Reijn: Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)

Bodies Bodies Bodies is one of the most unusual and ambivalent films to be released by, for and about Gen Z. It takes as its central premise the idea that the slasher genre is primarily about pleasure – the perverse pleasure of the slasher’s gaze, which invites the audience to share in the voyeuristic thrills of cinema. In 2022, we’re able to explain, more fully, why that gaze might be problematic, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable or immersive to audiences. Bodies Bodies Bodies uses this simple fact to evoke a cinematic milieu that may have become less problematic, at least on the surface, but that has also fallen into a deep depression in the process. Over the course of the film, a group of teenagers retreat to a country house, where they proceed to expel patriarchal and capitalist pleasure, only to compensate with a slasher cosplay, called “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” in which the figure of the slasher returns in the sadism with which they problematise and ultimately cancel each other. By the end, director Halina Reijn suggests that the amount of problematic patriarchal energy in the world can never grow or fade – it can only be misrecognised for something more radical.

As a result, Bodies Bodies Bodies is driven by a profound anhedonia, and is quite unpleasant and disengaging to watch, although this seems to be the point of its entire aesthetic project. We start in a strange space between satire and horror, with a lesbian couple, Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) and Bee (Maria Bakalova) en route to a “hurricane party” at the mansion of David (Pete Davidson), Sophie’s childhood friend. Right from the start, the tone is an odd brand of off-horror – suffused with the atonality of social media, as the couple declare their love for each other while distracted by phones, and an abrasive hip hop track about Facebook accompanies their arrival at the house. The stage is set for a country house horror film, but the entire spatial scheme mitigates against it, instead evoking a porosity that is too diffuse to be genuinely ambient, and yet too insistent to ever settle into mere background noise either.

This porosity continues into the earliest stages of the hurricane party, which is, literally, a party held during a hurricane. Again, this feels like an older trope of spatial containment that doesn’t ramify – the storm never sets in, and actually makes the house feel more porous, rather than more sequestered. For a brief beat, it feels like we might be in the eye of the hurricane, the sticky humid still centre of it all, but if we are, the other side of the storm never arrives, stranding us in what Roland Barthes describes as the “dead spots” in “affective space” where sound “fails to circulate.” This bad affect intensifies whenever the characters, which exstray too far from their phones. Paradoxically, these phones are comforting because their sheer physical presence suggests that a world must exist away from them, however fleeting – a fantasy that vanishes when the wi-fi cuts out and ushers in the second act of the script.

Over the first act, the script follows all the major cues of Gen X, starting with a sense of intractable mediation. The characters discuss a podcast, worry about a group chat and, above all, make and watch TikToks. They also discuss the experience of PTSD after a breakup, the power of creative non-fiction and the danger of micro-aggressions. Beyond a certain point, their conversations simply consist of outlining all the ways each person is problematic – or all the disingenuous ways in which each person presumes to determine what is problematic. The ultimate insult is being upper middle-class, which they all are, apart from Bee, in what could easily play as crude satire were it not written and directed from the vantage point of Gen Xers themselves. In any case, the baldness, bluntness and ugliness of the satire seems to be intentional, part and parcel of the pervasive anhedonia that suffuses every facet of the film.

Despite (or because of) the aggression of these exchanges, a strange listlessness and illbience emerges. The dialogue is curiously underdeveloped, and often poorly articulated, as if the main action is unfolding elsewhere, while the characters often seem to be aiming for the same snappy self-referentiality as the Scream franchise, but without any conviction even in ironic play. Beyond a certain point, this is toxic Twitter discourse as a screenplay – replies are simply Twitter replies, while the characters barely exist beyond a series of social media selves. Space doesn’t quite exist, which means that the slasher thrill of peering into a physical space is displaced by the film’s yearning for a zone that is somehow “outside” social media. At first, the characters try to restore this embodied spatial sphere through a performative pansexuality, and yet this quickly makes bodies themselves feel as porous as social media. All the open mouth kissing, and all the piercings, tattoos and dyed hair, collapse the characters back into each other, and back into the objects around them, reiterating their anhedonic drift.

With even the most extravagant physical pairings unable to restore pleasure to Reijn’s mise-en-scenes, the film itself drifts into a strange sub-ambience that is visualised in the first tableau at the house. As Sophie and Bee pull up to the driveway, we cut to the other guests sitting in stylised poses at the bottom of the swimming pool. It’s as if they’re searching for an older connective tissue even as they’re drowning in a new kind of connectivity, producing a series of increasingly contorted poses that continue with Davidson’s gangly body language on dry land. Without any genuine sense of characters connected in real time and place, Bodies Bodies Bodies never has enough metaphysics of presence to feel like a film. The satire is blunt, the horror isn’t suspenseful, the characters barely exist, the stakes are low, and the relationships are hard to follow. This feels more like a series of TikTok moments than a film, much as the “characters” feel more like the “light” or “mid” personae of TikTok, while no scene can sustain itself for longer than thirty seconds. At times, you could easily mistake it for a contemporary student film, made by people who only know about film because of TikTok.

Of course, this impoverished cinematic field is so sustained that it must be intentional – the preface and precondition for the main act of Bodies Bodies Bodies, which follows the characters as they try to restore an older kind of perverse pleasure into these mise-en-abymes. They do so via “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a game that both acknowledges the problematic heritage of slasher films and the primal pleasure of slasher cinema by reducing the genre to cosplay – a safe space where they can play out a repressed patriarchal fantasy. The game starts with everyone hitting each other, in turn, trying to outdo the last punch each time, and then quickly becomes a fantasy of home invasion, which is to say a fantasy of a spatial field that is regulated enough to make home invasion meaningful in the first place. As they turn off the lights, and assign one person as the unknown slasher, the film both fragments even further into a series of TikTokesque flashes of action, and restores the external gaze of the slasher, and its affirmation of a genuinely sequestered interior space. In effect, the game try to restore the slasher as a spatial and pleasure principle without any of the historic baggage – to invoke the slasher as pure formalism, devoid of ideological content.

As Bodies Bodies Bodies imagines it, this is the great fallacy of Gen X – to disavow the problematic past as ideology while retaining it as form. In this case, that fallacy is drawn out by an actual blackout during the “Bodies Bodies Bodies” game, which destroys the wi-fi connection, and means that the group can only use their phones as torches. Caught between their fantasy of a pre-digital space and a denuded digital space, the slasher cosplay quickly gravitates into what seems like the emergence of a real slasher, forcing the characters to acknowledge what is at stake in claiming to evacuate the problematic past of all but its formal attributes. At this point, the tone of the film starts to dissociate even more radically, evoking a profound dislocation beneath the apparent assurance of Gen X, much as we glimpse a series of eerily blank expressions, scary as any conventional horror film, whenever the phone-torches light upon one of the characters in the midst of the game, in the throes of negotiating their slasher cosplay with the weight and freight of what slasher pleasure originally entailed.

As in most slasher films, this cosplay fandom immediately foregrounds the role, longevity and legitimacy of men. The first person to “die” in the game is Greg, the most senior member of the group by far, who at forty years old is the de factor father of the house. Not only does Greg come from a different generation, but he represents a positively antiquated mode of masculinity, responding to the endless problematising of the younger crowd by repeating the same sporting analogy over and over again, with no real regard for context: “The best defence is a good offence.” He’s hit the hardest in the opening round of punches, and promptly bows out of the game, heading off for an early night, with “you kids have fun” as his parting shot. That leaves David, Pete Davidson’s character, as the only man left in the group, although his presence couldn’t be more different from Greg’s. In contrast to the sports bro of old, David plays the Gen X simp, the fantasy of a fully deproblematised masculinity – he’s dressed in pink, wearing a shirt so long and loose that it looks like a dress, and is so devoid of phallic potency that his girlfriend not only discloses that they still haven’t had sex with each other, but silences his objections by invoking a cocktail of narcissism, gaslighting and white privilege.

Between these two models of masculinity, traditional and deproblematised, lies the film’s tension between the perverse pleasure of the slasher and the anhedonia of a deslasherised present. For while Bodies Bodies Bodies technically approves of David, it’s libidinally aligned with Greg, forcing it to disavow pleasure with each new mise-en-abyme until displeasure is precisely the point. David briefly rails against his simpdon by hitting the mantelpiece in a moment of primal violence, but otherwise his “healthy” masculinity simply unleashes toxi patriarchy to prowl unregulated elsewhere. This is enhanced once the “real” slasher starts to strike – David is the first to die, returning from a protracted sulk in the stormy courtyard with his throat cut, and Greg is next, although he’s killed by one of the women after they collectively decide he must be the slasher. Ironically, their need to imbue him with this phallic potency is what enables them to invoke it themselves – they make a show of expelling his slasher energy only so they can absorb it into the group, and retain it as a driving fantasy. With both men gone, this fantasy shifts to “Max”, a character we haven’t met at this point, who apparently left the house the night before after being rebuffed by one of these women.

In a slasher film of old, this absent party would be critical for orchestrating the twist and denouement, either as the killer, as a red herring, or simply as a holding point for the phallic pleasure of the genre itself. Yet Max isn’t really a factor in the third act of Bodies Bodies Bodies, which instead follows the surviving women as they try to contend with a patriarchal energy that they have unleashed precisely by trying to deproblematise it out of existence. For the thesis of Reijn’s film is that the quota of monstrous phallicity in the world never changes, meaning that it can only be confronted and processed in plain sight, or else misrecognised for its very opposite, which is what happens here. Addicted to the thrill of the slasher, but with the slasher formally disavowed, the remaining characters settle into an intensified game of “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” starting with another and more brutal round of slaps, and moving to the central set piece of the film – a series of escalating accusations, in which each character identifies a problematic feature of another in order to purge herself. This is deproblematising as exorcism, a ritual that intensifies, rather than annuls, the perverse pleasures of the slasher, and gives the slasher new life in the process. Being a slasher now means slicing and cutting people out of social legitimacy, much as these remaining characters use guns and knives less as physical weapons than to gesticulate and articulate what makes each of them problematic.

As a result, this is the only scene in the film that feels truly vital – the one moment where there’s a genuine voyeuristic thrill in seeing how it will all unfold, and when the action focuses enough to evoke a more sequestered cinematic space. For a brief beat, the slasher lives in the very brutality with which these characters try to cancel it, while their efforts to determine the outermost fringes of their group, the most problematic member, briefly dynamises the distinction between inside and outside that has been so diffuse for most of the film. Yet even this resurrection is fleeting and fragmentary. When morning comes, the two last characters discover David’s phone outside, and realise he accidentally stabbed himself with a giant sword while trying to make a TikTok that would restore his phallic potency after losing face during the game. Rather than being consumed by a pleasure-driven slasher, David dies, bathetically, in a failed attempt to embody that pleasure himself. There is no outside after all, no organising gaze that watches and enjoys, especially once Max shows up in the final minutes and turns out to be just another person, rather than a paranoic slasher mastermind. Instead, there’s just the anhedonic illbience of TikTok, emblem here of a sociality that seems to thrive upon pleasure, but is really suspicious of pleasure, and needs to fragment and contain it all cost.

The film thus ends by returning to the dispersive-depressive funk of the swimming pool – the two survivors claw for David’s phone as they’re submerged in the pool, hold David’s dead eyes open beside the pool to unlock it, and learn the truth as the pool fountains come on again. The hurricane never came, space was never tightened beneath the slasher’s gaze, and the horrific patriarchal energy of old is even more powerful for being unleashed under an aegis of deproblematisation. As Kate Millett put it, “patriarchy, reformed or unreformed, is patriarchy still; its worst abuses purged or foresworn, it might actually be more stable and secure for before.” The same goes for the slasher, which is utterly purged and foresworn by the conclusion of Reijn’s film, and yet emerges more powerful than ever before, emboldened by a generation who have tricked themselves into thinking they’ve managed to traverse it.  

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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