Everything starts smoothly. A drive through the English countryside, over lovely hills and past freshly mown meadows. Sometimes, when the camera flies particularly high to show the idyll with the small blue car in a long shot, known in film jargon as “God’s Eye View”, a shiver runs down your spine. Just why?
You have to venture deeper into the tunnel of your own subconscious before the scales fall from your eyes: the beginning of Kubrick’s “The Shining” – the Torrance family in their yellow Beetle on their way to the “Overlook Hotel”, where Jack (Nicholson, who plays the Jack Torrance of the same name) is to give the caretaker over the winter – in a house deserted except for his wife and son, which, as it soon turns out, is haunted.
In Alex Garland’s “Men”, which has now premiered in Cannes, the impressions of the journey, which also ends in an abandoned country house where strange things are going on, are countered with the suicide of a man. Or did he just slip while trying to climb down the balcony of the upstairs apartment after a fight with his fiancee Harper? Later, the director gives us a glimpse of his corpse – one hand pierced by the spikes of a cast-iron fence, an ankle twisted backwards unnaturally, his face that emptiness to plunge into like deep sorrow.
In a strangely abrupt scene, director and writer Alex Garland depicts a dead deer in the woods. It’s in a hollow. The camera approaches from above again and crawls into the eye socket until the whole cinema screen is engulfed. There is a few seconds of this terrible blackness, then the view emerges again and shows a decomposing deer on which maggots and worms are crawling.
In the meantime, people have understood that they are dealing with a nightmare landscape. The leading actress Jessie Buckley, best known from the HBO series “Chernobyl”, is looking for “healing” in the lonely house in the remote town, as a friend puts it in the video call. And yet she cannot escape the terror. She tells the vicar of the village, with whom she chats in the secluded cemetery, that she thinks she saw her fiancé’s face twisted with terror as he fell. Is that even possible, it could only have been a fraction of a second before it hit the bottom?
The vicar looks at her, with an ungracious Renaissance face, as if he’s been preaching here since time immemorial, and asks how she copes with the fact that she drove her friend to suicide. Harper, in disbelief, just says, “Fuck off,” and leaves. It’s a tough day; just five minutes earlier, a boy whose face looked oddly like that of an old man and, frankly, like that of the vicar, wanted to play hide-and-seek with her. When she refused, he called her a “stupid bitch”, which is a friendly description of “stupid cow”. Then he put his Marylin Monroe mask on and disappeared.
In one of the most striking scenes of this intense film, Harper stands in the middle of a forest in the tunnel of an old railway line that has long since been shut down. The tunnel is pitch black, with the famous light at a very far end. She sings her own name, at musical intervals. The echo responds with a canon. Fascinated, she calls further into the darkness. Suddenly, maybe two hundred yards away, a man’s silhouette rises up. He starts running towards her.
Horrified, Harper flees in the direction she came from, but misses her turn, finding herself at the end of the forest path again in front of the entrance to a tunnel, but it’s bricked up. In a panic, she climbs up a slope and only takes a deep breath when she is standing in a wide meadow. She turns to take a picture. In the picture she discovers a naked man watching her from the edge of the forest. And really, there he stands, motionless.
Later that evening, while she is on the phone with her friend, he appears at the window of the house, naked, covered with thorns that seem to be stuck in his skin. At the last second, she slams the open door that just seemed closed. A pale hand with long, black fingernails reaches for her through the mail slot. She drives a knife through her arm. The hand withdraws so the knife slashes everything and even splits the hand in two until the knife falls to the ground.
The police come and arrest the man. Later in the nearby pub, where the men look so eerily the same again – Harper’s landlord, the boy, even the bartender – she has to find out that the eerie naked man is free again. She curses the men and hurries home along the night road, at the edge of which the thorny naked man peels out of the shadows.
Later there is a body horror showdown that looks like David Cronenberg remade Alien. The men approach menacingly, stand in the garden, in the kitchen, in the bathroom. Their bellies swell, and through vaginas gaping like wounds they give birth to one another: the vicar the policeman, the naked man the boy, the boy his landlord. Eventually Harper’s dead fiancé.
Alex Garland, who found fame with the novel The Beach, then wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine to direct his own material, Ex Machina and the Netflix film Annihilation “, digs deeper into art house horror with “Men”, a genre that is not satisfied with cheap jump scares à la “Poltergeist”, but finds images for the speechless horror in us. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he spoke of his desire to retire, actually from everything, because he felt like a con artist on set. There was something almost depressive about his statements.
And so “Men” can be understood superficially as a feminist indictment of the blackmailing violence of the male world or more profoundly as an allegory of the feeling of being lost from oneself. There’s a part of him, Garland said in an interview with the New York Times, that’s “really subversive and aggressive and deliberately upsetting people.” With “Men” he did this to a degree that “borders on the criminal”. In fact, it takes strength to shake off the images, which themselves seem like uncanny pursuers, after the cinema.