Lynn, Lucy and Internalised Neoliberalism

Lynn + Lucy (2019) - IMDb

“Lynn + Lucy” is a study in violence that hinges on a disputed, unseen tragedy, with consequences that unearth long held resentments and desires. The cruelties of childhood and the injustices of schooling linger and simmer in an unnamed, post-Fordist new town. Contempt, mistrust and regrets that have remained without closure for decades become grafted on to the power relations of the social economy of suburban life, before one horrific event summons them back to the plane of the real.

In this sense at least, we are dealing with a horror film. One with an almost Lovecraftian air of contaminated malevolence.

The series of events that unfold are couched queasily in both the ancient and contemporary. Persecution fables and the topical issue of public shaming, as well as the age old, illicit attraction of the revenge fantasy mark a spare and tremendously assured debut from writer-director Fyzal Boulifa. He has crafted a work that is searing in it’s refusal to ladle on needless exposition and observed backstory. In place of such cop-outs are a series of cumulatively devastating observations on resentment and hate. The dull aches, the churning vengefulness of shame given and received. The historical spectre of the witch hunt hangs over dozens of unspoken grievances, made flesh in a series of increasingly sadistic social humiliations.

At it’s heart are two uncompromising performances from Roxanne Scrimshaw and Nichola Burley, the former making her debut feature performance and displaying the kind of immediate emotional depth and immersion of character that many actors don’t manage in an entire career.

A childhood friendship maintained through adulthood, the relationship between the two was at one point so intense that both Lynn (Scrimshaw) and Lucy (Burley) share tattoos depicting entwined hearts. Furthermore, there were schoolyard rumours that they were an item. This is an assertion that neither dispute nor confirm on the occasions it is advanced. In clumsier hands this could become some lingering titillation, even worse a patronising concession to tired tropes of frustrated and doomed queerness. Boulifa refuses this manipulative con, instead establishing the concrete truths of the lives Lynn and Lucy are judged by in the present. And these are lives defined by both the inescapability of the past and the impossibility of escape, occurring in a context of declining bonds of community solidarity and combustible suspicion, a ferment stoked by corrosive impositions on working class life in austerity Britain.

Now in their 20’s, Lynn and Lucy live across the street from one another. Their domestic existences are thoroughly heteronormative and neither of their partners appear supportive or affectionate. Lynn’s husband is nursing an injury from military training, depressed and laid up. He barely registers her existence other than to disproportionately react to her justified disappointment at his lack of engagement. Occupying a more physically threatening representation of wounded masculinity is Lucy’s younger partner. Outright abusive and threatening, he flies into a pathetic fit of jealous rage when learning of Lucy’s plans for a night out with Lynn.

Separated by only a few yards of road from each other physically, the gap between them in other aspects of life appears to be decreasing after a period of different priorities. Lucy has a baby, Harrison, whose christening we observe at the films outset, and for the first time her and Lynn have motherhood in common, Lynn having given birth to her daughter (Lola) while a teenager.

The opening sequences of the film pose questions through the subtlest of inferences that will be constantly reexplored throughout the narrative. How and why might we be persuaded to turn on our dearest friends? How far can this take us socially? What constitutes atonement? What is it like to live in a friends shadow, or to experience flashes of uncharacteristic puritanism directed at those living life more freely than circumstances dictate we can?

For those of us who have experienced any of the numerous forms of economic and social marginalisation that are baked into neoliberal subjectivity, watching as Lynn confronts and negotiates these blights on her interior monologue can prove tough. One of the cruellest and most unforgiving aspects of a life without the ability to breezily escape your immediate surroundings is a background drip of inadequacy. One we have to keep in check so that it doesn’t burst forth in to vindictiveness or nihilism. Culture feeds back the impossibility of escape from restrictive material conditions via a mainstream increasingly colonised by the middle and upper classes. Their post 1990’s counter revolution in media and the arts reinforcing and amplifying our class anxieties, turning our gaze eternally inward. We are made to compartmentalise and individualise our frustrations at a political economy that thrives on alienation and atomisation.

This privatisation of frustration and anger can result in a seemingly endless feedback loop of intrusive and disturbing thoughts, the kind that don’t come naturally to us as social beings, regardless of a dominant ideology that attempts at every turn to convince us otherwise. “

Why am I lumbered with unavoidable responsibility when my friends are enjoying their leisure time?

They don’t deserve a new phone when I’ve not bought new clothes for months.

Why should they be in secure office work while I’m on a zero hours contract in the warehouse?

This the precise inculcation of the race to the bottom that capital wants us to flail in. But it’s a reflection not of our own baseness, but rather a mirror image of bourgeois standards reflected back at it’s creators. Working class people are merely disposable ciphers in this process. After all, the greatest trick neoliberalism ever played was not only situating these thoughts as natural, but of so definitively and effectively isolating and burying the history of our collective resistance to the notion that this is the natural order of things.

However unpalatable this mode of thinking may be, we have become entrapped by it and it is real. Over the last decade plus, the socio-economic conditions necessary to foster such large scale frailty of desperation have hardened, with reactionary institutions on the right doing all they can to ensure this inflating of insecurity becomes the dominant pathology among those of who sell our labour for the lowest of wages, or are entrapped in the punishing cycle of Universal Credit and precarious employment. In this sense, it’s actually deeply reassuring and affirming to see these kinds of thought processes alluded to on screen, especially in the hands of a director trading in social realism. Furthermore, to follow one woman’s descent into the pitiless, pointless abyss that is the only logical conclusion to this mindset, and to harrowingly illustrate the human cost of an internalised dominant ideology, elicits empathetic and righteous, if often deeply problematic and complicated feelings of identification with Scrimshaw’s extraordinary performance.

Lazy comparisons with Ken Loach have been bandied about in relation to this film, as they inevitably are when any work of British independent cinema makes a point of attempting to accurately and sympathetically portray the realities of working class life. But for all their merits, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that much of Loach’s later films are uninterested in conveying the contradictions of this interior working class self loathing*. Boulifa has pointed towards both Fassbinder and Alan Clarke as reference points and those comparisons certainly feel apt. There’s something of a more muted reading of “Fear Eats The Soul” in terms of the films construction, echoing Fassbinder’s masterpiece in the tension between spectator and event but shorn of  Sirkian exaggeration. In a more oblique but nonetheless tangible sense, the slow moving intimacy of silent, matter of fact abjection is of a piece with Clarke’s shocking, rigorous “Elephant”, his comment on the mediatisation of the conflict in the north of Ireland.

Lynn is an invested and loving parent and friend but one troubled by a past in which she has been required to transition immediately from school bully to caregiver. Crucially, she is denied the opportunity for gradual and cathartic growth that is available in particular to the privileged middle and upper classes of the world, for whom domineering and manipulative behaviour is ostensibly punishable on a personal level, but remains deeply encoded as a necessity within social and professional networks and institutions of power.

This lack of any conceivable exit from circumstance puts limits on working class horizons. This diminishment of possibility is emphasised by a frame which effectively boxes in characters even as they are interacting in open space. Close ups examine fleeting twitches and facial tells, attuning us to all that remains unsaid. And so much of the narrative and characterisation here remains unspoken, exchanged in glances and posture amid ubiquitous silences between this small, extraordinary cast of actors. Outside of Lynn and (briefly) Lucy’s household, the only other location of real importance is the salon, whose three co-workers provide the only other significant characters in this tale and where we surreptitiously learn of Lynn’s past as a bully prone to using racist language.

Once more the writing refuses simplistic characterisation. Is Lynn, the mother of a mixed-race child, partly choosing to put herself through the daily humiliation of menial dogsbody work at the salon in the hope of redemption for a past she’s deeply ashamed of? Or is this snippet of unsettling information about her propensity for bigotry an indicator of a more latent viciousness, wrenched to the foreground of her character as she first participates in, then leads, the community persecution of Lucy for her perceived neglect and abuse of baby Harrison?

This is the kind of ambiguity that requires guts on the part of director and actors, and while Scrimshaw is the undoubted standout, there isn’t a single weak link here. Tasked with a character beset by the kind of trauma that can only ever be experienced to be truly understood, Burley seems utterly averse to cliché as an actor. Broken but unbowed by the poison of neighbourhood gossip, Lucy presents a challenge to traditional cinematic depictions of mourning, refusing the false dignity of civility and self-containment that have traditionally policed the emotions of women.

A common criticism of any film in the social realist tradition, and especially one like “Lynn + Lucy”, with it’s undertones of classical tragedy and even folk horror, is that when refracted through the gaze of a middle class audience it could feel prurient or exploitative. Thankfully, I’ve seen little of that analysis circulating so far, which in any case seems to frequently emanate from pearl clutching middle class liberals seeking a disingenous disavowal of the reality of life on the margins. A decade plus of austerity, the wretched and divisive rhetoric around a so called “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, of exploitative TV and tabloid othering of our own survival mechanisms has beaten us in to subconscious suspicion of even our friends and neighbours. This is a trajectory embodied by Lynn as she initially refuses the characterisation of her best friend as someone capable of abuse.

When Lynn eventually receives apparent proof of Lucy’s culpability in the tragic event that draws the films first act to a close, she joins and slowly leads the shaming and persecution of her with increased and chilling speed. It’s a testament to Scrimshaw that she somehow remains a sympathetic figure. Boulifa’s script, and more pointedly her repeated commitment to presenting silence and a lack of conversation as markers for varying forms of longing and disgust, position Lynn as a product of desperation and degradation. Increasingly ignored and unloved by her husband, humiliated in the first form of work she’s had outside of the home. Most awkwardly, she’s vengefully employed by the former subject of her own racialised bullying as a triumphant fuck you. Salon owner Janelle (Jennifer Lee Moon) is conventionally attractive, financially independent, single and sexually assertive, the embodiment of a life Lynn could have lived as she outgrew her teens and moved in to young adulthood, had she the chance. The brutal interplay between Lynn’s onetime persecution of Janelle and her increasing desire to be accepted by her new employers social circle provides the context for much of the psychodrama that begins to play out.

The salon is the setting for one of the films most disturbing and difficult sequences, played out at the height of Lucy’s ostracization. In an act that we aren’t sure until the films final narrative gutpunch is motivated by scorched earth nihilism or a courageous act of resistance to exclusion, Lucy enters the closed shop and demands a haircut just as Lynn is having her own hair prepared for a makeover that will signal her entry in to Janelle’s fold and an uptick in status. It is a scene so alive with symbolisms that overlap and disintegrate horrifyingly as Lynn is presented with Lucy’s final ultimatum on trust. Few sequences in recent cinematic history can compare to the way in which it maps a double lifetimes worth of meaning and consequence in one muted act of betrayal. Lynn, with attention and validation dangled before her, Lucy meaninglessly and only momentarily empowered by her challenge to Janelle’s supremacy of the space. Lynn is horrified at her own descent but also dizzied by the potential for social acceptance its completion will signal. It is the most heart-breaking moment of social violence in a film which is full of them. A symbolic substitution for the threat that suffuses every aspect of the film – economic, domestic, psychological.

The forms this violence takes are both stark and imperceptible. So impactful and streamlined is “Lynn + Lucy” in its focus and arrangement that practically every scene pitches its characters in to action and speech that will leave them exposed or wounded in some way. Few films of recent years have depicted the desperation of lives made deterministic and entrapped with such uncomfortable believability and quiet menace as this.

* I tend to give Loach the benefit of the doubt here, firstly for a lifetimes dedication to foregrounding working class life and memorialising it’s dignity, and secondly because I think he’s aware of the possibility that his thoroughly middle class origins would open him to accusations of sneering and belittling from the usual suspects on the reactionary right, always keen to snipe at him for what they perceive as the ultimate class treachery on his behalf: embracing socialism and empathising with working class existence.

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