Comme d'hab, je tiens à présenter mes excuses génériques (ou génétiques?) au monde francophone tout entier pour persister à écrire en anglais sur un site français. Merci d'adresser toute réclamation à Sylvain Bourmeau, qui, à chaque fois que je me lance en français, doit s'étendre dans le noir pendant de longues heures pour s'en remettre.
Belfast was for twenty years one of the most filmed cities in Europe. Hollywood did Belfast endlessly. There were dozens of movies centred around or featuring the political violence of that city. Brad Pitt has played an IRA man twice. Richard Gere has done it – with an inexplicably Swedish accent. Tom Cruise has done it – trust me, I am not sufficiently funny to make this stuff up. As has the great Mickey Rourke and Daniel Day Lewis (that’s right, the aristocratic Englishman). Pierce Brosnan (marginally less absurd, I suppose). Harrison Ford has either fought against the IRA or sentimentally supported them. All the big stars seem to have done it at some point. Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino must have cursed those inescapably Italian faces of theirs. I would have given a great deal to Pacino playing Gerry Adams. Hoo ha!*
You might think that, given all that attention, they might have got it just a little bit right, even by accident. You would, of course, be entirely wrong. Cinema about Belfast has been a monotonous disgrace (and mostly filmed in Leeds and Manchester with English and American people). The only contribution it has really made was to make the people who actually lived in Belfast laugh until they were sick (it is notoriously difficult to choose between Richard Gere and Mickey Rourke for the funniest – I’ve seen fights over this question).
The simplistic clumsiness of these films comes straight from that portion of the Anglo-Saxon world that thinks that all French people wear berets and stripey jumpers and that you can’t have a Neapolitan without a spaghetti-stained vest and a tearful speech about mama. These films treated a depressing and mortal internecine conflict with all the depth and geo-political awareness of Sesame Street.
Thus I approached Steve McQueen’s film Hunger with absolute dread. And by absolute, I mean entire, flawless, adamantine dread.
Then something truly miraculous happened.
This long, slow, beautiful and disgusting film is quite frankly the first movie to be made about the place in which I grew up and lived. It is the only one. There are no others. It is truly different. Whatever one feels about the politics or morality of this particular conflict, there is a quality here that cannot be denied. Indeed the morality and politics seem clearly beside the question. In a film that concerns a prisoner’s hunger strike against a rejected justice system, it is astonishing how the subject of suffering and cruelty is treated with such delicacy. In some brilliant example of visionary naivete on the part of the director, those questions take the status of a detail like any other. And this film abounds in detail. This film is only detail.
Much is made of this being Steve McQueen’s first feature film. And much is made of his background as a black Londoner. It appears to some to be an eccentric choice of subject for such a man. There have been clumsy attempts to draw parallels between his experiences growing up as a black man in London and his rendering of the supra-ethnic divisions in Northern Ireland. Hunger is wonderfully free of this stuff. He has spoken of being struck by the strangeness of the hunger-strike phenomenon as a child in Brixton. It is clearly the memory of this, the after-effect of his childlike epiphany or incomprehension which he has brought to the making of this film. It proves again perhaps how valuable incomprehension can be in art. The film worked on my emotions on an almost primal level. Something like the primary responses of childhood. It flew way under my radar.
McQueen is well-known as a visual artist. No one has spoken seriously of ‘the artist’s eye’ for about one hundred and fifty years. Tant pis. Because Steve McQueen has the artist’s eye. And that has rewritten the rules in this film. For the first time in my life, I saw a film that looked like the place where I grew up. More than that, it looked like the place when I grew up. There was a quality to McQueen’s intensely lingering close-ups that was absolutely breathtaking. There were patches of pavements and clumps of weed and leaking pipes and crumbling walls that I spent my life staring at when I was a child. And they all seem to be in this visually brilliant film. Watching this film in a salle in Paris was truly hallucinant. I was absolutely transported.
And wonderfully, he made it all look strange. Because it is strange there. It’s a fucking weird little place, Northern Ireland, all green and grey with no sky worth mentioning. Never hot and never cold. Never visited and never left. It is almost its own kind of prison. Not so much a country (or half a country), as a kind of illness or injury. It looks like nowhere else. And I saw it there with its rain that never dries and its thick air and heavy gravity.
It’s strong stuff and I wouldn’t advise you to eat heavily before or after this film, but you should see it. It is a remarkable achievement. McQueen came to this place, looked around and he got it right - comme on dit en anglais – he nailed it. We need to make sure this guy makes another one.
*Hoo ha is what Al Pacino is always saying in VO. I don’t know why.
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