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Getting It Together In The Country: Hide And Seek Reviewed
Mat Colegate , July 4th, 2014 13:09

Mat Colegate reviews Joanna Coates' thought-provoking debut feature film

It goes without saying, doesn't it? The art that poses questions is the best type of art there is. We all love trash, and we all love escapism, and we all want to get away sometimes, but we know that the best kind of art – the healthiest kind – is the stuff that makes us look at the world through new eyes, see it in different colours and re-evaluate our place in it. Joanna Coates' debut film, Hide And Seek is a piece of art that does just that – indeed I haven't seen a film I've felt so pressured to write about in a long time – but it does leave me wondering whether the questions it asks are good ones. Or even if they're worth asking in the first place.

Coates' set up is extremely simple: four young people (early 20s, at a guess) two boys and two girls (played by Josh O'Connor, Hannah Arterton, Rea Mole and Daniel Metz), go and set up new lives in a house in the middle of nowhere, where it always seems to be sunny, in order to establish a paradise on earth. Their methods are tried and tested hand-me-downs from the Summer of Love: partner swapping is mandatory and entertainment is provided through evening role-play. Money seems to be no object, and there's no interference from neighbours or parents or any other figures of authority. There are no questions asked about the set-up. Coates leaves them completely alone, all the better to analyse their behaviour without distraction. It's Utopia as a science experiment. This antiseptic matter of factness is translated through the camera work as well. Mid-shots, the colour of the surrounding countryside as bleached and pale as the skin of actors. They are test subjects, a perfectly scrubbed selection to be coupled and mingled as the director wishes. Her camera always ready to capture any fall out.

With a set up such as this, complaining about a lack of dramatic tension seems foolish. That's simply not what Hide And Seek is for. There is no mad stalker in the woods; no pressure from outside to force the characters to breaking point; they are completely uninterested in politics or the world around them. All that matters is the experiment: is heaven on earth achievable? Can four young people reach paradise through seclusion? Of course it's a question that's been asked before – who hasn't tried getting it together in the country at some time or another? - but rarely with Hide And Seek's level of rigour. The film takes tired 1960s clichés – free love, play power - holds them up to the light in order to examine their working mechanisms, and in doing so forces us to re-examine them as well.

The 60s are worth mentioning, as, aside from an obvious Terrence Malick influence, the films that come to mind when watching Hide And Seek are the freewheeling epics of the counter-culture. Films like Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, Peter Whitehead's The Fall or, most potently given its theme of retreat, Jane Arden's extraordinary The Other Side Of The Underneath. Granted, there's not much in the way of direct parallel, but they all feel like experiments that are being performed directly in front of the viewer, with the results captured no matter how aggressive, rude or messy.

These comparisons, however, do make plain what Hide And Seek is lacking. The film could do with some aggression, is desperately in need of rudeness and, dear God, it's crying out for a splash of mess. The sex comes thick and fast of course, all the different permutations between the four leads are tried at one time or another, but it's dispassionate and empty; even joyless. All the couplings and thruplings are matter-of-fact equations; boxes being ticked. Despite this aridity, the film seems radiantly pleased with itself and totally satisfied with the world it creates. The one piece of dramatic tension, which occurs when a character's old boyfriend comes to visit, is dispatched with as quickly as possible, our sympathetic viewpoint into the film's self-created Eden ridiculed and dismissed. There is no room for questioning in this little paradise, no room for outsiders with their unenlightened views and memories of things best forgotten. It's a fascist nirvana, founded on willed ignorance and privilege.

All this does make for a very interesting watching experience, and it's to Coates' credit that she doesn't hold the audience's hand at any point in the film. We simply have to make our own minds up about what we're seeing. This approach is generally one I'd applaud, but Hide And Seek comes unstuck under any close scrutiny due to the complete lack of context provided for the characters and their actions. They are four white, posh, young people. That's all we know and all we're given to work with, the better, one supposes, to be able to concentrate solely on the situation at hand. No context, no distractions, just the experiment. This is sophistry. No experiment exists in true isolation from the culture around it and no one can be completely removed from their societal origins. With no clues given as to the reasons behind the character's retreat from hated, boring society (“It's not of interest to us” as one of them smugly puts it) we are simply left with the spectacle of four Jeremys banging in a barn. Rather than a desperate retreat from a world that hates and fears them, the whole set up comes across as smug, self-satisfied and solipsistic, a problem that could have been avoided with just the tiniest hint of characterisation.

It could be that Hide And Seek is an attempt to gauge youthful dissatisfaction; to point the camera at the disenfranchisement felt by young people in this part of the 21st Century. If that is the case then I would like to politely ask that all the young folk who this film claims to represent (not a wide cross-section, it seems) get themselves into isolation at the earliest possible date so that I don't have to share pavement space with them. The rest of us can get on with the serious business of living. They can stick to their games in the woods.