Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor makes a link between censorship and (emotional, psychological) repression that’s pretty obvious, but the film has a knack of making the obvious work – which has the additional virtue of being thematically appropriate.
After all, the video nasties debacle of the early 1980’s, around which Censor takes place, was all about the obvious – the lurid covers and contents of violent videocassettes were held to be to blame for real-life atrocities: the more excessive the imagery, the more ‘dangerous’ they must necessarily be.
It’s a form of magical thinking, and one that doesn’t seem inappropriate to the horror genre. The idea was that if this ‘unsuitable’ material made its way into the mainstream it would contaminate society – creating the kind of alarm that is occasioned, on a personal psychological level, by unconscious feelings threatening to disturb the balance of the conscious mind.
The censor’s job is to stand between the mainstream and whatever is ‘out there’ and to repress those forbidden urges or ideas or feelings on society’s behalf. Our protagonist, Enid, is committed to her job precisely to the extent that she is committed to repressing traumatic feelings of her own, related to the disappearance of her sister when they were both children.
Because of this she takes her job a lot more seriously than do her mostly male colleagues, who regard her as humourless and forbidding. She genuinely believes that by removing, say, an explicit eye-gouging from a film she is protecting society. She is blind to the ironies peculiarly apparent in this example: that like the eye-gouger, she is preventing people from seeing, and that what she is doing to the film is also a kind of violence.
Neither can she understand that her vocation is to some degree a symptom of her inability to come to terms with, or remember, what happened to her sister. Was she to blame in some way? Removing depictions of violent acts (mostly performed on women) from films is a way of atoning for this possible guilt – while also denying that there is anything to feel guilty about in the first place.
But it doesn’t work, and the only way Enid can deal with the confusion around her sister’s possible death is to believe it didn’t happen. When she sees an actress who – she thinks – resembles her in a horror film called Don’t Go In The Church, directed by the shadowy Frederick North, she fixates on this to the extent that the barrier between the screen and her real life dissolves.
By the time her investigations into the work of Frederick North have resulted in her being mistaken for an actress on the set of North’s latest offering we can no longer separate her imaginary world from ‘reality’.
Censor shares one of Saint Maud‘s faults in that its protagonist is more of a case study than a fully-fledged character, but transcends this because we are fully invested in her world – as viewers of a horror film, how could we not be? (Of course, Enid’s relationship with the material she watches is conflicted, but so is that of anyone who enjoys horror, in that what repels us also attracts us.)
The film creates a drab, oppressive atmosphere that feels authentically reminiscent of the early ’80’s, and benefits from some good character work from Felicity Montagu as an office admin person aggressively guarding her dusty shelves of folders and Michael Smiley as a sleazy film producer – both performances stop just short of caricature and are all the more vivid for it.
It’s Smiley’s character who recognises Enid’s sexuality, introducing the biggest cliché Bailey-Bond dares to flirt with: Enid is practically the archetype of the ‘mousy, frigid’ woman who only has to take off her glasses and let her hair down in order to become ‘beautiful’. This is the male gaze’s take on female repression – the woman who withholds her charms is dismissed as ‘repressed’ but if she throws off her inhibitions to gain ‘freedom’ she only finds herself in thrall to male desire.
Bailey-Bond follows this trajectory to some extent, but allows Enid an ambiguous ‘release’.
Although when Enid takes off her glasses she does indeed become fodder for male exploitation, following her ‘sister’ into the world of low-budget shockers, her unleashed emotions disrupt the film (not just the one she has got caught up in making, but the one we are watching as well) and we find our perspective shifting wildly between Enid’s anodyne (though Blue Velvet-ish) fantasy of her family reunited and a grimmer ‘reality’ – though by now that word means very little – as the film, like Peter Strickland’s 2012 meta-horror film Berberian Sound Studio, collapses.
The last shot is of the video of Censor emerging from the VCR, as if to say that the device is unable to contain Enid’s unrepressed self – and perhaps implying that the world (or at least the world of the film) can’t either. After all, repression is, according to Freud, the necessary price we pay for civilization.
When the lights come up everyone around me is masked – I’m in the Prince Charles where they still have someone on the door enforcing the rule, or at least encouraging its observance. (I obey, until I get into my seat). You may be one of those people who think these things really are saving countless lives – even so, it’s a useful reminder but that every era has its repressive side.
The BFI on the South Bank has been slightly less forceful in its ‘encouragement’ but masks are still ‘expected’ and the couple of times I have been back there I have felt intimidated enough to wear a mask, at least before taking my seat – but not now.
Perhaps it’s just that I’m in a hurry, or perhaps this is in the spirit of Surge‘s protagonist Joseph (Ben Whishaw) an airport security worker who, during a tense visit to his parents, bites through his water glass at the dinner table and subsequently goes off on a kind of rampage.
No longer contained by social conventions or the laws of the land, he robs banks, destroys a hotel room, steals – then crashes – a quad bike and in the meantime becomes one of those people who walk the London streets openly talking to themselves.
It’s clear that we are in the realm of ‘mental health issues’ here, but the film isn’t particularly interested in diagnosing Joseph’s symptoms – it’s more about questioning whether we should view them in that way at all. It was when we saw Joseph in his ‘normal’ state, doing his job and otherwise keeping himself to himself that he seemed to exhibit the misery normally associated with mental illness – at the end, his beatific smile as he waits for the police to arrive suggests that he has finally managed to be true to himself.
This kind of thing could be presented as a Gothicized ‘descent into madness’ – and there were times when the transformed Joseph, with his apelike grimacing and capering, reminded me of Mr. Hyde.
But this isn’t horror, it isn’t a straightforwardly positive account of ‘liberation’ and it isn’t a dry and distanced case history either. We are absolutely with Joseph – which is guaranteed by first-time feature director Aneil Karia’s visceral approach, Paul Davies’ disorientating sound design, Stuart Bentley’s fluid camerawork, and the central performance – but we can’t necessarily understand him.
When Joseph takes apart a hotel room we can see this as a subversive act, a comment on the hotel chain’s pretensions – we have already noted his mockery of the receptionist’s use of the phrase ‘the signature collection’ – but at the same time his methodical approach to the disemboweling of a mattress has a disturbing, oneiric quality. We are forced into a kind of complicity here with actions we can’t comprehend – convention is now noises off and the social contract is being torn up and rewritten as we watch.
After Joseph visits Lily (Jasmine Jobson), a colleague, to set up her laptop with her TV (incidentally robbing a bank to get £4.99 to buy a cable) she thanks him for his assistance and he thanks her for the cheap cola she let him drink and they laughingly overlook the fact that they briefly had sex in the kitchen.
This is not out of embarrassment so much as a humorous recognition that they have entered new territory where the relative significance of certain acts has changed. Similarly, when Joseph wanders into a wedding later on he is initially warned that he has no place there, but his unexpected ability to defuse the tension caused by an obnoxious best man’s speech marks a positive change in the atmosphere, and he is soon dancing with the other revelers.
At the end Joseph’s mother (Ellie Haddington) confesses that she has always had a (morbid?) desire to keep him ‘safe’ – which his current bruised and bloody state might represent an escape from. It’s interesting that both Joseph and Enid in Censor occupy positions in their working lives that are meant to keep society ‘safe’, positions which they (willingly or otherwise) abandon as they give way to the seething impulses inside them.
In Censor the tension between these unchained impulses and the society that has evolved to keep them in check eventually causes the film to fall apart; Surge is very much about that tension, and keeps it in play throughout. Either way, both films raise the possibility that there is such a thing as being too safe, one which certainly resonates with the times.
Modeling the surgical mask that would shortly become a must-have accessory, it was Whishaw that ushered in the pandemic for me, in Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, possibly the last film I saw at the cinema before they all shut. But perhaps it’s a bit obvious to relate everything to COVID (though the obvious is often the hardest thing to see) – so what about Brexit?
Both Censor and Surge play with the contradictions inherent in Brexiteer psychology, according to which Brexit is both about ‘staying safe’ (retreating into a fondly-remembered past, excluding outside elements) and a leap into the dark, a celebration of ‘freedom’ – contradictions which will not be resolved anytime soon.