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Your Money, My Problem: Halina Reijn’s Bodies Bodies Bodies

Your Money, My Problem: Halina Reijn’s Bodies Bodies Bodies

Critics Campus 2022 participant Ellen O’Brien reflects on the entanglement of fascination, aspiration and alienation when watching screen portrayals of wealth, using Halina Reijn’s Bodies Bodies Bodies as her jumping-off point.

I can’t stop watching fancy house tours on YouTube. More specifically, I can’t stop watching Cody Ko, who lives in a Venice Beach house, mock people conducting mansion tours on YouTube. My cramped living room can barely contain my laughter as host Ko tears into the creator of a 100,000-square-foot mega-mansion, particularly the owner’s repeated claim that his house will “change the world”.

For me, as a viewer, it is clear that the owner, with his absurd statements, is nothing like Ko, who seems to see himself among the plebs like me. Together, we scoff at an out-of-touch man – Ko in his $3 million home, me in my one-bedroom rental – who mentions sustainability in the same breath as his six elevators. Over three million of us watch The Most Insane House Tour, likely netting Ko a sizeable return in ad revenue. Ko skewers the wealthy, who are not so different from him, while we viewers, famished and breathless, vicariously devour yet another rich meal.

Wealth needs to be seen to be believed. As one Forbes article put it, “Spending is a spectator sport.” Money and the life that accompanies it are almost meaningless without an attentive witness. And we, the financially lighter, attend and watch: on reality TV and hit shows like Succession, on Instagram, and most recently in Bodies Bodies Bodies – the first English-language feature by Dutch actress and director Halina Reijn.

The film, billed as horror-comedy, centres around a group of hyper-aware and hyper-wealthy twentysomethings trapped in a friend’s mansion during a hurricane. Their evening quickly descends into whodunnit paranoia after the mansion’s owner is found dead. According to Reijn, the film is designed to reflect current youth culture and tackle a core question: Are we beasts, or are we civilised?

The characters in Bodies become more beast-like as the night wears on. The group begins by gently poking at who among them could be capable of killing, the tension escalating to a point where everyone has a hand in at least one death. Certainly, the world has the capacity to make monsters out of all of us, causing us to gnash our teeth and pick over bones. But who is the ‘we’ that Reijn is wondering about? And, if her question is more of a general inquiry about the human capacity to harm, why only depict the monstrosity of the rich?

It’s not an unfamiliar topic. Many works of art – including those of one of Reijn’s greatest influences, William Shakespeare (think: the greedy, murderous of paranoia of Macbeth) – portray enough wealthy backstabbing to keep us full. Even the scams that reach viral popularity – Fyre Fest, Anna Delvey, the unravelling of Cambridge-obsessed Caroline Calloway – centre the elite instead of more ordinary people, like when fraudulent funeral insurers target Aboriginal communities. As consumers of news and entertainment, we have our gaze fixed firmly above us, rather than looking around or down.

A cynical reading is that Reijn (or perhaps those responsible for marketing Bodies) is exploiting our obsession not only with wealth, but with seeing the rich brought down a few pegs. This is perhaps particularly true for the Gen Zs who are both the subjects of and intended audience for the film.

From the outside, Bodies appears to fall into the genre of socially conscious horror, which became particularly profitable after the success of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017). Peele’s first two horror films ended in the rich getting got: in Get Out, a wealthy white family at the hands of a Black man they intend to possess, and in Us (2019), an affluent Black family by nightmarish copies of themselves. Bodies does superficially resemble this trend, provocatively combining genre and social setting, but never quite gets to the sharpened point of satirising the film’s elite milieu. Rather, it is a socially aware caper, where a character dies shortly after being shocked to hear she is upper-middle-class, not middle-class as she strongly identified. The joke is entertaining but slides away quickly, a mere moment of titillation rather than a deconstruction of power.

Bodies Bodies Bodies

I get a perverse pleasure from watching all these deaths and the bickering that precedes them, much like I enjoy how Ko ridicules the owners of a house the size of a city block. I’m not alone in this inclination: millions also tune in to watch catfights on the Real Housewives, even turning them into memes that outlast the content cycle. Sure, the intended audience of Real Housewives is distinct from that of Bodies. One is a raw and rough reality show marketed to a general demographic; the other is a slicker, prestige package targeted to a hip youth audience. Yet both tap into a general desire to chew over the lives of people beyond our own financial or class bracket.

What is so appealing about watching the rich, even as they (literally or metaphorically) die? The closing credits hint at aspiration as the cause. “I’m a hot girl, pop girl, rich girl,” sings Charli XCX as the credits roll. “You just wanna be me.” But, by the time Bodies ended, I had no desire to hang out with these people, railing coke and slapping one another in the face. The quickness with which they turn on each other and spill their true thoughts – “You’re toxic, you’re abusive, your podcast sucks” – only reveals the delicate threads holding their friendship together in the first place. These kids don’t need each other, except for social validation. Or, as one of the characters spits, they only hang out “because of pity and the weight of our shared history”.

A simple part of me thinks that I’m reclaiming a kind of power by watching the filthy rich tear each other apart, so long as they leave me out of it. The jokes made throughout the film – like knowing a friend wouldn’t own a gun even though he’s wealthy because “his politics checks out”, then finding out the friend does indeed own a gun – make me chuckle at the self-delusion of the affluent. However, on reflection, I think I’m laughing by myself: not because no-one else is laughing, but because I’m in a different room from the subjects.

The people who came up with these jokes are not my peers. Some of the language in Bodies is derived from the actors – who include the niece of fashion designer Anna Sui and a Kardashian-adjacent comedian – with Reijn incorporating phrases she overheard in lunchtime conversations on set. She wanted to get her portrayal of young people right. “Being so old, 46, making a film about youth culture,” she told ComingSoon, “I better collaborate with them to make it authentic!” But the culture being faithfully depicted is not universally relevant, despite the proliferation of financial flexing on social media. I don’t know this culture other than as a tourist, and often only because it’s being shoved down my throat at every turn.

It might have felt momentarily delightful to guzzle down Bodies, but, deep in the pit of my stomach, I’m left with the sense that the remaining rich kids will not be left with any severe repercussions, only a good story to tell at a party. I am aware (even if the film is not) that Bodies merely replicates the lives of the wealthy, implicitly endorsing their lifestyles rather than challenging it. The filthy rich could watch Bodies with a knowing chuckle while the comparatively less filthy could distance themselves by believing that they’d never act that savagely. And me? I’ve just spent 95 minutes consuming the lives of the elite, and even longer writing about them. I just can’t look away, and I don’t want to, even though I know they probably don’t need my approval or care about my critique. 

I was recently reading Love & Virtue, Diana Reid’s novel about elite Australian university students – teenagers who think that actions bear no consequences, that life is a never-ending party, much like the characters at the house party in Bodies. These people may look familiar to you, even if you’ve never met them.

In the novel, protagonist Michaela questions why so many articles are written about these students and their lives at residential colleges. Another character remarks that it’s because “they represent something larger than themselves … privilege and power”. Michaela’s response concisely covers what is so nauseating about all this content, all this energy spent watching, whispering, writing on, and even laughing at those in the social stratosphere: “It just confirms their lifelong belief that they’re all big fucking deals.”

Bodies Bodies Bodies screened as part of the MIFF 70 program.
MIFF Critics Campus is presented by VicScreen and supported by the University of Melbourne.

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