Irony Is a Poor Excuse for Brutality

Article excerpt

WHEN WAS it decided that film criticism was a job that only a man could do? I've read 10 reviews of the new film American Psycho. Flicking through broadsheets, tabloids and weekly magazines, I couldn't help feeling that there was something missing, and eventually it dawned on me: not one was by a woman. Is this a reason why I feel the debate about the film is skewed, that it is taking place in an arena where certain concerns and reactions aren't even going to be taken on board?

Once I had seen the film, and started reading other people's reactions to it, I began to feel that this isn't just any nasty and brutish film. It is certainly nothing special, but in its very ordinariness, and the way that it has been so easily accepted and celebrated, it says something about the way we live now. I don't mean that any of you have taken to chasing women down apartment buildings with a chainsaw or attacking prostitutes and beggars with a rusty coat-hanger and a sharp knife. But when we go out in the evening we might easily watch these images, or ones very like them, and then laugh. And what exactly does that say about us?

We are encouraged to laugh, because we are told that these images are meant ironically. They are always presented to us as irony, or satire.

Of course, nobody would ever suggest that they are making a film about violence against women in order to revel in that violence, in order to make the women in the audience quail and the men feel that violence is acceptable. If they did so, the shock and the condemnation would be immediate. So instead they tell us that they are making "an indictment of machismo", a "Swiftian social commentary", a tale with a "satirical essence".

Those quotations are taken from the production notes to American Psycho, in which the director, Mary Harron, carefully tells us over and over again that the book on which her film is based, Bret Easton Ellis's controversial novel, is "a brilliant social satire" and that her film seeks to enshrine and extend that satire. Most of the critics in British newspapers have accepted that interpretation, whether it's the critic in the Daily Mail saying that it is "telling satire", or the critic in The Daily Telegraph agreeing that it's "ironic and horribly funny", or The Guardian calling it "uber-cool satire", "replete with Post-Modern irony".

I like to think that I can enjoy a soupcon of satire as much as the next person. But I wonder whether films like American Psycho are really satires at all, even if those who make them and enjoy them use that term. Far from exposing and trying to shake the foundations of the society that is its subject - the vain, materialistic, misogynist world of rich Manhattan in the Eighties - the film, like the book, reproduces those values. With its slick, televisual style of direction, its bland dialogue and its robotic performances, this film polishes up that world, it never scratches its surface. There is no alternative voice here, no vantage point from which the satirist could look at Eighties Manhattan and find it wanting.

Irony is a rather easier description to chuck around. In fact, if you are determined to read something as irony, you can almost always manage to. But maybe we should stop and ask whether there are some things that simply don't deserve the label. After all, is there anything about the book or the film of American Psycho that makes it any different from the book or film that would have been produced if the author or director were in fact a self-confessed violent misogynist? In the book, the violence is retailed with such pornographic detail that the tone is one of revelling enjoyment, not ironic exposure. And in the film the camera swings with the same facile ease through the murders and executions as over the chic clothes and fancy food, with never a tremble, never a change in mood. …