by Allan Fish
(UK 1972 110m)DVD2
Our father, king of worms
p Jack Bond d/w Jane Arden ph Aubrey Dewar ed David Mingay m Sally Minford
Sheila Allen, Susanka Praey, Liz Danciger, Ann Lynn, Jane Arden, Penny Slinger, Sally Minford,
When The Other Side of the Underneath was announced on DVD by the BFI, along with Arden’s Separation and Anti-Clock, I made a point of checking the rating on the IMDb and found exactly what I expected. It didn’t have one. No-one had seen it; or at least no-one had voted who had seen it. Here really was buried treasure, films unseen pretty much since their first release, made by a woman who had been dead for the best part of thirty years. Arden died in 1982, aged55, a suicide. She’d battled with depression and her mental state for years and this film was the only one where she directed as well as wrote. It’s her most personal vision, a shocking, polarising one – it’s rating as I write on the IMDb is now 6.1, and you can bet that few will have given it 6, there will be a meeting of opposite ends of the voting spectrum in that mean.
Underneath was based on a play she performed with the self-described Holocaust Theatre Company and was shot in the bleak mining landscapes of Abertillery inSouth Wales. It begins with a young woman being fished out of a lake and taken to an asylum, where she is examined, along with divers other extreme inmates, for insanity. In her time there her nightmares begin to take over, mingling with those of the others, in between one-to-one and group therapy sessions with the psychiatrist (played by Arden herself). Her paranoia and state of mind are seen to be equally symptomatic of sexual repression, and in a phantasmagoria of outdoor spectacle, the film turns into an expression of free love against the power of conformity to society’s expectations.
At least that’s one interpretation, for Arden was very much at the forefront of the avant garde where everything is read as the viewer sees fit. Sequences recall Buñuel, Deren, the hysteria of Russell’s The Devils and, were it not chronologically impossible, one half expects to see Linda Blair’s demon in the corner stuffing a crucifix into her holiest of holies and shouting “let Jesus fuck you!” Feelings vindicated with a late re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion with a female Christ (echoing an earlier scene of another woman, naked save for a Christ like loincloth, having a bulimic last supper by candlelight).
Many may call the film pretentious and self-indulgent, with its unforgettably awful ‘Castrating Mum’ song, and find as little meaning in certain sequences as others may find much. For certain Arden’s choices are very rough around the edges, but that in many ways echoes the state of mind she’s depicting. She’s not like the average film-maker trying to understand insanity from outside looking in; she’s been there, seen it, bought the strait-jacket, as it were. Not to this degree maybe but she understands the fragility of the human mind, the frustration of sexual suppression. And it’s all done with just the faintest trace of black humour, such as when a one man in a commune plays ‘Please Release Me’ on an accordion. It’s suffocating, and has all the raw intensity of watching someone slit their wrists, with enough expressionistic, nightmarish images to make even Hieronymous Bosch double take. It holds up a mirror, shattered into shards of fractured reflection, up to us, with our safe pre-conceptions, and drags you down with it into the abyss. One where a young girl can be married and then buried in the same ceremony, where even the most far gone inmates of Charenton under the Marquis de Sade would feel at home, and where a deliberately screeching cello punctuates the shrieks of the protagonists. All this and we haven’t even touched on the feminist angle, of which the last half erupts into an orgiastic display where freedom is obtained by sexual abandonment and resignation to our basest desires. A descent quite literally into the mouth of Moloch, it justifies Molly Plowright when she said that “I don’t know of anyone in cinema who has penetrated the psyche to the extent she has.” And no-one has followed her lead in the decades since, a path that cinema’s most talented angels have feared to tread.