From Television to the Street
For television viewers, wars cease to exist when casualties fall, truces shimmer, and shock abates. For those who survive a war, the actual conflict is the centrifuge that flings lives into chaos. Jasmin Dizdar’s film suggests that the real drama of war is its aftermath, the day-by-day struggle to live with its losses, scars, displacements and self-knowledge. In Beautiful People, the forgiving cities of Western Europe (in this case London) are far more accurate barometers of this war than the news footage of the small screen. As the latest wave of refugees pops up in the crumbling public places where classes and races mix higgedly-piggedly buses, cafes, hospitals, housing projects and schools war steps from television to the street.
In a manic pirouette of coincidence and misunderstanding, Bosnian refugees collide with the casualties of affluence wealthy rebels, warring spouses, lower middle-class junkies and the registered adrenaline addicts of the global press corps. A Serb (Dado Jehan) and a Croat (Faruk Fruti) refight World War II’s deadly enmities on a London Transport bus. Griffin Midge (Danny Nussbaum) and his pals head for Holland to watch England in the World Cup, via a racist mugging, a pub fight, and a dose of heroin so potent that Midge falls asleep in a Heathrow loading dock and awakes in Bosnia. Obstetrician Dr. Mouldy (the lugubrious Nicholas Farrell) cannot save his own children as his marriage disintegrates, while Scots war correspondent Jerry Higgins (Gilbert Martin) heads for Bosnia, intoxicated with the moral rectitude of the public’s “right to know.” Meanwhile, Dzemila (Walentine Giorgiewa) and Ismet (Radoslav Youroukov) wait with trepidation their baby’s birth, conceived as the result of her rape by enemy soldiers.
Dizdar heightens the clash by his skillfully handling of a mix of seasoned, but not internationally known, British tv and stage actors and amateur talent, ordinary Bosnians sucked into a reworking of their country’s past. Inevitably, though, in a cast of over twenty main characters and a script of such complexity, shorthand sometimes substitutes for substance. For examples, the upper-middle class Tory politician (Charles Kay), his wife (Rosalind Ayres), and son (Julian Firth) are well-worn cliches, while Charlotte Coleman, playing their daughter Portia, re-iterates her one-note “rebel among the patricians” performance from Four Weddings and a Funeral. And the absurd naivet of Griffin’s father, a fifty-year-old schoolmaster (Roger Sloman), when confronted with his son’s heroin works, is grating, as is his wife’s (Heather Tobias) annoying (and misplaced in class terms) echo of Brenda Blethyn’s whining “sweetheart” in Secrets and Lies.
But the lapses are easier to forgive than usual. First, Dizdar knows when to cut, and no one lingers too long on the screen. Second, so many of his minute, densely-layered insights into character are so often spot on, and charged with irony. When Griffin’s mother is cleaning his room and discovers his stash, she is humming absently the tender Anglican children’s hymn, “Morning has broken like the first morning.” The fleeting glimpse of a well-thumbed copy of Sybille Bedford’s raffish memoir lying next to the accumulating unwashed plates on Mouldy’s dresser demarcates a very precise middle-class stratum, where intellectual and professional success outstrips the “respectable virtues” of cleanliness and order. Further down the social scale, Dizdar catches the subtle changes in London’s traditional working-class landmarks. The old-fashioned, predominantly Anglo-Saxon working man’s caf (defiantly pronounced “caff”) through which several of the characters pass retains its chunky mugs, stewed tea and overalled waitress, but also displays the polyglot notices of London’s new multi-ethnic underclass.
When Griffin and his pals meet one of Mouldy’s disobedient sons chanting his support for the U.S. hockey team, the Mighty Ducks, they deliver a swift slap to his ear, and whisper the injunction, “Remember, you’re English.” In a few moments, Dizdar encapsulates the decades of class antagonism and misunderstanding (the years during which the Labour Party’s cosmopolitanism, grassroots democracy and rainbow politics seemed to court middle-class intellectuals instead of working people) that propelled both Margaret Thatcher and John Major into political power. And, while other allusions to tribalism among the British characters are unsubtle (the left-wing and nationalistic Scots and Welsh) and sometimes unpleasant (the soccer-loving racist English patriots), Dizdar still manages to humanize the cliche. He observes Griffin’s dressing for the day in the vestments of his passion, his Gary Linneker soccer shirt and Tottenham Hotspur scarf, with ceremonial reverence, and lingers affectionately on Jerry Higgins’ search for his talismanic red (the color of the Labor Party) socks.
Most poignant of all is the film’s revelation of the degree to which all the characters, even the most empathetic, are trapped within their own perceptions. Political scientists call our assumption that others will think and behave like ourselves mirroring, and in Dizdar’s hands it shades absurdity into tragedy. As the besieged Bosnians look up to the supply planes, they murmur “American,” the all-purpose symbol of Western affluence. In Griffin’s stoned regard, after his parachuting down to earth with the Colgate toothpaste and disposable razors, the same Bosnians look like revelers. “Having a bit of a party, then,” he mumbles, as they harvest the scattered tokens of international concern, then crashes back into numbed stupor.
The Welsh fire bomber explains to the battered Serb and Croat sharing his ward that his injuries came from a trip to London to buy an incendiary device, which then exploded in his face. In the admiring pause that follows, the tough ward sister remarks that incendiary devices must be difficult to buy in Wales, in the same tone she might use to commiserate with a friend who has failed to find a favorite brand of washing powder. Only floors away, Mouldy mistakes Dzemila’s desire to murder her baby conceived in rape as conventional eve-of-birth blues and knows exactly the right pill to make her feel better. Pero (Edin Dzandzanovic) confuses the hyperbolic platitudes of wedding speeches with essays at truth, and obsessively confesses the war crimes of his “former” life.
In language, the gulf between seeing and knowing gapes. The phlegmatic British attempts to be polite and their ardent struggle to keep conversation going, however meaningless its content, become a powerful vehicle for both the pusillanimity of language and the soothing power of its white noise. And, like Chris Marker and Jean Luc Godard, Dizdar counterpoints this personal voice against the twentieth century’s pervasive media soundtrack.
From the very earliest shots of the London bus driver’s tinny transistor radio crackling news of the soccer World Cup to the closing sequence of a child’s unsteady videotaping, experience is visibly (as well as culturally) filtered. While Higgins prepares to report on the war in Bosnia to ‘make people give a shit’ about the killing, his daughter passively imbues the capitalist lesson of the survival of the fittest from a nature documentary, in which an educated British commentator explains that the lumbering prey will be finally eaten alive. When Felicity Midge weeps at her son’s intransigence and her husband’s anger, she does so in harmony to the hammy drama of an afternoon radio play burbling from her sunny kitchen window sill.
Tourists swiftly swing their video cameras at the slugging Bosnians. A photographer captures the unlikely amity of Portia and Pero’s wedding. One of Dr. Mouldy’s twins tries to videotape an impromptu birthday party that temporarily binds six collapsing lives. These personal visions are as hauntingly irrelevant as the BBC news footage that turned junkie Griffin into a dedicated Red Cross worker and his heroin stash into “much-needed drugs.” They reflect nothing more than the doomed hope of the observer’s eye: that seeing and recording will magically conjure understanding.
In the end, the movie celebrates the temporary truces and fleeting transcendence that make the thought of just one more day bearable. No one is changed. Higgins will find another war to cover. Mouldy will continue to mourn his lost wife. Griffin and his friends will buy more heroin. Dzemila and Ismet will still see rape in their infant daughter’s eyes. When the credits roll, we are no closer to learning the names of the Serb and the Croat whose battle began the film.