Irony is a poor excuse for brutality

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When was it decided that film criticism was a job that only a man could do? I've read 10 reviews of the new film American Psycho. Flicking through broadsheets, tabloids and weekly magazines, I couldn't help feeling that there was something missing, and eventually it dawned on me: not one was by a woman. Is this a reason why I feel the debate about the film is skewed, that it is taking place in an arena where certain concerns and reactions aren't even going to be taken on board?

When was it decided that film criticism was a job that only a man could do? I've read 10 reviews of the new film American Psycho. Flicking through broadsheets, tabloids and weekly magazines, I couldn't help feeling that there was something missing, and eventually it dawned on me: not one was by a woman. Is this a reason why I feel the debate about the film is skewed, that it is taking place in an arena where certain concerns and reactions aren't even going to be taken on board?

Once I had seen the film, and started reading other people's reactions to it, I began to feel that this isn't just any nasty and brutish film. It is certainly nothing special, but in its very ordinariness, and the way that it has been so easily accepted and celebrated, it says something about the way we live now. I don't mean that any of you have taken to chasing women down apartment buildings with a chainsaw or attacking prostitutes and beggars with a rusty coat-hanger and a sharp knife. But when we go out in the evening we might easily watch these images, or ones very like them, and then laugh. And what exactly does that say about us?

We are encouraged to laugh, because we are told that these images are meant ironically. They are always presented to us as irony, or satire.

Of course, nobody would ever suggest that they are making a film about violence against women in order to revel in that violence, in order to make the women in the audience quail and the men feel that violence is acceptable. If they did so, the shock and the condemnation would be immediate. So instead they tell us that they are making "an indictment of machismo", a "Swiftian social commentary", a tale with a "satirical essence".

Those quotations are taken from the production notes to American Psycho, in which the director, Mary Harron, carefully tells us over and over again that the book on which her film is based, Bret Easton Ellis's controversial novel, is "a brilliant social satire" and that her film seeks to enshrine and extend that satire. Most of the critics in British newspapers have accepted that interpretation, whether it's the critic in the Daily Mail saying that it is "telling satire", or the critic in The Daily Telegraph agreeing that it's "ironic and horribly funny", or The Guardian calling it "uber-cool satire", "replete with Post-Modern irony".

I like to think that I can enjoy a soupcon of satire as much as the next person. But I wonder whether films like American Psycho are really satires at all, even if those who make them and enjoy them use that term. Far from exposing and trying to shake the foundations of the society that is its subject - the vain, materialistic, misogynist world of rich Manhattan in the Eighties - the film, like the book, reproduces those values. With its slick, televisual style of direction, its bland dialogue and its robotic performances, this film polishes up that world, it never scratches its surface. There is no alternative voice here, no vantage point from which the satirist could look at Eighties Manhattan and find it wanting.

Irony is a rather easier description to chuck around. In fact, if you are determined to read something as irony, you can almost always manage to. But maybe we should stop and ask whether there are some things that simply don't deserve the label. After all, is there anything about the book or the film of American Psycho that makes it any different from the book or film that would have been produced if the author or director were in fact a self-confessed violent misogynist? In the book, the violence is retailed with such pornographic detail that the tone is one of revelling enjoyment, not ironic exposure. And in the film the camera swings with the same facile ease through the murders and executions as over the chic clothes and fancy food, with never a tremble, never a change in mood. When people excuse the pleasure they take in seeing a girl's decapitated head in a freezer by calling the image witty and ironic, how honest are they being with themselves?

And even if these works are ironic, perhaps we should ask whether irony can really be successful in dealing with these vile and terrifying subjects. Why should irony always be the artistic standpoint of choice? Even some of its admiring critics asked themselves whether the tone of the film sat somewhat uncomfortably with its horror-filled subject. "When did the faculty of irony become so rapacious that all human transgression could be corralled into the comic?" asked Anthony Lane a little uncomfortably in the New Yorker, in his otherwise admiring review of the film.

The question is a good one. For that is essentially what we are being asked to swallow, that any horror can slip down sweetly enough, so long as it comes with that label "irony" stuck to the menu. Here is a film - made by a woman, it's true - that humiliates women, presents them as stupid, inarticulate dolls, empties them of humanity, and then shows them dismembered or dying in pools of blood. A "glittering black comedy", "horribly funny", to quote the critics again. What, exactly, is the joke? And on whom is it being played?

I'm not for a moment saying that violence against women is not a fit subject for film. On the contrary, many of the greatest films ever made have explored that dark area of the human psyche. But if they were great they were always more than slick, they always wore more expressions than simply the ironic smile. Hitchcock's blondes, for instance, met nasty deaths or spent their lives dodging them, but until death they had their own vivid, questing, poised, gorgeous life. They resisted to the end, and the audience resisted with them. One of the nastiest things about American Psycho is that there is no resistance, the women drift passively and blankly towards death - and the critics find, even in this, something to admire. "As a director (and a woman), Harron shows great courage in keeping the women banal and superficial; they are amazingly blank," said one critic.

The content of art shouldn't be assumed to have a direct correlation with everyday life. But what happens when the representation of violence becomes, not just frequent and acceptable, but also emptied of emotional effect? Now, we are asked to watch images of a woman running from a man holding a chainsaw, only to end up with it smashing through her body, or a man going down on a woman and coming up with blood dripping from his jaws, and yet we are encouraged to feel that horror or anger at such images would be inappropriate.

A film like this one isn't going to create a killer, and Mary Harron has been right to insist that nobody would be changed from a moral being to a psychopath by sitting through her film. But does the new acceptability of violence against women in mainstream cinema have absolutely nothing to do with the failure to challenge violence against women in Britain and the US? We all know the facts; that rates of rape and domestic violence aren't falling, that conviction rates aren't rising, that there is still a risible amount of support given to abused women. We know the facts, but can't seem to find a successful way to change them.

Maybe there is no connection at all between this kind of art and that kind of reality. Maybe. But when I hear the audience laugh as Christian Bale holds a nailgun to Chloe Sevigny's head, I can hardly believe that there is no connection at all. Because where irony rules, anger walks out the door.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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