Two grown men emerge from some undergrowth, ambling in a simian manner. They rest at a fallen tree. The dark-haired man, Keith (Tom Meeten), massages the knees of the more dominant Smith (writer / director Steve Oram). Smith fetches a framed photograph of a woman in a bridal gown from his pocket, a look of lamentation in his eyes. Both men urinate on the photo before making their way through the determinedly British drizzle toward a major town, occasionally emitting guttural groans and whelps.
Welcome to Aaaaaaaah!, Oram’s perverse, disorientating, repellent and altogether more honest planet of the apes.
With no intelligible dialogue in its entire 79 minutes, Oram leaves it to the audience to guess how it is we’ve come to visit this reworked version of society in which all humankind appears to have devolved to primate territoriality. Like a 70’s era Bunuel surrealist comedy, Oram’s film survives on its own total confidence in its bizarre central conceit. As such this exposition-free carnival of grotesque behaviour exists as a damning indictment of 21st century civilisation, placing the term firmly in quotation marks.
The women are largely relegated to domestic roles while the men occupy themselves with petty feuds and the immature pranking of one another. Smith and Keith come to town to assert their dominance, inserting themselves into an already volatile suburban situation after Smith becomes enamoured with a young woman named Denise (Lucy Honigman). Here the film feels like the zero sum of all maudlin British kitchen sink dramas, lambasting our dreary soap operas, but the unpredictable absurdity corkscrews the genre toward the insane. Witness former alpha male Jupiter (Julian Barratt) relegated to back garden vagrancy where he forlornly cradles a Battenburg and reminisces on halcyon days of old.
Removing language from this situation and heightening the characters’ baser urges asks us to look at how we interact with one another, be it regurgitating soundbites of popular entertainment, singing to one another, dancing, making friends, courting or even falling in love. In the process even the most conventional rituals such as marriages or funerals have their meanings and merits upended.
A loose narrative does evolve – if evolve is the right word – but it is strung between a succession of bizarre vignettes. For perspective one of these involves a shop manager masturbating furiously in the presence of Denise and her friend Helen (Holli Dempsey) having corralled them into a back room, before ejaculating onto a picture of Prince Harry while his pal Carl (Noel Fielding) watches in awe. Your reaction to such a scenario will tell you a lot about your tolerance levels for much of the film’s outlandish excursions.
Don’t let the presence of such popular British comedy stalwarts (also including Julian Rhind-Tutt) fool you; this is not a readily digestible kooky laugh factory. Oram’s aim is for something far more disconcerting and confrontational and is likely to divide audiences like few other films this year. The camerawork, for example, has a found-footage hesitancy to it and never aims for anything resembling beauty in its framing. It’s lo-fi to a fault, a cheap and not-so-cheerful passion project which, with its socio-political gaze, recalls the upstart student film projects that the likes of Tobe Hooper and David Cronenberg were conjuring up in the late 60’s.
And while the inexplicable existence of modern appliances in this world ties it firmly to present day society, the inherent sense of ‘when’ is thrown for a loop by the tippy, bubbling psychedelic score provided by King Crimson Projekcts. It’s remarkably diverse, at times referencing both ends of Pink Floyd’s proggy discography (from the early noodly Nick Mason soundscapes to David Gilmour’s later dadrock guitar solos) sometimes within the space of a single scene. It further removes the anchor for the audience, making this feel like a fevered blend of Ballard, Orwell and Burgess on a fuckton of drugs. Simply this isn’t the type of film that readily gets made these days. Yet it would feel right at home screened alongside something like Performance.
Like it or not (and many will quite understandably hate it), this is one of the most audacious films of the year. It’s detractors will call it over-indulgent nonsense of the worst kind, but they’ll be missing how, regardless of its ugliness and supposed flippancy, perseverance yields results. Somehow, amid what seems like nonsense, Oram conjures emotional investment. The film’s finale is quietly devastating.
Getting there means running something of a gauntlet. I never found Aaaaaaaah! to be hilarious, but it is a comedy. A tree humping, wall scratching, anus scrapbooking, meat tenderising, motorcycle-handlebar videogaming, vodka crotch-sterilising, erection chomping, test-tube snorting, territory marking comedy. One that shows our vainglorious proclamations of progress for the wolf cries that they are. In the world of Aaaaaaaah! a savage murder is followed, naturally, by a jaunty, whistly trip to the shops.