Living at the cinema, 2020

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The human voice directed by Pedro Almodovar

In a crucial year for rethinking habitations as physical and, especially, emotional places, a number of artistic disciplines, film included, have seen homes take centre stage.

It could be a coincidence or else a sign of the times, one of the many cases in which art and culture seem to foretell events because they react to historic drivers, the kind we tend to put down as contributing factors, circulating expectations and fears. Re-reading articles published in January 2020 that talk about masks as the “trend fashion of the year” after Billie Eilish wore one at the Grammy Awards ceremony, summons a wry smile. It’s significant that, in the year of lockdowns that has revolutionised and radicalised people’s relationships with their living spaces, homes are the dominant theme of this year’s films and that the most successful films have revolved around living and domestic spaces, despite obviously having been made before the Covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions struck.  Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland triumphed at both the Venice Film Festival and at the Oscars, eschewing a somewhat prevailing Disneyesque tone to tackle a major contemporary theme: the way in which the founding myth of the frontier, the very American concept of perpetual motion, is demystified by the social reality of living on the breadline and fact that the film is set precisely when the gig economy, which has seen capital accumulating to an extent not seen since the industrial revolution to the benefit of the few, forcing others into  precariousness and mobility. Just how romantic the idea of living on the hoof, uprooting oneself, swapping one’s home for a camper van and just how much of the tough reality actually consists of marginalisation, hardship and disillusion? How much of it is a luxury that only the rich can permit themselves and how much of it forces the rest into a state of perpetual dependency in order to survive? The fact that it was released the height of the pandemic has added another layer of meaning to the film - stuck inside our own four walls and haunted alternately by the horror of home or the nesting syndrome, how attractive has that demystified portrait of the nomadic life seemed to us, despite it all,  did it make it even more terrifying in its uncertainty and precarity? Another film along similar lines, which has also garnered numerous statuettes is Minari by another American of Asian origin, Lee Isaac Chung. This time the theme is immigrants as the new pioneers and mobile homes as the outposts, the base for colonising territories.  

From the epic to the comic, because the times may have changed but the archetype of the frontier still holds good. The third serial accumulator of seasonal prizes comes from the UK. Directed by Florian Zeller, The Father is an adaptation of one of his own plays. On the opposite side of the Pond, the huge spaces of the Great Outdoors become the claustrophobic yet immensely proliferative spaces of an apartment, a metaphor for the fragmenting mind of a man suffering from dementia. The other starring role, alongside the ever-great Anthony Hopkins, has gone to the home. Apartments are lived in in the same way as one’s mind, they’re furnished, they’re personalised in such a way that they’re tailored to one’s own existence – and sometimes we’re privy to their dramatic collapse. Here too, in the year in which Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, written during a period of quarantine more than two centuries ago has acquired fresh currency, the dual images of claustrophobia and the labyrinth evoked by the spectacular saraband of The Father contain resonances over and above the degenerative illness that they portray.

Abitare al cinema_Pedro Almodovar

The Father voice directed by Pedro Almodovar

Lastly one of the first films d’auteur shot during the pandemic – and therefore with health protocols and infernal limitations in place that turned the practicalities of filmmaking on their head, like everything else -was The Human Voice, directed by Pedro Almodovar, with Tilda Swinton declaiming Jean Cocteau’s famous monologue. The apartment as symbolic place, its tangible characteristics built by those who live in it, is minimally sketched out, à la Dogville, exposing the artificiality of the set, infringing the suspension of disbelief on which canonical cinema is founded. As if the home as a mental space was one of the first things that needed to be explored, given the circumstances of the pandemic. The year in which home living has been more controversial than anyone can remember has, at the cinema, been a year of many different homes.

23 July 2021