First published in Sight & Sound, February 2016
Review: At the dawn of cinema, when it was not yet possible to record synchronised sound, characters articulated their thoughts and feelings in silence, merely through facial expression, physical gesture or intertitle. Steve Oram’s feature debut Aaaaaaaah! is not, strictly speaking, a silent film. Nor does it, like Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011) or Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (2012), dispense with dialogue specifically to evoke the flickery Silent Era of moving pictures, even if it does borrow some of the visual slapstick associated with that period (here evolved, if that is the word, with graphic depictions of micturition, ‘tea-bagging’, dismemberment, and even a splash of sperm on a framed portrait of Prince Harry). Nor does Oram ape the way that filmmakers Aki Kaurismäki, Kim Ki-duk and Miroslav Slaboshpitsky use the voicelessness of their characters as a stylised marker of alienation and oppression – although the bludgeoning finale of Aaaaaaaah! certainly does recall the ending of Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe (2014). Rather, the preverbal dialogue of grunts, gibbers and squawks in Oram’s film harks back to the Dawn of Man as much as the early years of cinema, conjuring a mode of primitivism that suggests the origin not just of the medium but of the species.
As lovelorn stranger Smith (played by Oram) comes down from the woods with his subservient assistant Keith (Tom Meeten), gatecrashes a house party on the edge of town, and insinuates himself into the resident family’s already fragile domestic arrangement, what might normally have been the dramatic stuff of a soap opera or the social(ist) commentary of Teorema (1968) becomes, in Oram’s deliciously skewed view, a sly simian satire where every human character is reduced to the urges and appetites of their inner primate. Though the parallel universe in which Aaaaaaaah! takes place may be a Planet of the Apes, it is still, with its microwave ovens, flat-screen TVs and digital games consoles, easily recognisable as a contemporary version of our own world (with the odd throwback here and there to the stylings of the Seventies). This monkey-like populace offers an unflattering portrait of our own ‘advanced’ lifestyle, as they watch moronic cookery shows and lowbrow comedies on the telly, play VGs indoors and football out in the rain, get intoxicated during the night, and struggle to find their place in precarious, ever-shifting structures of kinship and perilous games of dominance and display.
We first see Smith angrily urinating on the framed photograph of his previous partner, an act of male aggression that informs his attempts to put down new roots elsewhere. Smith’s opportunistic move on young Denise (Lucy Honigman) upsets the balance in her household, where the plumber Ryan (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and his friend Og (Sean Reynard) have recently moved in with Denise’s mother Barabara (Toyah Wilcox), displacing and exiling Denise’s beloved father Jupiter (Julian Barratt) to the back garden. In a world where atavism and devolution rule, Smith’s effort to reinstate Jupiter to something like his former position in the home will end in tragedy, as damaged patriarchy proves its own highly destructive undoing.
As well as ensuring Aaaaaaaah! a place at the top of any alphabetical movie list, that onomatopoeic title carefully modulates the viewer’s response to the film’s own disarming blend of broad humour and animalistic shock. For this primal scream of a movie, equally experimental and outrageous, will leave you open-mouthed and no less speechless than its pithecoid personnel (who also like to watch dumb shit on their screens).
© Anton Bitel