Le Monde, 20th January 2009

In the solitude of the English countryside

This first full-length film by Duane Hopkins is a poignant tale of a bleak existence.

Better Things, the first full-length and very personal film from a 35-year-old English director is not a joyful way to start 2009, which seems like it is going to be a sad year. However, the new year has allowed us to discover a young film director from the UK who discards the dominant aesthetic tradition of social realism (such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh) in favour of a less obvious alliance: that of the abstract violence of Alan Clarke, and the lyrical harshness of Bill Douglas. Both were important English directors of the 1970s but are still, sadly, not very well known.

Hopkins clearly has a lot in common with such directors: he uses a harsh metaphysical darkness and an acute sense of formal composition, he has a documentary approach towards reality and personalities, he removes narrative in favour of atmosphere, and he shows the stigmatisation that is implicit in social dysfunction.

Better Things is set in an unidentified rural area, and shows various characters, in parallel, in a choral world. There is Gail, a discontented teenager who uses popular literature to take her mind off her anxiety, and lives a lonely life with her ill grandmother. There is Rob, another teenager, who is consumed by grief, and deals with the death of his girlfriend from an overdose by immersing himself completely in drugs. There are the Galdwins, an elderly couple who, despite the fact that they are nearing the end of their lives, cannot stop hating each other. Then there are David (who still lives in the countryside) and Sarah (who has left the area to study elsewhere), who are trying to keep their relationship going through the intensity of their brief encounters.


A sense of suffering

Consumed by their solitude, weighed down by the bleakness of time passing, and smothered by the environment which seems indifferent to their presence, these characters appear to be linked by an inevitable sense of suffering, which is all the more poignant because each person harbours a desire to escape from his or her situation.

Passing from one character to another with a very sophisticated sense of composition and montage, the film does not try to explain this stagnation but instead uses it to represent infinite inertia, without resorting to either a use of the arbitrary or to caricatures. The alternationbetween general shots and close ups demonstrates the impossible link between these characters and the world, and the fragmented narration depicts a life that is unable to right itself. Movement and sound are given over to unemotional pauses, providing the solution of existential continuity.

Rarely has a bleak way of life been filmed in such proximity to the beauty that shapes it, and rarely has such a sentiment of necessity and lyricism been created by uneasy and failed attempts to escape that way of life. It has happened here because Duane Hopkins knows his subject well: he returned to the region where he grew up, in south west England, to film a story that is close to his heart, and transform the pain of adolescence in to a cinematographic creation.

Source | Le Monde