Prano Bailey-Bond’s film “Censor” inhabits several emotional nether spheres with varying degrees of residency. Its setting is the outskirts of the world of extremely violent thrillers. It may not be the world of Dario Argento’s or Lucio Fulci’s more artful giallos, but there are characters here who perish or are injured in grotesque ways. “Censor” does describe its central character, but it also alludes to the suppression of or refusal to acknowledge the darker aspects of human behavior. The film’s central character is quite deliberate about her work, yet her personal motivations remain disturbingly murky.
“Censor” will disappoint viewers who come to it looking for new arrangements in the extremely violent thriller genre’s de rigeur performance of “Meatbag Rhapsody.” Its images of the human body’s fragility appear mundane compared to, say, the operatic impalement shown in Argento’s “Suspiria.” However, Bailey-Bond’s cinematic nod to what’s nicknamed “video nasties” in the film takes second place to larger psychological issues lurking in the background.
Not that those issues are apparent in the film’s 1980s Britain setting. As an aware viewer will rightly surmise, the odious Tory Margaret Thatcher reigns as Prime Minister. Her newest hobby horse is “saving” the British public from the supposed scourge of video nasties.
Serving as point persons in this campaign is an anonymous group of government-sponsored film censors. Young Enid Baines belongs to this group of aesthetic watchdogs. Her thoroughness and meticulousness in noting violent acts in video nasties earns her a mix of admiration and a co-worker’s derogatory “Little Miss Perfect” sobriquet.
Enid’s apparent aura of perfection soon takes a couple of significant knocks. “Deranged,” a video nasty she helped clear for release, has been implicated in inspiring the so-called “Amnesiac Killer” to go out and murder his family. The press and anonymous phone callers hold Enid responsible for the Amnesiac Killer’s homicides. However, it’s the screening of the Frederick North-directed thriller “Don’t Go In The Church” that truly triggers the young censor. The film reminds Enid of eerie similarities to the still unsolved disappearance of her younger sister Nina. The viewing convinces Enid that she’s found a vital clue to finally locating her missing sister. But has she really made a significant discovery or is she deluding herself?
Bailey-Bond makes Enid a character unaware of how spectacularly unreliable she actually is. The rationalization Enid brings to her work comes from the conceit her work protects unsuspecting members of the public from exposure to graphic or disturbing cinematic violence. Yet that claim eventually turns out to be based on personal prejudice rather than objective standards. In the early phases of the Amnesiac Killer scandal, Enid’s boss encourages her to err on the side of censoring future films rather than letting the film pass.
This CYA advice points out a central contradiction in the work of these censors. They need to be sufficiently desensitized to cinematic violence to watch huge numbers of violent acts without being affected. Yet they still need to retain the capacity to react to a film to judge whether it should be made available to the general public.
It’s ironic that a job which depends on Enid being willing to see fictional examples of humanity at its worst makes her unable to handle life’s more unpleasant aspects. Enid refuses to consider the possibility Nina is dead despite the passage of years and the missing girl’s lack of contact. Despite being the last person to see her younger sister alive, the surviving sister can neither remember nor explain what happened to the missing sibling. A fixation on the idea that North actress Alice Lee is the grown-up Nina is probably Enid’s version of not giving up hope. Yet it’s equally likely the main character’s fixation conceals her denial of culpability in her sister’s disappearance and/or demise.
Why does “Don’t Go In The Church” affect Enid so deeply? The reaction on Enid’s face at seeing the film’s “Enid” character taunting and daring the “Nina” character strongly suggests the censor had done something similar to her younger sister at the time.
Despite living in an apparently sizable city, Enid maintains a hermit-like existence. She lives alone, and does not appear to be in any sort of relationship. Nina’s still unexplained disappearance has resulted in an emotional wall built between Enid and her parents. Offers of support from fellow censor Perkins elicit no reaction from her. Even a loud argument on the underground gets treated by Enid as nothing more than background noise.
“Censor” may be partly intended as an homage to a genre which celebrated extremities of sexuality and violence. Yet Bailey-Bond’s inversion of the cultural assumptions normally associated with the genre achieve mixed results. North’s producer Doug Smart rather than his prospective female victim ends up paying the ultimate price for sexual expression in a mildly grotesque rather than darkly humorous way. The only bare female flesh seen in the film before violence follows has nothing to do with a sexual encounter.
Then again, being swept up in the viscerality of on screen violence would interfere with the viewer’s ability to properly judge Enid’s actions and the events occurring on screen. Distance allows a reasonable viewer to see that there’s nothing substantial behind the assertion that Alice Lee is the grown-up Nina except her older sister’s desperate belief. On the crazypants scale, believing that an Italian aerospace firm conspired with the U.S.’ embassy in Rome to use advanced satellite technology to switch 2020 election votes for the Orange Skull demonstrates a far greater detachment from reality than a belief based on an artist’s speculative sketch. But both beliefs share a common absence of any real factual support.
Enid’s subsequent “investigation” doesn’t attempt to fill in factual holes regarding Alice Lee. If anything, accident and happenstance strongly dictate her next moves. For example, the opportunity given to Enid to meet her supposed missing sister comes about through being mistaken for an actress late to a film shoot.
One of “Censor”’s great ironies is seeing how Frederick North unintentionally helps Enid discover the personal emotional truths she’s kept buried away from her consciousness. The director’s reasonable if nastily delivered method acting advice results in a very messy mix of reality and make believe.
“Censor” may not strike the right balance between ultra-violent cinema’s visceral appeal and a disturbing psychological portrait. But to its credit, the film does ultimately show how personal madness can be delivered with a smile…even if the affection behind that smile will quietly chill the viewer.
(“Censor” currently screens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema (2230 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley).)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment