Reviews Short Narrative

The Flaneur (2019) – 4 stars

Director: Lyall Stephens

Writers: Lyall Stephens & Nick Barnett

Cast: Mark Rylance, Keith Chanter, James Eken, Emily Ferrier, Lisa Leilani, Erin Bolens

Running time: 14mins

A common patriarchal fantasy inserted into stories stretching back generations is that of the impoverished libertine artist; a man who is apparently too talented to commit to conventional success, who through his commitment to challenging societal norms sexually liberates one or many women marooned in miserable monogamy. Usually, their art tends to take a back-seat pretty quickly – perhaps because the authors of such tales are not up to the task of actually conveying work that would justify the lofty billing of their character’s supposed genius, or because they deem such work difficult to relate to – particularly among the male fantasists they are flogging their ideologically slanted vision to.

Most men will never produce an artistic masterpiece, after all, but the vast majority will likely end up in bed with someone at least once in their lives – and by relating to this shared experience of the dishevelled, romanticised creator in the story, they can feel vicariously as though they too are artists; and even a successful one when, inspired by their recent carnal victories, their narrative vessel invariably manages to win patronage for their work. While it is easy to see why this story might appeal to a great many people on this basis, however, it also further bolsters a social order in which men are deified for indulging their impulses, and suggests that the key to fulfilment is a voracious sexual appetite and wealth.

Lyall Stephen’s The Flaneur flips this assumption on its head, and bids the viewer to commit to some potentially uncomfortable introspection when the credits role. What is most interesting about this, however, is the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing approach the film takes to get to that point. With a melancholic indy soundtrack and warm lens-filters dressing the film as a more typical vehicle for sweet nostalgia about the aching beauty of lost love, the filmmakers lull viewers into a sense of security which comes with the assumption they know what is going on, before dashing it utterly.

We open the film with author William Icke (Keith Chanter) addressing an audience at the launch event of his new book. In spite of a somewhat heavy-handed script, in which Icke confesses he has spent much of his life “in the company or pursuit of women” (something that even before the #MeToo era would have made him sound like a total creep), the soft-spoken and sharply-dressed Chanter oozes a vampiric charm that suggests his loyal fanbase would probably be mesmerised into giving him the benefit of the doubt on such statements.

As he commits to reading, he notices a familiar face in the crowd, giving him pause for thought. We then hark back to an earlier chapter in his own story, when an idealistic young Icke (James Eken) finds himself in an affair with Jacqueline (Erin Bolens) – the wife of his employer. While we are told he writes for a left-wing publication, Icke’s supposed radicalism does not seem to extend far beyond his determination to bone wealthy, married women – actions which ultimately lead to the collapse of the magazine; something which does not seem to particularly concern him. Years later, we never hear what impact this had on Elizabeth, as she leaves the event without speaking to Icke.

Moving on, another book event sees the older writer confronted once more by a ghost from his past. This time the flashback – an unspecified amount of time after the first – sees the young Icke in the arms of another woman trapped in an unfulfilling marriage. While young Elizabeth (Emily Ferrier) laments the social pressures exerted by her family, who have pushed her to settle down, Icke brings little to the table besides a pretty insipid line that “you are not just the name your family gives you” – something which seems to give her little in the way of solace. Following their inevitable fling aboard a cruise-ship, she soon returns to life with her husband.

What great wisdom did these encounters impart on Icke that he could draw on for his work? Well, as financially successful as he appears to be now, his prose comes across as something you would stumble across while reading Literary Review’s nominations for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. Apparently inspired by the recollection of his glory days, he tells the captivated crowd:

“As I felt the ocean slowly carry the night toward its end, I began to weep. In my sexual hysteria, I smeared my tears – a kind of spiritual semen – across her stomach and breasts… like a deer marking a tree.”

Whatever his work is worth in terms of financial success or artistic merit, as the film draws to its close, Icke is thoroughly unsatisfied. As his super-ego derides him as an ‘old man,’ ashamed to be seen by those who had fallen for his youthful looks, years before, he is left to wonder what is missing. Ultimately, that seems to be that – between the momentary physical bond he had with people he scarcely conversed with, or the dead-eyed stare with which he greets fans demanding his signature for the cover of his flabby, verbose prose – he has never maintained a sustained human connection throughout his life.

While Icke has lived in a world where he has been prompted to expect fulfilment by virtue of having lots of sex, making lots of money, or having lots of people read his work, he has ultimately found this to be an empty promise. Art and human relationships are about engagement – a back and forth through which the participants both feel alive, for better or worse – and his life has been bereft of that true masterpiece, due to his blinkered pursuit of quantity over quality.

As commendable as the narrative sweep of The Flaneur is, however, there is more than a little room for improvement in the filmmaker’s future projects. For a start, while the flowery linguistic flourishes of Lyall Stephens and Nick Barnett’s script work well for the voice of an author keen to compensate for a lack of emotional depth by demonstrating a bulky vocabulary, it leads to some overly ornate narration that could have been scaled back to embellish on other, more impactful, details.

To an extent, it’s understandable that the writers would want to make as much use of Mark Rylance as possible (despite being the disembodied Narrator, he is top billed, thanks to his impressive CV which features work with a number of Hollywood’s top directors). He delivers what he is given with a kind of withering disdain, which becomes increasingly appropriate as the film progresses, but he is handed a hefty level of exposition in his segments – and if this were delivered by a lesser performer, I probably would have checked out a lot sooner.

Reducing at least some of the narration – regardless of the star-power attached to it – would have provided room for some of the other performers to shine. Notably, in the moments he gets to deliver the occasional monologue, Chanter is an utter scene-stealer as the older Icke, while Eken as Icke the younger evidently had a lot more to give than is on screen here. This would also have allowed for us to understand more about what made the two women momentarily throw off the “bourgeois” shackles of conventional relationships for the sake of Icke – while also giving time to show the tensions that subsequently emerged and showed why there was no longevity for such a relationship. Beyond one moment where Elizabeth nearly casts Icke’s notebook into the sea by accident, there is little in the way of charm or warmth about the ‘seduction’ sequences, while the awkwardness Icke feels about these relationships is left for the narrator to detail overtly – leaving the story lacking in some of the emotional clout it could have had.

While the boat sequence in particular is gorgeously photographed, meanwhile, the shooting of rare two-way conversations is also a little lacking. Beyond the set-piece speeches characters deliver, much of the dialogue shared between people comes across as wooden – in particular one grating scene between Icke and the older Elizabeth (Lisa Leilani). The blocking is an issue too, with the cinematography not entirely managing to foreground the 180 line between the two – leaving us to decide just how the pair are addressing each other. Coupled with the use of stock-sound effects for audience applause, a little of the gloss is taken away from the production’s overall sheen – though in the grander scheme of things, these are pretty minor notes.

In spite of its flaws, The Flaneur serves as a beautifully crafted set-up to a commendable cinematic sucker-punch. While distracting viewers with the kind of ‘aching beauty’ they are accustomed to in such stories, in the end the film’s drawing together of eclectic snapshots of romanticised bygone days produces a broader picture of a man who has wasted a great swathe of his life. It taps into one of the unspoken terrors which plagues toxic masculinity – what if the things society has programmed me to covet do not fulfil me – and unflinchingly delivers a brutal coup-de-grace in its skewering of the ideology of a character who, regardless of his purported achievements, is actually quite a pathetic figure.

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