Wasp - dir. Andrea Arnold - 2003 - UK
Examining a director’s relationship to their subject can be a tricky endeavor. No matter whether you’re creating someone as vile as the two leads in Godard’s Weekend, the subject will always be a product of the filmmaker’s loins. In that regard, it’s thus difficult to establish your subject without the hint of a paternal attachment, a strange level of affection and criticism. In Andrea Arnold’ Wasp, her relationship with her subject is a deeply complex one.
On one level, Wasp is a depiction of the strange worship of celebrity. America doesn’t, and probably never will, understand David and Victoria Beckham, the uber celebrity couple of Great Britain, as America’s equivalent, Brad and Angelina, seems to function on a different level. The Beckhams are the epitome of the fashionably idolized. They’re the idealized depiction of family with three terribly good-looking young sons whose existence never steps in the way of living the glamorous life. David’s not so much the greatest football player in the world as he is the prettiest, and Victoria, a one-time pop star of limited talent, spends her time at fashion shows. They’re, in a sense, the perfect celebrity family.
For Zoë (Natalie Press), the Beckhams are the ideal. In an embarrassing scene, one of her three daughters tells a woman how she says she’s as pretty as Victoria, resulting in scoffs from the other woman and Zoë telling her daughters to not tell anyone that again. In many ways, there’s an impossibility about Victoria Beckham, the ideal of the young, attractive mother. Motherhood for Victoria isn’t a sacrifice; her wealth provides the useful opportunity of maids and nannies to allow her time to shop and pose for the sea of paparazzi.
There’s a sadness to Zoë’s idealized notion, for she can barely even feed her children. When Zoë runs into Dave (Danny Dyer), a former crush showing his first bit of interest in her, one of the girls remarks, “He looks just like David Beckham!” This, naturally, elicits a knowing smirk from Zoë, in a way opening herself up to the possibility of coming to a closer realization of her idolization. Of course, as long as she can get someone to watch her kids for their evening date to the pub. The Beckhams function similarly in Wasp as ABBA does in Muriel’s Wedding. For Muriel (Toni Collette), ABBA is the escape of her own harsh personal reality, their infectious pop the archetype of eternal bliss and happiness. For Zoë, the Beckhams represent the same thing, the false pinnacle of desire: fashionable motherhood, physical perfection in marriage. The young girls share their mother’s obsession with celebrity, asking their mother to play Robbie Williams at the pub and demanding her to take them to McDonalds (or Mack-donals, as they call it).
It would appear that Zoë is a pretty awful mother. She beats a woman up in front of her young girls, even with the understanding that she’s doing so because the woman hit one of her girls. When she can’t find a babysitter, Zoë plants her children outside the pub to fend for themselves. They’re starving, and she has no money to buy them anything more than crisps. However, this ultimately comes in question when the titular wasp threatens to crawl inside her baby’s mouth. Zoë’s in Dave’s car, passionately making out with him, yet at the moment the screams from her girls erupts, she bolts out of the car to find out what’s the matter. The incident proves to be the wake-up call she needed, eclipsing her own personal desires for a man or, more accurately, to play the part of Victoria to Dave’s David.
Yet Arnold isn’t as sure about this. There’s a glimmer of a happy ending in Wasp, where Dave finally realizes that the young girls Zoë played off as belonging to her girlfriend are, in fact, hers. Instead of running away (which always looks like it might be a possibility), he gets the children fed and takes the family home. Despite the realized importance in Zoë’s life, this comes with a return to the consumerism of fast food, and on top of that, a merry car ride to horrible pop music. The last shot of Wasp shows the car driving off as one of the passengers carelessly throws their bag of fast food out the window. On one hand, Arnold says that some things will never change. On the other, there’s a happiness achieved in spite of it all. Arnold knows Zoë will never be the Victoria she so longs to become… and, really, Zoë knows this underneath as well. Yet with said understanding, Zoe finds what she’s both looking for and not expecting to find. However, happiness doesn’t come with a clean slate.
You can find Andrea Arnold’s Oscar winning short film as a special feature on Tartan’s release of her debut feature, Red Road, or on Warp Films' release of Cinema16's European Short Films.
[Written as my fourth entry in the Short Film Blog-a-thon, hosted by Seul le cinema and Culture Snob.]