By Jacob Mertens.
If art is a reflection of our lives, then what becomes of art when we look at it through its own prism? In Clio Barnard’s genre-defying The Arbor, we see the artistic process fold in on itself, like a complex origami machination of narrative and documentary that feels revelatory and off-putting at the same time. The film centers around the family of the lauded British playwright Andrea Dunbar, focusing first on the woman herself before her death becomes the catalyst for examining the ruination of her eldest daughter Loraine. The shift is seamless, and the audience soon realizes that Loraine has been the focus all along, the first half of the film simply offering context and clever subterfuge. However, the content of the film and how it is presented becomes an unyielding juxtaposition of style and substance. In the end, the viewer has to wonder if any character is as important as the film’s method of formal expression.
In terms of The Arbor‘s narrative arc, it begins with establishing the mother as the nexus of her family. She is portrayed as a dysfunctional genius, who simultaneously loves her children and resents them for limiting her ability to write and live an independent life. She locks both of her daughters in their room for hours on end, she drunkenly tells Loraine that she wished she had had her aborted, and she brings her children to the pub on a consistent basis, leaving them to their own devices as she slowly descends into an alcoholic stupor. If the film was about Andrea, it would end with her inexplicable death, a suspected aneurysm following thirteen years from the success of her first play. However, the story picks up the thread immediately, and Andrea’s complicated vacillation between maternal love and disinterest becomes the impetus for Loraine’s swift slide into prostitution and drug use. Andrea’s life is initially depicted through recollections of her loved ones and reenactments of her autobiographical play “The Arbor.” However, each scene from the play becomes less a way for the audience to see her and more of a way for them to see how her children are forced to attempt to understand who she was through her body of work.
All this is conveyed through somber documentary interviews which are used in sound only, as actors lip-synch their words to heightened narrative imagery in the background. The choice of style has the effect of foregrounding the entire film with its use, and while I think it’s ultimately an asset it does create a disquieting distance between reality and theatrics. If it were not for the thematic undertones of the core story, the use of style would trump a strong emotional connection with the content. However, the reflexive quality of the film immediately reinforces the notion that the audience is processing Andrea’s life as her children were, through the filter of artistry. The actors are too beautiful, their sorrow too finely composed, and yet their testimony is bitterly authentic. Gazing through several panes of glass into someone’s internalized grief is distracting, but it’s honest to both the practice of documentary appropriation and human observation. The audience doesn’t personally know these people, and so their observations are based on surface details and dramatic extrapolations. It’s how our minds work, we accept the world through processable simplicity until our continual experience and exposure allow for nuance. If nothing else, the intense art meta-take on reality allows the audience to acknowledge that creative distortion is inevitable.
Beyond the film’s self-awareness, narrative techniques of dramatic emphasis creep into the film. Most notably, there is a moment where Loraine reads a passage from a past interview that had become the closing monologue to a play called “A State Affair,” much how her interview is now being transmuted into a hybrid documentary. The play is a redux on Andrea’s life and surroundings, and the filmmaker chooses to stage this reading in a theater, where the sole audience is Loraine’s dead mother. Beyond whatever cheap emotional response you can accuse the technique of trying to accomplish, it engenders a sense of cathartic redemption for Loraine. Her mother’s ghost is forced to reckon with Loraine’s bitter resentment for her, with a life wrought from neglect. This causal relation owes to the filmmaker taking creative license with her subject material, and the final film is a more complex study because of it.
With all that said, I still find myself wondering what the film would have been like if it were viewed in a dark theater, with no image to aid it. The style of the film gives it complexity, it’s used with intelligence and careful consideration, but it’s a burden as well. In the end, just as in a play, the words are what are truly important. Barnard’s staging is a fantastic interpretation of brooding and mournful interviews, but an interpretation is all it is.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.