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Art, Romance and the Damning Popular

(mostly a review of Peter Mackie Burns' Daphne)

· film

Recently, a literary agent who represents several writers I admire was very kind to one of my novels. We spoke at length about the book, and in the course of this conversation the agent asked me, ‘Couldn’t they [two central characters] wind up together at the end? It’s so hard to sell literary right now.’ The novel might best be described as a revenge tragedy; romantic fulfilment for these two characters would undo its whole trajectory, both formally and thematically. The agent didn’t ask for this because she wanted it; she asked because she knows her business. Story-making is a field in which economic and cultural capital are often directly opposed. The particular narrative form which devalues a story in cultural terms more quickly and thoroughly than any other is romance. Hence the agent’s assumed opposition between romance and the literary.

That request tellingly opposed romantic/sexual fulfilment, and the narratives which provide it, to literary value. As a critic, I am familiar with the two-hundred-year history of this formulation, in which the imagined opposition between good (high) culture and bad (popular) culture poses receptive pleasure as the sign of the damning popular. Such pleasure is also, of course, an accepted sign of femininity. The conflation of feminine pleasure and popular audiences is not accidental. It is a structural feature of the manner in which aesthetic power operates in our culture.

Peter Mackie Burns’ film Daphne (2017), written by Nico Mensinga, positions itself as a cultural product using this same opposition. The film, set in London, focuses on the anomie of an over-entitled, snarky, upper-class white girl. Titled after this central character and married in modernist fashion to her subjective point of view, the film does provide an established narrative progression. Daphne is ‘lost’. Evidence of her lostness includes drug use, alcohol abuse and promiscuity. We are not in a land free from clichés. The film also provides character traits which are clearly meant to redeem her and invite our sympathy. She makes a sandwich for a homeless man and is shown to be possessed of ‘sensibility’. The expression of the latter is her foodie-ness. She is developing her palette. At one point, she sneaks onto a fire-escape with her restaurant-owner boss and together they have a profound sensory experience involving terribly expensive imported cheese. Middle-aged restaurant owner is, of course, jaded and hopelessly in love with Daphne. God knows why. She is a thoroughly uninteresting narcissist.

The homeless recipient of the sandwich does not speak and promptly disappears from the narrative. Then, wandering home from a sexual encounter, Daphne sees a store-owner stabbed in an attempted robbery. After pushing him away when he reaches out for comfort, she calls an ambulance and applies pressure to his wound. Later, the film gestures back to this event as a climactic moment, though as it happens it feels curiously flat. It might even have been interestingly flat, if the film had made a point of Daphne’s dissociation and/or taken us to an unexpected resolution. But the film lacks the conviction of its existentialist pretensions. In the end Benny, the store owner, is the vehicle for Daphne’s run-of-the-mill redemption, but in the interim he simply disappears from the narrative without being granted a single moment of subjectivity. For quite a while, we don’t even know whether he has lived or died, because we are inescapably in Daphne’s point-of-view and Daphne doesn’t care.

At some point, Daphne’s mother enters the narrative battling with cancer, and we are perhaps meant to read this as the reason for her emotional withholding. She deals with her mother, as with everyone else in the film, with profoundly boring selfishness.

On the way to its sense of closure, the film pauses to refuse romantic fulfilment. Here, the writer and director hit some of romantic comedy’s standard beats – the meet-cute, the disastrous first date, etc. The romantic interest does a bit of that romantic comedy stalking behaviour that is supposed to be charming. Daphne then refuses him, with some hint that she recognises her own shortcomings. In that refusal she rescues the film from the taint of the popular. This is not because the narrative isn’t formulaic, nor is it because it doesn’t rely on over-used tropes as it proffers closure. Like that literary agent, Mensinga and Burns recognise that one particular formulaic structure will damn their film in aesthetic terms. That one formula is the supposed feminine fulfilment provided by romance. The tired formula it does provide, redemption via a transient caring for someone with far less power than the protagonist – Daphne as white hero vis à vis brown victim – does not preclude the film from its desired festival circuit.

Having dealt with a victim support therapist (working from a remarkably posh home office) in her accustomed unfeeling and abusive manner, Daphne ultimately decides to visit Benny at home. Awkward introductions are skipped and we next see Daphne at the dinner table, being feted as the hero of the tale of Benny’s stabbing. His children are charming and wide-eyed and his wife is kind and maternal, but the film cares so little about any of them as human beings that it doesn’t even provide subtitles when they speak to each other in their own family language. The story closes as Daphne leaves their flat and walks down the night-time city street. A narrow depth of field in this shot renders the urban background soft and glowing and leaves us on the sharp focus of Daphne’s Mona Lisa half-smile.

This film’s disregard for its ‘others’ is both formal and thematic. It exists at the formal level in the film’s modernist fascination with liminal feminine subjectivity – with the young woman as inscrutable, semi-distant subject. It also exists at the thematic level in the film’s concern with upper-middle class urban whiteness, a concern which relegates pretty much everyone else to the status of landscape. All of Daphne’s dissociation, cruelty and selfishness are supposed to be balanced by the aesthetic sensibility struggling to emerge from her anomic depression. She will be redeemed by her love of obscure cheese. (Really?) Because she won’t be redeemed by romantic fulfilment, this collection of lazy clichés can still make its claim to the status of ‘art’.