The Real Life

Anuj Malhotra

Gone Girl

A broadcast-war fills the freefalling second section of David Fincher’s maltopian horror film, Gone Girl – the protagonists, the man and the woman in a prosaic, ordinary middle-class marriage, conduct elaborate skirmishes through televised images. They engineer and maneuver popular perceptions of themselves, and of each other, through meticulous processes of research, rehearsal and finally, performance. Set inside a universe that bears an uncanny, horrifying resemblance to the one the average viewer inhabits, but is not quite, Fincher’s film presents a circumstance where concepts of morality or justice are rendered futile, because their subject itself is malleable and a simulation – no despair can be greater.

Tanner Bolt (the kind of name that enters a film before its person), lawyer but in essence, a public relations manager, tells his client, Nick Dunne (the husband), ‘we have to first change how America thinks of her.’ and thereby, admits to contemporary ‘justice’ as being a mere consequence of circulated pretense (Oscar Pistorious, crying and puking; Tiger Woods, sober, very sorry). Bolt and Dunne then collaborate to institute a counter-project forged in broadcast signals: they curate/stage (both processes depend equally on obfuscation, as they do on exhibition) a small, insignificant portion of Dunne’s personality – that of the loving, apologetic husband who truly gives a shit about his wife and wants her back. This persona is launched in a television interview show broadcast into a million American homes; Dunne looks at the camera at the end of his performance, contorts his face into a desperate plea and asks his wife to return – a final bow, a true flourish. Millions of viewers in America endear themselves to the image of this perfect husband: white, middle-class, a real (Letter) man in that he is lustful for other women and cheats on his wife, but in that ultimately, at the end of the day, comes back home to restore familial order. But the Bolt and Dunne tag-team understands that it is no longer sufficient to combat a truth with truth in order to win (and victory, not in the sense of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a moral victory) one must contest a notion with another notion, a representation with another representation, a resemblance with another resemblance – the dead, murdered, abused bloodied corpse of the wife, itself a carefully manufactured alter-avatar meets her equal: a husband ready to dig her up and wipe the mud off her being.

This is where Fincher steers the film into horror, the central tenet of which is replacement. Jean Renoir rubbished the idea of dubbing, renouncing it as being akin ‘to possession’, to having someone’s voice fill an alien container; the horror. But this is a different era; an era where one can record sound live, so the voice will remain intact, but what about what it says or communicates; what about the persona-lity it fabricates (to fabricate, in the truly German sense of the word)? When Dunne’s show is broadcast, millions view it, but Fincher ensures we look at the reactions of only two – Nick Dunne, and his wife, Amy Dunne. In traditional horror, the mirror is often the location of potent terror; this is because ultimately, the civilisation that peruses it is aware that it is only a surface, an inch wide and not more, and that in this thin, brittle, slithery surface, they deposit their form, their confidence in their own identity, the wholeness of their materiality every single time they look at it. Willingly, they place themselves in the hands of a façade – what is the guarantee that the veneer will never slip? It does in Orphee and reveals a windy portal to hell itself, in Candyman, where the uncanny conjures itself from behind this unreliable film; or in the firelit carpeted rooms of Balthus, with a cat, a woman and her mirror. Ed Halter quotes Douglas Sirk in his essay on another film about slippery realities, deceptive exteriors and missing people, Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, ‘…What is interesting about a mirror is that does not show yourself as you are; it shows you your own opposite.’

Dunne looks at his own image on the television, but it is not quite him. (Amazing) Amy is a step ahead, she is a creature of the future, a robot, she understands what Dunne and Bolt are upto, and she smiles in understanding, but Dunne is disturbed, surprised, made anxious by this duplication – like looking at your reflection in the shards of a broken mirror. Fincher underlines this absurd confusion between figure and representation, flesh and silica, material and transmission by cutting between the two Dunnes as if it were the Winklevosses having a conversation in their dorm room. In her trailer room in another corner of the country, Amy is witness to this fission of her husband’s being – mildly impressed, she must forfeit her privilege as a spectator and cause herself to resurrect within this drama, but with a few cosmetic upgradations.

There are various characters in the history of film who live, so to say, as exhibitionists – they actively seek an audience, curious to measure the length of their own shadow on the face of the world. The reason Amy (and later, Nick) are creatures of a truly contemporary universe are because they perform not for people, but for the broadcast signals that devour and regurgitate them, for the inanimate cameras that record them. This is a feature consistent in political dramas or documentaries, but really only Albert Brooks, three decades ago, depicted the performative aspect inherent in a modern, urban, furnished, tract-house existence; he identified it as an elaborate but desperate ruse mounted by a family (in Real Life, or as in Modern Romance, a couple) to come off as being normal or ordinary to the rest of the world. Brooks’ films establish – in a sort of Putney Swope manner – that in an environment where collective perception is primarily governable by the ‘visible’, living itself will predicate itself on a few observable qualities: choreography, gesture, costume, hairstyle, colour, furnish – all features of a good pose.

So Amy cuts her hair shorter, loses a bit of weight – in the context of the film’s chronology itself, this isn’t really evolution, but restoration. This is more or less how she appeared before her intricate self-annihilation; when she returns, she is blonde, white, proper, nice, ordinary, and therefore, an enigma again. She ends her exile to restore her indoor, dull, loveless marital existence with Nick, but this isn’t a moment of triumph for him – instead, he realises he prefers this; he can walk out, but doesn’t. He realises, and she helps him to, that this is more convenient.

Commentators have pointed out how vacuous and typical the lead pair seems; ciphers, symptoms of a larger, contemporary existence and not people themselves. I think a part of this view owes to the desire to see a film – a chamber drama with two to three characters at most – treat its residents as active, functional, complex human beings.  This is also a reasonable demand, but one that seems to ignore the primary framing device of the story itself: the various screens – television, DSLR displays, monitors, mobile photo-sensors – that these characters continuously attune at first their behaviour and eventually, their whole existence to. In a manner very similar to The Social Network, where personal friendships and brotherhood is distilled through legal proceedings, depositions, conference room discussions and business meetings, the marriage in Gone Girl is subject to surveillance, popular scrutiny and overwhelming social moralisation. This isn’t a secret obviously, but it is still easy to miss; why else would the behaviour of the protagonists be examined so carefully, especially in a film where the characters’ environment has caused the notion of behaviour (a yield of conscious choice, to be at one’s best behaviour) to rupture and dissolve? And therefore, the difference between behaviour and performance – would it be fine to analyse an individual’s personality from the evidence on their social media profile? It is a good question to ask. The two leads in the film aren’t really caricatures to begin with, but they accept that their relationship is a mutually gainful business proposition – they do not reside together as much as they conduct a successful negotiation. They choose to be easily identifiable icons of middle-America: smart to an agreeable degree,  with absent, mythical jobs, hygienic, and with a baby – a very conscious, free-market choice. And so while the world outside begins to straitjacket them into convenient perception-molds, the real horror of the film is that they embrace this duplicity and falsehood like all businessmen, become willing slaves of their image and concede to living out the rest of their lives, devoid of love, intimacy or confidentiality – but atleast with a lot of money.

So look, the film begins and ends with a similar image: the back of Amy’s head, layered with blonde hair of varying lengths; long at the beginning, short at the end (the film is basically one long haircut at a fancy parlour), presumably as she lies in Nick’s lap. Similar sounding questions are laid over these, but in the beginning, it is an actual psychological inquiry that takes into account the accurate biological implications (skull, brain) of the interrogation, while at the end, it is driven by a desire to locate vitality in plastic. In both cases, Amy turns to look back at Nick, and at us. If we are looking at her, she is looking at us too. The final image is a mirror of the first; similar, symmetric, a duplicate, but ultimately, a counterfeit.