An Education in a Fish Tank

So apparently 2009 was the year of  pedophilia in critically acclaimed English films. Missed that memo.

In An Education, the young, naive Carey Mulligan is lured by the charms of a sinisterly beguiling Peter Saarsgard. In Fish Tank, fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) is attracted to the charming, significantly older  Conor (Michael Fassbender). The films are vastly different–An Education focuses on a middle class genteel family in the 1960s, while Fish Tank is gritty and modern, but in both films,  an older, attractive man making a minor go googly-eyed is very significant.

I really like both films. And they both make me uncomfortable.

I have a tendency to dichotomize and delineate. When it comes to statutory rape–it has always been very clear to me. That relationship was wrong. He is the adult. He should not have done that.

I still stand by those rules. But in both films–which do a wonderful job of letting the viewer see the world exclusively through the protagonists’ eyes–I can see the attraction; I can understand the charm that seduced these girls, I almost feel like if I were in the same situation, I would be liable to make the same mistake… but it’s not their mistake to make.

Let’s be clear. Both men in both movies are sex offenders, by textbook definition. But they are charming and good-looking. They are not old. They do not sleep with nine -year -olds. And such is the conundrum of real life, that many times, sex offenders don’t fit the obvious categories. It is to each films’ credits, that the filmmakers do not flinch from this messiness , from the fact that girls can, and do, get seduced by older men and that these men may be very nice, with wives and cute little girls with scooters.

It’s something that always gives me pause. Sometimes  I want movies that make the moral decisions for me, that tell me what is right and what is wrong, so that I don’t have to deal with the messiness and ambiguity of reality. I want my villains to be villains with a capital V, without any equivocation and my protagonists to be untarnished heroines, without any morally questionable behavior. When it comes to sexual assault especially, I’d rather my rape victims be completely unwilling and my rapists ridiculously cruel. That way I don’t have to ponder those situations when it seems like a choice. When it appears consensual.

Fish Tank, the second feature film of Andrea Arnold and the Jury Prize Winner at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, doesn’t allow me to do that. It paints one of the bleakest pictures of England I’ve seen in a long time. (And the English, as I’m beginning to understand, specialize in bleak pictures). In a complete departure from stereotypically English films like Pride and Prejudice, movies like Fish Tank and the earlier This is England ( Shane Meadows; 2006) depict a weathered, desolate England, where “Fuck off!” is a parting greeting and “I hate you!” a term of endearment.

Fifteen year old Mia, played by newcomer Katie Jarvis (literally discovered by Arnold, arguing with her boyfriend on a train platform) with frightening realism, lives a humdrum existence in public housing. She spends her time getting into fights, petting a dying horse and practicing her dance moves on the rooftop of her flat. When a charming Irish stranger named Conor (Michael Fassbender) comes to play house with her  self-absorbed mother Joanne (Kierston Warenig) and her little sister (Rebecca Griffifths, another fantastic ingénue), Mia’s life changes dramatically.

Fish Tank is  one of those films that’s going to sit with me for a while. I’m going to wrestle with its complicated themes, struggle with my own culpability as a viewer–temporarily falling, like Mia, for the charms of a pedophile. Roger Ebert calls Conor more of an ‘immoral opportunist.

He’s not. He’s a pedophile. But a charming one.

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