My holiday in real-life Stepford

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The Independent Online

I went to see The Stepford Wives this week, which wasn't very sensible of me, given the fierce health warnings issued by most British critics.

I went to see The Stepford Wives this week, which wasn't very sensible of me, given the fierce health warnings issued by most British critics. As it happens, the experience was not entirely uninstructive, if you want to see how misplaced irony can punch holes in a pretty functional horror plot - but then how many of us are willing to pay £8.50 for that lesson? In fact the film is bad enough to make you wonder whether you could demand a refund under the Sale of Goods Act, which requires that purchases be fit for the purpose and of satisfactory quality. I'd like to see a cinema manager argue that Frank Oz's film doesn't have an "inherent error of design".

But I'd ignored the critics for two reasons. Firstly because of an unhealthy commitment to the Nicole Kidman filmography which has got me into trouble before now. She was perfectly cast in Gus Van Sant's To Die For, I reasoned, so perhaps she could do something good in another satirical account of synthetic values. False logic this, since Kidman plays the renegade outsider in The Stepford Wives rather than one of the men-pleasing robots, but that only dawned on me once the cash was down. The second reason was even more compelling, though. I'd just come back from a holiday in Stepford, and I was curious to check the cinematic version against the real thing.

My Stepford wasn't in Connecticut but in Sicily - a Club Med holiday gulag on the south coast of the island - and Stepford wasn't actually the first pop-cultural artefact to which I'd turned in an attempt to understand its uncanny ambience. By chance we'd listened to a Radio 4 documentary about Patrick McGoohan's cult television series The Prisoner on the way to the airport, and at first that seemed to offer the best parallel to the slightly menacing air of incarceration you feel inside the compound, not to mention its ersatz "village" atmosphere. It seemed entirely credible that any attempted break-out would be thwarted by giant Club Med beach-balls, herding you back to the aqua aerobics.

But as the week wore on, Stepford began to assert itself as a more precise model. There was the way that the Gentils Organisateurs all wore the same costumes, obedient to some central directive that had them in flowery shirts on one day and matching T-shirts on the next. There was their animatronic bonhomie - greetings so precisely and mechanically triggered by proximity that you wondered whether some kind of body-heat detector might be involved. Above all there was the overriding sense that, as in Stepford, real-life had been re-engineered into an "improved" version of itself. The day I really got the shudders, despite temperatures in the 90s, was when all the GOs appeared with "200 per cent Bonheur" emblazoned across their backs.

Like Joanna Eberhard in The Stepford Wives, I did wonder briefly whether it was me who had the problem. Perhaps I should abandon metropolitan cynicism and join the end of the conga line. Maybe that T-shirt slogan wasn't creepy after all, just an expression of professional commitment to our well-being. But then a disaffected GO sat down at our table one night and spilled les haricots. He wasn't feeling very gentil at all, as it turned out, having spent the entire day being jovial to French toddlers, and in contrast to the seamless mechanical bonhomie of his colleagues the brief spasm of disgruntlement he emitted was as shocking as a shower of sparks from a neck joint.

The problem with the remake of The Stepford Wives is that there is no ghost in the machine. Bryan Forbes' 1975 original was near perfect in its timing, powered by growing female anger and male anxiety about gender relations. Frank Oz's remake realises that's not a viable fault-line any more but can't come up with an alternative kind of paranoia. There's a half-hearted attempt to suggest that it might be about Republican conformism, but it's entirely cack-handed, and dropped whenever it becomes awkward. It even has a happy ending, which is the point at which you realise this is a Stepford Movie itself.

Oz should have gone on holiday before the final draft because there are other kinds of oppression out there, and the kind of corporate culture you encounter in Club Med strikes me as a perfect candidate. We didn't see our dissident for a couple of days after he blurted out the truth, leading to fears that he might be found washed up on the beach after an "accident". But it was worse than that. We saw him on the last night, part of a chorus line of GOs welcoming new arrivals. His smile was on full beam, his zeal for fun turned up to 10. They'd got to him - and he was operating like clockwork.

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