(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: British director Andrea Arnold won the Cannes Jury Prize for the intense and invigorating Fish Tank, about a fifteen-year-old girl, Mia (Katie Jarvis) who lives with her mother and sister in the housing projects of Essex. Mia’s adolescent conflicts and emerging sexuality reach a boiling point when her mother’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) enters the picture.
– From DVD Production Notes
In a way owning Fish Tank isn’t that big of a surprise. It centers on the “Solitary Girl” narrative which features in other films I own, including Winter’s Bone (2010), The Unloved (2009), Sleeping Beauty (2011), Melancholia (2011) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). It also focuses on yet another fractured family (believe me- too many films to list here) and in particular people living a working to lower-class existence.
But that’s not all. It’s a small and atypical film that seems innocuous but becomes complex and subjective to whoever sees it. If you go to a message board discussing it you’ll read many interpretations of what happens, pushing its viewers to be aroused, uncomfortable, disgusted and everywhere in between. While a friend of mine watched it she texted me, “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON IN THIS MOVIE.”
The answer? I don’t know. All I can tell you is what I think and have interpreted from the scenes before me, as well as the little I know from the people involved.
First: the basics. At its core Fish Tank is nothing new. It’s a coming of age story, which could bring to mind anything from Dickens and Truffaut to Breillat and Brontë. It’s a few chapters from a young person’s life without complete resolution, which is also familiar territory.
The word “awakening” is used to describe it as well, which is true on several levels but harder to read. Mia isn’t the usual ingenue. She is brash, volatile and confrontation is second nature to her. So is taking what she can get, and the more you get to know her the more you realize she has gone without. Her trajectory exposes hard truths about her life. It also makes her aware of feelings she never knew existed.
To note that Mia is isolated is an understatement, as well as her desire to be free. She is separate from the others around her, enough that Ian Christie can’t help but point it out in his Criterion essay: “What is most striking about all the other characters is their overt sexualization- in contrast with Mia, habitually wearing plain, unrevealing clothes.” She is a sort of rarity, a teenage sexual non-identity that I can understand.
It’s when this isolation is disrupted that Fish Tank gets weird. I’m almost tempted to call it a real-life horror film. After watching it I kept dwelling on a conversation I had with several girls about “that 22-year-old guy who hung out with your friends in high school. Why was ‘that guy’ there anyway?”
I watched a few of their faces fall before admitting, “Holy shit, that’s who I lost my virginity to.”
It’s unlikely I would’ve heard about Fish Tank at all if it wasn’t for people reacting to that fact. My mother called me and talked about the film, first asking me if I knew who Michael Fassbender was and if I had seen it. I said I had never heard of it. In trying to describe him she kept using the word “charming,” but there was tone in her voice that suggested something else. It wasn’t until after seeing the film that I understood she was disturbed by that charm.
We haven’t spoken about it since, but I would tell her she was right. There’s a line of his- “But you’ve got no shoes”- that drives me up the wall every time I watch it. He handles things in a way that’s simultaneously transparent but incredibly difficult to read.
The character of Connor embodies the sort of person who sexually destroys you before you know it, and even worse- maybe without meaning to. After seeing the film I joked that this was an extreme kind of situation where you don’t flash forward to, “Shit, I’m pregnant,” but to writing this guy’s name on your kid’s birth certificate and being like, “I don’t even remember having sex with that guy. Oh God, my life…”
The interactions between Mia and Connor unfold in a way where viewers interpret things strictly based on their own experiences, personal boundaries and moral code (seriously- that’s all you’ve got). That’s part of the film’s genius. You’re never completely sure of what you’re seeing because it’s hard to tease out the character’s motivations or how and when they begin to change. You’re left unsure if what you’ve seen are gestures of kindness or something else.
The tension surrounding these interactions range from uncomfortable to unbearable, inevitably leading to a sex scene that’s like watching a car accident or someone’s fingers getting torn off. I don’t mean to liken it to a set piece from Saw, but emotionally it feels the same way. This might be amplified by the fact that both actors were intimidated and nervous about what they were doing. Jarvis wasn’t informed that it would be shot and with whom until the day before (due to the lack of script and Arnold’s chronological shooting style). In the Criterion Collection’s audio interview with Fassbender, David Schwartz said he loved his Connor’s reaction after the scene, that he genuinely looks terrified. Fassbender stated that he wasn’t acting.
Although the consummation of this “Oh fuck no” relationship comes as no surprise, that isn’t what Fish Tank is about. It departs off of the tracks altogether, heading somewhere unexpected, tense and unfamiliar. There is no formula to follow because there has been no coming of age story that heads in its direction. You feel as unsafe as the situation threatens to be.
I also have to say that as cringe-worthy Connor’s entrance is, I love his exit. It frees Mia to walk away, even if it’s into the unknown. It’s this very moment that reminds us that the story is solely hers, and in spite of what’s happened you don’t want her to live without hope. It’s hard to see that taken away.
This reality reveals itself as the true framework of the film. Opportunities for Mia are few and far between. Some scenes briefly touch on her relationship with a local boy, Billy (Harry Treadaway), who provides the only company where she seems relaxed and silent, less willing to fight. This opens the door to the possibility of something more, but it’s hard to determine where it will lead.
It’s these unknowns that stay with you long after you’ve finished watching. I’ve sorted through other people’s interpretations and the strange thing is many of them hold water. Even Fassbender’s does, who not only maintains that he played Connor close to himself (the same thing Ray Winstone did in The War Zone, which nearly prompted him to quit) but that the character wasn’t a “monster.”
Of course I immediately expected him to yell “OW” because someone had thrown something at his head, but while listening to him I realized he had a point. After all, he played the guy. Upon further viewings you definitely catch moments where he is questioning himself, consumed by feelings of competitiveness or expressing a need for validation.
Still, I can’t help but disagree with him about when Connor’s behavior becomes questionable. It could be that the character doesn’t understand personal boundaries, but perhaps the actor doesn’t either. In any case it reminded me that attractive people have the luxury of crossing them with more ease because others allow them to. Regardless, the resulting damage is the same.
But I digress. If you’ve read to this point, you probably know more about Fish Tank than you should. The less you do before going in, the more confusing the experience will be. I knew absolutely nothing before watching it, so it was quite an ordeal. This was compounded by my choice to watch it at 1 a.m. on a weekday without realizing it would be a batshit, emotional labyrinth of a film.
I suppose I own it because there’s no comfortable way out.