Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold: Performance and the Natural

© BBC Films 2009

A revisit to one of my favourite films by one of my favourite directors, Andrea Arnold. It just gets me every time.

Fish Tank seems to me a passionate critique of the tendencies of increased performance in young girls. Set on a council estate in Essex, it becomes both an unlikely epic and an intimate collection of tableaux-like depictions of the caged and performing bodies within. It is a place where the TV is always on, and is always showing make-overs, talent shows, music videos and celebrity. The protagonist is 15-year-old Mia, aggressive and ill-adjusted, who lives with her young, sexy and very abusive mother and her younger sister.
To me there are two poles which Mia oscillates between in the course of the film - that of artificial performance and prescribed sexuality on the one hand and the natural (animal) body on the other. The opening of the film quickly juxtaposes these two when Mia starts an unprovoked fight with the girls on the estate who mimic the music video's dance and sexy costumes. She then precedes to attempt to free a nearby chained and neglected horse with a rock: She beats the girls who represent expected performance and the chain which traps the natural animal.
Mia dances herself, but in an empty apartment, and she has, to our knowledge, never shown this to anyone. The confusion of the influences in her life start when she dances in front of a music video on TV, and is seen by her mother's new boyfriend, Connor. Here she is in fact mimicking the sexualised images on the television, and receives positive attention from a man for it. In this scene Conner's body is looked at unashamedly through the eyes of Mia, similar to the gaze of bodies encouraged on the TV between them. The tone of their mutual attraction and their relationship is already set, and the connection made via the sex on TV.
Connor's influence is first to encourage the symbolic freeing of the natural being in Mia: He carries the almost-sleeping girl to bed - she is in an unguarded, natural state. The sound of their breathing is increased as well as close-ups of skin and bodies which gives a sense of two large animals moving. He again carries her when she has hurt her foot (again in an unguarded, vulnerable state), and the same kind of breathing and camerawork is used. In an important scene he takes the family from the oppressive council estate to a scene of nature. In the car he plays the song "California Dreaming".
After Connor's encouragement of her dancing, Mia shows him a flyer searching for young dancing talent. It is unclear whether he guesses that it is in fact an advertisement for erotic dancers, but he tells her to go for it and offers to lend her his camcorder to record herself dancing. By bringing the camera into his admiration of the dancing, he also encourages the captured performance from her which her personal dancing had avoided until then. When Mia is given the camera she starts filming Connor who is changing clothes - again gazing at his body, unashamedly, as if he was on TV. His sexuality is from this point mediated to her through the (video) frame, both when she looks at the video of him while in bed and then when she sees him having sex with her mother framed by the half open door. In this scene Connor is even performing for Mia, as he is aware of her gaze.
The culmination of this presentation of performative sexuality comes when Mia shows Connor her new dance, made for her audition. Connor is watching TV from the couch and Mia takes place in front of the screen, in the spotlight-like glare of the street lamps from outside. He comments on how nice she looks with her hair down. The dance seems to be inspired by the freedom felt on their excursion, as she has chosen "California Dreaming" to dance to. Following the dance Connor initiates sex and talks dirty to her in a alarming change of character. The next morning he leaves. Mia finds out where he lives and discovers that he has a family in a nice, middle class area. This is importantly revealed when she sees a video of his young daughter "singing to daddy" on the camcorder.
Her retaliatory act of kidnapping the daughter and then returning her safely ends in the final scene with Connor and Mia together, where he runs after her over a field - the breathing again emphasised - the two large animals, one fleeing and one chasing. He strikes her once, somehow a more natural and less shocking act than the sex on the TV couch.
The next day Mia goes to the audition which turns out to be for erotic dancers. All the other auditioning girls are sexily dressed, applying make-up and doing their hair. Mia wears her sweatsuit and her hair is in a ponytail. The judges request her to let her hair down, and remark on how pretty it looks - just like Connor did. The realisation that Connor changed from the natural creature she took him for, into the same body of judgement and gaze which sits in an erotic club, is further underlined when "California Dreaming" is put on the sound system. Mia realises that she ended up performing for the male gaze as a titillating prelude to sex, exactly like the performance of the girls on the estate which she despised before. Mia walks out of the audition, leaving behind the CD and decides to leave for Wales with her new-found friend - the kind boy whose brothers' owned the horse she attempted to free.
Throughout the film, the TV only ever shows music videos, makeovers and talent shows, seemingly the only ideals that the girls on the estate are told to strive for in order to succeed as women. Even on the video recording of Connor's daughter, she is singing a pop song from the charts rather than a children's song. Here even the very young girl learns to aspire to the pop star imitation of X-factor, the made-over beauty and finally to the titillating, sexual body. Mia is an illustration of a girl unable to perform to these standards in school, to her friends or her family and ultimately within the arena of sexuality. Mia finally leaves with the guy who, importantly, had sympathy for the chained horse and not the sexy dancer.