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We Are What We Are (2010)
Director: Jorge Michel Grau

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Threatening to do for cannibals what Let The Right One In did for vampires, Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are (aka: Somos lo que hay) gleefully combines the grime and gore of grind-house horror with the lingering camera work and oblique metaphors of art house drama to produce... well... something of an unfocused mess.

The film begins in the sort of architecturally immaculate but spiritually bereft territory that is ruled by the likes of Paolo Sorrentino and J.G. Ballard. A decrepit, almost apelike, man wanders around an oddly angular shopping precinct desperately clawing at window displays before collapsing on the ground and coughing up black sludge. We cut to his grieving family. Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) is the oldest son who is expected to take over as 'leader', Julian (Alan Chavez) is his violent and unpredictable younger brother, Patricia (Carmen Beato) is their deranged mother and Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) is the psychopathically detached but fiercely loyal younger sister who assumes the decidedly parental role of keeping this little family together as the clocks tick down. Oh yes. The clocks...

Though difficult enough to deal with, the death of the father adds an even greater burden to the shoulders of his impoverished, miserable and psychologically unstable family. You see, the family are not just fucked up and poor, they are also cannibals. Bound together by the need to hunt in packs, and the need to regularly perform a particular ritual, the family now have to decide who it is who will bring home the family's victims and where those victims will be taken from. Julian is psychotically violent and needs no encouragement whatsoever to attack passers-by, but Sabina recognises that more is required from a leader than a simple willingness to kill.

A leader must also be sensitive and Alfredo is the more sensitive of the two boys. The problem is that Alfredo does not want to lead and does not seem capable of killing. Indeed, Sabina's combination of ruthless detachment and clear thinking would make her the ideal leader but she has her hands full dealing with her mother - a woman who alternates between incandescently violent rages and intense bouts of self-righteous moralising in which she pours scorn on sex workers and rages about her husband's decision to feed the family on dead transsexual prostitutes. This complex emotional topography means that, in order to 'grow up', and 'become a leader', Alfredo has to navigate a complex landscape of unfathomable taboos and petty rivalries. But, does he really want to 'grow up' and, even if he does, will he manage to do so before the corrupt local police manage to track him down?

We Are What We Are packs a lot into a short running time: flirting at various points with aspects of the zombie film, the detective film, the GLBT coming-of-age story and the traditional art-house family drama, the film covers a hell of a lot of ground in a compact 90 minutes. It accomplishes this chiefly by refusing to allow any of its passing allusions and oblique references to solidify into anything as substantial as an idea or argument. Instead, it presents us with a series of 'thought for the day' style ''s a bit like...' statements without ever slowing down to flesh out the comparisons or expand upon the analysis.

So, upon watching We Are What We Are we learn that being a cannibal is a bit like living in a tightly-knit family. We also learn that being in the closet is a bit like being a cannibal, that parents often see their children's sex lives as being a bit like their having horrible eating habits and that the emotional pressures to stay close to your family are a bit like the pressure to remain a part of a criminal gang.

The film's failure to organise its thoughts into a coherent shape is reminiscent of the approach used in Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth (2009), where a similarly insular family dominated by a similarly obscure set of rules and taboos are deployed as an impenetrable metaphorical commentary on some aspect of modern society that could be family life, sexual relationships, totalitarian government or all three at once, or none of them.

The sense that We Are What We Are is a film that effectively dumps a mess of ideas at its audience's feet expecting them to pick up the pieces continues into the film's uneven plotting and themes. At times, the film presents itself as a dark comedy, at other times it presents itself as a serious and cerebral drama, at other times it is a work of genre, sometimes it is an idiosyncratic drama, sometimes it is about psychology and relationships, other times it is about eating people and gunfights.

Frankly, We Are What We Are is so inconsistent in its methods and focus that it is very hard indeed to find anything substantial amidst the burning wreckage of so many half-formed ideas. It is what it is and it is what you are willing to make of it. We Are What We Are is a film that is situated very much in the main stream of a rather unfortunate trend in contemporary filmmaking.

In a recent London Review Of Books piece that spiralled out into a damning indictment of academic creative writing and master of fine arts programmes, Elif Batuman argued that creative writing programmes tend to produce a certain kind of writer writing a certain kind of fiction. Fiction that is not so much concerned with ideas as with technical sophistication and ambitious attempts at empathic projection. Fiction of the kind produced by middle-class white Americans telling stories about medieval Vietnamese peasants using second-person plural narration styles and no punctuation marks.

Batuman reasonably points out that, while there is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of writing - and indeed quite a lot to recommend it - it is something of a circus trick. MFAs are undeniably producing a great number of writers who produce a great number of books containing a great number of beautifully written and clever sentences but why, asks Batuman, should anyone want to read any of these books? Great literature is not merely a question of clever technique and original subject matter but of intellectual substance and cultural timeliness and these books seldom speak to us or to our times. They simply are. I believe that a similar process of intellectual hollowing out is currently taking place in film schools.

Every week brings more and more award-winning films from across the world to our congested cinemas: films from different countries. Films in different traditions... Films in different styles... All of these films are exquisitely made and feature the kind of beautiful and distinctive cinematography that Santiago Sanchez produces for We Are What We Are. However, although all of these films are intelligently conceived and beautifully made, hardly any of them actually have anything of any substance to say. Instead of an argument or an idea, they offer an array of clever techniques to hint at meaning in the hope that the audience will somehow project onto them something that their invariably young and invariably ambitious writer-directors simply cannot be bothered to put into them: a point.

These techniques - shocking and destabilising when first deployed in films such as L'Avventura, Last Year At Marienbad or The Silence - are now so utterly normalised that they have even started appearing in TV series such as The Sopranos and Mad Men. Indeed, Mad Men is a perfect example of a series that hints at great psychological profundity without ever delivering the goods. Don Draper and Tony Soprano are not so much cyphers as they are empty shells, dried out husks who receive the faintest touch of characterisation but whose substance and subtlety is entirely the invention of a sycophantic audience desperate to 'work out' what is going on and 'read between the lines'.

The tendency among modern filmmakers to use these sorts of art house techniques to cover up a lack of intellectual substance is most noticeable in the cases where the techniques fail. Consider, for example, Gore Verbinski's The Weather Man, which ostensibly resembles indie dramas such as Alexander Payne's Sideways (2004), and Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys (2000), in that it is a tale of mid-life crisis, spiritual death and a leading character's gradual rebirth from amidst the ashes of their former life. Sideways and Wonder Boys use the difficult process of writing a novel as psychological currency in their depictions of protagonists who have become trapped on a path that no longer suits them.

By stepping away from their books, both protagonists get a fresh sheet of paper and a new chance at life. But the decision to step away from an old life is neither easy nor particularly pleasant, and both films do an excellent job of laying out both why their characters are 'stuck' and how it is that they become 'unstuck'. The Weather Man does a good job of showing an unhappy person and it even tries to use archery as a similar kind of psychological currency but, because its central character is an under-written and hugely successful TV weather man, the story simply does not work. Instead of being a compelling portrait of humanity in crisis, the film's central character feels empty. There is nothing to him and all the languid cinematography and shots of Nic Cage looking utterly alone in a crowd cannot change that.

A similar problem faces the characters of such long-running TV series as Dexter and Battlestar Galactica where a desire to paint the characters with a lightness of touch results in the feeling that the writers are basically making the characters' personality traits fit the demands of their plots instead of fitting the plots to the characters. By the third series of Battlestar Galactica, the writers had taken to inventing tensions between characters in order to resolve them in a single episode. By the third series of Dexter, it was impossible to tell where the subtleties of Harry's code ended and the need to make Dexter do cool stuff began.

In all three of these cases, the psychological currency became debased to the point where it ceased to retain any dramatic value. Instead of buying into the characters, switched-on viewers grew bored and cashed out. Indeed, the difference between Don Draper and Dexter is not that Don Draper is a better-drawn character; it is that the writers of Mad Men are skilled enough to retain the perceived value of their psychological currency by refusing to become bogged down in specifics. Don Draper is an empty husk, and so everything he does seems legitimate and if his actions stop making sense to us as an audience it is merely because we 'don't get it' or because Don is being wilfully perverse.

By contrast, Dexter operates with a currency that is quite transparently psychological; the drama advances by having Dexter make psychological breakthroughs wherein he comes to understand himself better. But as Dexter learns himself, so do his audience, making it immediately obvious when the writers start back-tracking or being inconsistent. Because Dexter is a series that uses a transparent psychological currency, it is easy to see what the actual value of the currency is and when the writers start to devalue the currency, switched-on viewers will sell, and turn off their TVs.

The ability to blur the lines around a character and to use visual signifiers to prompt the audience to think about what they have just seen is something that can be taught in a film school. It can be taught along-side the dolly zoom, the '180 degree rule' and the Kuleshov effect. It can be taught like the effective use of second-person narration can be taught.

Great films use these techniques in order to make a point. Even if they do rely upon audience projection, they have enough intellectual density to reward an audience's speculations as to the film's meaning and intent. Films such as We Are What We Are, Lebanon, and Valhalla Rising, deploy these techniques but do not use them to service a point. They are pointless. Beautiful, well made, and exquisitely formed but pointless.

We Are What We Are poster

We Are What We Are

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