Friday, March 25, 2016


Moira+I spent yesterday afternoon at the Watershed cinema, this time to see Ben Wheatley’s film “High Rise”, based on JG Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, and
with the excellent Tom Hiddleston playing the lead character (a well-off young surgeon who takes one of the bachelor flats near the top of a huge new apartment block).
One of my architectural heroes, Le Corbusier, saw the idea of the tower block as a way of providing spacious, peaceful, light-filled homes for the masses and, by building upwards, space would be liberated to surround such buildings with gardens and sports and cultural facilities. One of his most celebrated designs, built in 1952, was the 12-storey, "Unité d'Habitation" (originally called the “radiant city”) in Marseilles and included floors for shopping, social clubs, child care, a gym, a hotel, a rooftop garden and a swimming pool.
Well, this high-rise development, set in the 1970s (with Jeremy Irons playing the role of the block’s arrogant, somewhat demented, architect), is perhaps similar to Le Corbusier’s vision for living… but with added class conflict – a grand social experiment, a “crucible for change” (the lower classes live in cheaper flats on the lower floors, the middle classes on the middle floors and the upper classes “touching the sky”). Phrases like “know your place” and “don’t get ideas above your station” seemed particularly appropriate!
This building, however, also seems to be designed to isolate the occupants from the outside world, allowing for the possibility to create their own closed environment… but with the outdoor spaces appearing to consist mainly of car parking (with a very impressive array of vehicles from the1970s!).
It all disintegrates into the world reminiscent of an urban “Lord of the Flies”: life in the high-rise begins to degenerate quickly (perhaps a little too quickly in the film?), as power failures, refuse shoots blocked to capacity and petty annoyances among neighbours turn to violence. Scuffles are fought throughout the building, as floors try to claim lifts and hold them for their own. Groups gather to defend their rights to the swimming pools… and party-goers attack "enemy floors" to raid and vandalise them.
There were times when I felt the film was looking back on “class conflicts” of the present age (well, not class conflict exactly, more like the battle between society’s “haves” and “have-nots”)… and perhaps it does echo something of today’s capitalist world of rich, greedy landlords and how the less well-off are being forced out of cities, neighbourhoods and the like. I had expected to see a film that was a metaphor for today’s consumer culture, but it didn’t quite come across like that… and in many ways, I was a little disappointed.
I’ve never read any of Ballard’s books, but think of his work as being provocative, disturbing and frequently apocalyptic. This film was all those things…
Impressive, confusing, self-indulgent… and somewhat incoherent.
I think you probably need to see it for yourself.
PS: there were times when I almost found myself mixing up Hiddleston’s role with the one he’s playing currently in TV’s “The Night Manager”… (he's probably decided that this type of role earns him most money!).

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