I can’t say that I’m steeped in avant-garde and experimental cinema. That’s a pretty massive body of work, naturally, and the deviations within it are unlimited. For instance, some movies are quite bizarre but have—despite multiple potential interpretations—clear intentions, like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013). Some, though, resist interpretation entirely, flying in the face of typical narrative cinema to present something that’s visceral and potent despite lacking a clear “meaning.” This kind of film can be infuriating but also effective if done right, and one of last year’s best-received pieces in that style manages to accomplish abstract ambitions despite lacking any definitive motive.
A Field in England (2013)
Plot: In the midst of the English Civil War (1642-1651), several men desert the battle and find themselves in a field while searching for the nearest pub. Therein, reality becomes less definite as some hallucinate and others lose their marbles. An Irishman, O’Neill (Michael Smiley), takes control of the men as he uses them to find buried treasure.
As odd as that might sound, the whole movie is a hell of a lot weirder.
Shot in black and white, director Ben Wheatley constructs the movie—based on Amy Jump‘s screenplay—in such a way that it purposefully obscures any clear meaning. Still, that doesn’t make it pointless. In fact, the effect is all the more disturbing for it, which matches the disturbing events that the men go through as O’Neill puts them in increasingly difficult situations. Psychologically, this movie captures an atmosphere and sense of confused dread in a way that less abstract films often can’t.
I actually really admire what Wheatley accomplishes. In an interview, he claims that his intention was to drop the viewer in a world they do not understand; if most people were to enter another world—like that of a movie—they would have no one to explain all the confusing bits. Much like Carruth’s Primer, little is explained, but that does not mean confusion precludes intrigue. In fact, the complete bizarreness only makes everything more interesting, especially since alchemy and magic vs. science in 17th century England are pretty bizarre subjects. The story is definitely matched by the editing, cinematography, and writing in strange wonder. Wheatley distills the ideas in his film and applies those fundamentals to every level of production.
There are potential meanings, of course. Just because the movie resists interpretation does not mean there’s no meaning to be found. O’Neill is often equated with the Devil, and even called such. The field seems outside of space and time, and since it follows a battle, one can easily find allusions to Purgatory, with the Devil testing their worth. There’s also the potential commentary on hedonistic pleasure’s frightening potential, or the way that magic and alchemical practices obscure an actual understanding of reality.
I won’t say any of those are what A Field in England are about, though. A Field in England is about no one thing, and that is what makes it—and experimental film in general—so exciting. The possibilities are endless, even if the methods can be frustratingly weird. The talent needed to make a great avant-garde piece, one that tries to subvert standard narrative practices, is impeccable. Jump’s script, Wheatley’s direction, and their combined editing show great awareness of what makes a good movie. The imagery is beautiful and troubling, the acting equally so, and I cannot doubt that this is intelligent filmmaking.
I am definitely not a huge fan of experimental film in many cases, but Wheatley has created something appropriately challenging and non-traditional in a way that intrigues rather than infuriates. For those seeking a story that unravels against the logic seen in most narrative cinema, this might be the ticket.