Americans have long relied on European interlopers like Alexis de Tocqueville to parse out these thorny class issues for us. Even Henry James was much more comfortable ruminating on European class than the status of his countrymen. Thus, it rests on the shoulders of Europeans both continental and comfortable at home to do the heavy lifting for their American counterparts.
As Part I of this series discusses, American films like Mike Mylod’s The Menu display enough savvy to understand their genre’s potential for class allegory, but tend to take their proclamations too seriously to reach any semblance of profundity. Such pitfalls are not applicable to Dutch filmmaker Halina Reijn’s English-language debut Bodies Bodies Bodies, a horror movie from hipster boutique distributor A24 that failed to make much of a dent last year at the late-summer box office. In what may be the definitive cinematic statement on Gen Z, a group of co-eds (and Pete Davidson) hold a hurricane party in daddy’s mansion as they wait out the storm by passing the time with booze, drugs, and the titular mystery game where they deduce a pretend killer. But then the bodies start dropping for real, and the drama-prone strivers just can’t even.
As Bee, Borat 2 breakout Maria Bakalova assumes the role of tour guide through a group of upper-middle-class frenemies who’ve known each other since childhood. They are ethnically diverse, sexually fluid, and perpetually screwing each other. Their friendships are primarily useful for touting their superior status. As budding podcaster Alice (Rachel Sennott) says to Jordan (Myha’la Herrold) about her family of academics, “Your parents are upper. Middle. Class.” Armed with an outsider perspective and a genre built on types who serve as cannon fodder, Reijn is able to fashion dynamic characters rooted in cutting satire who spout off lines like “I understand, and I am an ally and I totally get how it looks that way” and “So if you could just like not escalate the situation, that'd be great” with an oblivious sincerity. However, the film’s most brilliant stroke comes at its end when it embraces the central theme of the helicopter generation’s culpability in manufacturing its own problems on its way to its self-inflicted and much deserved eradication.
While Bodies Bodies Bodies casts itself as art horror, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s Cannes-winning satire Triangle of Sadness seems hellbent on degrading the art film with its ten-minute symphony of seasickness that never shies away from an inclusive portrayal of body fluids. A declining male model (Harris Dickinson) and his It Girl partner (the late Charlbi Dean Kriek) embark on a comped cruise full of an array of elite characters, including an elderly British couple who made their fortune as arms dealers and a German woman who survived a stroke and can only say “Up in the clouds.” Spearheading this riff on the upstairs/downstairs story is Woody Harrelson’s Marxist ship captain, whose moment in the sun comes when he and a Russian business titan (Zlatko Burić) drunkenly argue over economic theory on the intercom system moments before pirates destroy the vessel (“Is this one of ours?” the British couple asks after picking up a grenade).
What distinguishes the film’s satire from its American equivalents is Östlund’s dedication to using character flaws as a source of humor. “Never argue with an idiot, they’ll only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience,” Harrelson’s Captain tells his sparring partner. As hilarious as the aforementioned economic banter is, Östlund is less concerned with endorsing either ideology than exposing the blindspots of both the Russian capitalist oligarch and a communist elite trapped between the spoils of his position and his role as servant to the upper echelons of society forced to put on a “Captain’s dinner” for the ship’s upper-crust that all involved can see through. When the film’s lost-at-sea third act begins and Filipino janitor Abigail (Dolly De Leon) becomes de facto leader, she revels in the same exploitation the former ruling class has long made their M.O., bartering with Dickinson for sex while lording over the island in what can only be described as Friday’s revenge-fantasy version of Robinson Crusoe. For Östlund, class exploitation is less a battle between haves and have nots than a symptom of human folly run amok in need of empathy and an undeterred ethical code.
Ever the festival darling, Östlund has crafted a career lambasting class pretensions with his acerbic multilingual style. Yet despite American film’s global cultural dominance, our national cinema has proven quite clumsy at the type of transatlantic observations that forged James’s reputation as the country’s preeminent novelist of manners. If any recent film had the capability of taking up the Jamesian mantle, it would be Jessica M. Thompson’s The Invitation, a contemporized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that finds twenty something biracial American art student, Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), taking a DNA test and realizing her connection to the infamous Count (Thomas Doherty) during a jaunt across the pond as the guest of her newfound cousin Oliver (Hugh Skinner). With its clever twists and Gen Z focus, The Invitation seemingly has all odds in its favor. As Stephen Arata infamously noted three decades ago, Dracula is the ultimate narrative of reverse colonization, a tale of an other from east of England who sets up shop in the imperial center of London to breed an uber race by mingling his blood with paragons of Victorian womanhood all the while escaping a cadre of muscular Christian men who can never compete with his intellectual and physical prowess. As such, The Invitation had the opportunity to eviscerate race and class structures by making Evie the reverse colonizer for an age of dismantling systems as she travels to the same imperial center to do battle with an other of a different ilk. However, the final product is a movie that treats microaggressions like a bride of Dracula touching Evie’s hair as the decolonization of the mind. Thompson’s Count is not a Romanian interloper, but an aristocrat so entrenched in the order of things that Europe’s pureblood families supply him with brides to keep the peace. Ultimately, The Invitation settles for becoming another shallow BIPOC revenge fantasy–more a rewriting of the western than Stoker’s class politics, a film all the worse for such oversights.
Americans may shy away from cinematic meditations on their own social class, but our culture’s predilection for Anglophilia from Austen to Dickens to Downton Abbey makes British literature and film’s obsessive focus on such dynamics a pillar of our cultural consumption that allows U.S. audiences to deflect from our own caste system and marvel at myths of upward mobility. Such may explain why British export Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris became one of the few bright spots of the summer 2022 arthouse box office. The story of a cleaning lady (Lesley Manville) making good at the House of Dior in the Swinging Sixties proves a fizzy tale of deplorable revolt. Leading a solitary life, Mrs. Harris dreams of buying her own custom-made Dior dress, a purchase less about rising above her station than experiencing the spoils of life after WWII left her widowed and stunted in her prime. But when a combination of side hustles and a windfall from a long lost pension payment for soldiers killed in action provide the opportunity to purchase her dream garment, Mrs. Harris embarks on a journey that serves as the catalyst for this type of middlebrow prestige crowdpleaser.
Mrs. Harris’s Parisian tour is marked by the expected class prejudice common in films of this ilk, namely a housewife who enjoys her husband’s corner of the urban garbage-collection market and its accompanying fortune. Yet, what separates Harris from other entries in the “those were the times” class fairy tales is director Anthony Fabian’s focus on the often invisible labor behind the culture industry. Under the elite fist of Dior director Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), the label remains dedicated to its mythos as it comes apart at the seams. While Ada Harris may not embody Dior’s target demo, Colbert reluctantly takes her order because, unlike the brand’s uber rich clients, she pays in cash and expects no favors. Amid the expected and easy events of this worlds-collide story (of course the plucky cleaning lady leads a seamstress revolt) Fabian creates a portrait of haute couture in which the major players are alienated from their labor. The world famous face of Dior, Natasha (Alba Baptsita), would rather read existentialist philosophy than attend an endless string of soirees, a pastime she shares with the label’s head accountant (and her ultimate love interest), André Fauvel (Lucas Bravo). While Mrs. Harris’s matchmaking and reshaping of Dior into a more democratic brand may be a bit pat, the film deviates from its American correlatives by treating its primary antagonists generously. Colbert intends to preserve Dior’s exclusivity at all costs, but her fervor stems not from a sense of classism but the costs of caring for her WWII-vet husband now bedridden due to combat injuries. The film may be bereft of large gestures and major reforms, but it reshapes the Dior mystique with an infusion of economic reality. Mrs. Harris remains the same put-upon working-class hero who is nice to a fault by film’s end, but one of the world’s most recognized brands no longer appears as a faceless corporation or peddler of cultural capital, but an organization of consummate professionals united around the quality of their craft.
In recent weeks, Quentin Tarantino has taken heat for saying that we are currently living in one of the worst eras of moviemaking history, a period in which superheroes and nostalgic nods to better films of years past have resulted in an endless cycle of franchises. Yet, such a dearth of artistry is less an issue of Hollywood synergy or post-COVID tentpole marketing than an industry made up of artists so isolated that their calling and narrative prowess have been severed from the distinct American stories that motivated the New Hollywood that is the subject of Tarantino’s recent book, a period which endures as the pinnacle of American movies. Clooney’s lost himself in Bali. There’s no room left for the Heartland outside the frame of condescension and pity. Fussell may have called out delusions of freedom from supervision nearly forty years ago, but few American film artists seem willing to interrogate their own self perceptions enough to answer that call with any semblance of resonance. Perhaps, despite our calls to rugged individualism, the Europeans place a higher value on freedom after all.
Bodies Bodies Bodies is available on disc and for digital rental.
Triangle of Sadness is now streaming and available for digital rental.
The Invitation is now available on disc and streaming on Netflix.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is now available on disc and streaming on Peacock.