Chromophobia: a film that wants to be hated

spiked-film: Director Martha Fiennes throws every stereotyped screw-up into her depiction of life and love in modern London.

Emilie Bickerton

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Chromophobia, directed by Martha Fiennes.

It’s easy to hate this film. Repelled fascination is, in fact, what Martha Fiennes is after. Are you ready to look truth in the face, she asks? So whether you leave the auditorium smug that others are messed up, or disturbed by how close that life tallies with this one, either way the frame of mind you’re encouraged to occupy is one of disgust. Our world, and specifically contemporary London life, is morally warped to the very core.

The warped part, Fiennes has fully grasped – and she packs into her second feature after the period drama, Onegin (1999), every manifestation she can think of. Iona Aylesbury (Kristen Scott Thomas) gives us upper-class self-obsession: she’s a shopaholic about to undergo plastic surgery, and given that this is an actress who is usually so composed, here she is convincingly and surprisingly pathetic. Her husband, Marcus (Damian Lewis), is facing the dilemmas of his high-earning legal career while their son is increasingly marginalised by their marital bickering. Hints of paedophilia come from art-historian godfather, Stephen (Ralph Fiennes), and silly sex fetishes are provided by Marcus’s father, Edward (Ian Holm), a distinguished retired judge.

Thrown into the mix is a glance at the more impoverished underbelly of London: Penélope Cruz plays a terminally-ill prostitute who was Edward’s mistress, now pursued by a well-meaning social worker with holed shoes and a pot belly for extra endearing effect.

To rock this already very precarious boat comes Trent, an old school friend, now eco-journalist. He senses a scoop one night when Marcus drunkenly lets slip about corruption in the upper echelons of his firm. Ruthlessly, Trent takes every opportunity to extract more facts, even going against his green convictions to spend a weekend hunting trip with Marcus and shooting a deer on the way.

The film takes on the ticks of its characters’ neuroses in some of its composition. The opening scene especially seems at first like an advert or trailer-you’re presented with a futuristic house, all white walls and Zen garden, while soothing music plays in the background and a saccharine voice preaches various relaxation techniques. Then cut to a young boy watching television – the scenes are disturbing enough but they’re also on fast forward, providing nightmarish images at unreal speed. The child is watching the surgical procedure for breast enlargement, scalpels, incisions and all. As a spectator you’re at sea as to what it all means, until the forced calm face of Iona appears, telling you that it’s the introduction to her life, her unhinged reality.

The expression of contemporary vices through form would have been quite a novel departure for cinema, but Fiennes doesn’t sustain this flurry of experimentalism. As soon as Marcus is introduced to us it’s all Lock Stock – in other words, filmed like a long and slick advert, what French cinema appropriately labels cinéma du look, where meaning is only in the surface presentation.

Chromophobia is a hopefully suggestive title, but superfluous in the context of the film. In the narrative it’s one of Iona’s artistic whims: she buys an installation with that name to put in her living room. It’s composed of several screens with fluid colour rays changing in the way a lava lamp does. Like that device, the images are transfixing and totally vacuous. Iona loves it. Supposedly the colours change according to the presence of someone before it – so art as a tableau you contemplate objectively is replaced by the meaning-is-what-you-make-of-it school.

Not only that, the subject creates the very image. The significance in Fiennes’ film isn’t clear really, but it’s likely a reflection of the major affliction of her characters: self-obsession and selfishness, an inability or unwillingness to empathise with others. At its origin ‘chromophobia’ refers to the fear of corruption or contamination through colour, a phenomenon that can be traced through history in various expressions of resistance to colour as infantile, vulgar or superficial.

While the film largely indulges in a pessimistic picture of human beings there is the suggestion that this sorry behaviour is as superficial as its frivolous examples are. When Marcus has his career destroyed by Trent’s front-page headlines, a rather strange montage is offered to us. Through Iona’s reaction to the news, Fiennes suggests that her subjects are not incapable of strength and love – they’re just never pushed into expressing it. When total tragedy strikes, Iona flees from her hospital bed (about to undergo surgery) to hug her son and express motherly tenderness we never thought possible, and then runs to be by her disgraced husband’s side as he emerges from a train to meet an army of journalists. This is all set to David Bowie’s tune, ‘We can be heroes – just for one day’. It seems the inevitable soundtrack to a triumphant but sadly fleeting expression of human resilience.

Undermining this minor victory is the film’s truly pathetic character, the journalist who sells his soul for a good story. His real tragedy is he’s not even allowed to be a ruthless bastard. What drives him is not a belief that the truth must come out, whatever, but rather just the vainglory of a byline. So, on the morning his scoop is out he sits drinking himself into oblivion and watching a psychedelic image on screen with music playing full blast. This day of triumph is his day of self-loathing. He wasn’t friend enough to prevent the story coming out, nor man enough to assume the responsibilities of his revelation.

Fiennes offers a string of recognisable stereotypes, shines a light on the vices of contemporary society, and also makes a movie that uses Norman Foster’s Gherkin as a standard London backdrop. The latter is a first; her critique isn’t, and nor is her cinematic representation of it. In 1966 a film with the same name was released, this time involving soldiers taking over a town and removing all pets, colours and art. Raoul Servais’s film was far from a chêf d’œuvre but it was about the impossibility of chromophobia ever taking hold because of the human capacity for art and imaginative expression. You can’t put a cap on human ingenuity and exploration – when there is colour, we won’t content ourselves with black and white. The 2006 version isn’t so sure.

Emilie Bickerton works for Sage Publishing.

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