. The opening scene sets out the stall brilliantly - our protagonist stares at a group of women in the open space of a council estate, acting out the dance moves from the video to Cassie's Me & U, their aggressive faces and human bodies all wrong for the droning pornbot electro of the song and the botoxed, autotuned, airbrushed world of the R&B video. Our protagonist just stares at them, rapt. Another equally sad, surreal scene involves the telly which is always on, a perennial ambient chatter, with some dancing in front of a Ja Rule video, with its presentation of impossible luxury and almost comically basic presentation of sexual relations.
This continues through the music brought in by the seemingly lovely Irish boyfriend - 70s soul presenting itself as a relief from the wasteland and claustrophobia of outer Outer London - yet this reveals itself to be every bit as false an escape as that presented by the videos. And interestingly, and marking this film out from the dance-prole-dance genre, our protagonist is a fairly crap dancer - full of pent-up energy, but also pretty inept, and naively unaware of what role the dancing girl is supposed to play in the 21st century libidinal economy as a quasi-pornographic ornament - hence the fine Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner denouement to the dancing subplot. Elsewhere, Rhythm and Sound are used as a tense, weirdly lit eroticism, the thickness and sibilance of the sticky, smeared echo sounding like an illness, a feverish dream of the old reggae records played at her mum's house parties. Later, a brief blast of Original Nuttah becomes peculiarly still, its date-stamped rush overlaid onto folk looking calmly, statically out of their balconies. There's also an almost unbearably poignant scene involving a track from Illmatic which would have made a far better ending than the maddeningly awful final moments....but music's mediascape is alternately connected and disconnected from the Tilbury landscape in which the film is set - and it's this which finally inoculates it against type.
It's interesting that Arnold is from Dartford, as my initial guesses for where this was set were in that area - Slade Green, Erith, the landscape which appears at the edges of east and south-east London, where the thick, viscous, brown river widens, the industry gentrified out of the centre reappears, as do the people who aren't sufficiently Vibrant for the urban renaissance. It's a violently disjointed world, where smaller structures - Barratt cul-de-sacs, bungalows, lost fragments of '30s suburbia - are loomed down upon by the vastness of the marshes, the towering cranes and pylons, the blocks spaced out amidst yawning spaces. Fish Tank is not sociology, but Arnold's presentation of the estate's compressed over-activity rang true, as did the particular character of insult. Rather than the sub-Jane Jacobs notion that any sort of communality is impossible in these modernist, streetless developments, we see an area where the windows are permanently open much as the telly is permanently on, where you can look down to see whoever new may or may not be entering the area, where washing is hung out to dry on the crowded walkways, where people sunbathe on the strips of municipal grass. This overactivity is overlaid onto an industrial stillness, and the framing always emphasises these disparities, always looks for the image where the characters are overshadowed or warped by place. The Irish boyfriend at his job in an industrial park, his genial figure overshadowed by a series of blue, bulgingly robotic cranes, as if as a warning; oil refineries looming over the Thames' furthermost reaches, un-used, undesignated inbetween spaces never offering relief, and the warped evening light that pours in through the wide windows casting dreamlike, feverishly sexual patterns of light into the sweaty, noisy Parker-Morris rooms. More than any inner city, this is what space looks like when nobody has ever cared for it, planned or designed it (or cared only for their corner of it, the interiors of their flats or their driveways). It's a place which already feels post-apocalyptic, as unforgettable as Tarkovsky's Estonia - yet with the people included who are cropped out of the photos of picturesque ruination.