Home Invasion and Bourgeois Ideals: Part 2

26 February 2010 at 19:48 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

As discussed in Part 1, the home invasion narrative (exemplified by Straw Dogs among other films) sometimes places the spectator in the uneasy position of identifying with a flawed, bourgeois hero. The same proves to be true for the French film Ils and the similarly conceptualized American film The Strangers. Like À l’intérieur, these films focus on middle-class protagonists whose peaceful existence suddenly becomes threatened by unwanted intruders. Below are these films’ respective trailers:

Both films depict the terrorization of a couple occupying a country house. As with À l’intérieur, the film titles prove significant in understanding the conflicts within the film. Ils, translated into English as Them, immediately calls to mind the opposing pronoun of “us.” The Strangers even more blatantly connotes the specter of otherness and the unknown with its title. In short, both films hinge on the fear of encroachment by mysterious outsiders.

And what is being attacked? The house as symbol immediately signifies bourgeois ideals of wealth, ownership, and domestic spaces designed for privacy and leisure. The heterosexual couples central to these narratives also embody these values. In the case of The Strangers, issues of matrimony come to the fore as a result of the female protagonist, Kristen (Liv Tyler) rejecting the proposal of her longtime boyfriend, James (Scott Speedman). James’s parents’ vacation house where the film is set was to serve as a celebratory getaway, but the rejection deflates that intention. As the film progresses, the couple (initially headed toward an inevitable break-up) becomes united through their shared trauma. The film hits us over the head with this point when Kristen puts on the engagement ring she had previously declined just before the strangers repeatedly stab the couple, who are bound to chairs side-by-side. In short, Kristen ceremoniously accepts their status as a mature couple just before the two are (literally) ripped apart.

The antagonists of both Ils and The Strangers dramatically contrast this sense of adulthood by aligning their terrifying actions with youthful games. In Ils, the assailants taunt the couple with loud music, noisemakers, and the blaring headlights of their cars. It’s no surprise, then, when we learn in the final shots that the couple had been attacked by a group of teenagers. Similarly, Kristen and Kate face three young attackers whose faces we never see–one has a sack over his head while the other two wear cartoonish masks. In both films, the assailants claim that they wanted to “play” with their victims, again aligning childhood games with sadistic torture.

The masked killers of The Strangers face their victims.

This metaphor between torture and play brings Funny Games (both the US and Austrian versions) to mind. Written and directed by Michael Haneke, both films depict two clean-cut young men taking a well-to-do family hostage while on vacation. Here are the trailers:

Because these films so clearly side with the couples/families being terrorized, it would be easy to conclude that they take a reactionary stance by portraying youthful rebellion in such sharp contrast to the quaintness of bourgeois living. Dig a little deeper, though, and I think you can actually unearth a more radical reading. Take Funny Games, for instance: the antagonists do not represent an opposing force to white middle-classness so much as another side of the same coin. They dress in their preppiest tennis whites, speak with perfect diction, and regularly make gestures of politeness. These monsters, then, do not represent the repressed other from without but the one from within the bourgeois psyche. They manifest the excess of this lifestyle with their inclination to torture and kill for sport. Like Leopold and Loeb, their sense of superiority leads them to murder.

Ils and The Strangers may not focus on these themes as sharply, but nevertheless, there is a sense in all three films that the perpetrators of these crimes consider torture and murder a form of leisure, which necessarily references bourgeois inclinations. As a result, these films might be read as cautionary tails of contemporary western culture and its excesses, for the very sanctuary (the home) designated as space for relaxation and play becomes appropriated by outsiders for the purpose with horrific results.


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