‘God Help the Girl’ or — God Help the Audience?
Full Disclosure — I have never been a fan of the band Belle and Sebastian as I’ve always suspected that anything containing so much affected twee feyness must also be harbouring an intense disingenuous darkness deep beneath. That and the fact their songs get on my nerves.
(Incidentally, for those who aren’t familiar with Belle and Sebastian then, for a rough idea, they’re band so twee they make Clannad sound like Rammstein in comparison. Or imagine Judy Tzuke without the gritty, dangerous edge)
So I was quite surprised when a close friend of mine loaned me ‘God Help the Girl’ (2014) earlier this week, although I quickly realised it was an act of deliberate provocation.
“I think this film will utterly annoy you” she happily admitted to me.
Determined to demonstrate I had an open mind I put the film on last night convinced I could enjoy it in some fashion. Besides, maybe it won’t be that irritatingly twee and fey after all.
The first words spoken as the movie starts are — “Nick Drake”. Well, that’s THAT hope well and truly fucked, then! I paused the film and checked the run time. I was only 4 seconds in and the movie was already annoying the living hell out of me. This is going to be unbearable
Anyway, we open on Eve, a young woman who is in a hospital suffering from depression, which is totally understandable considering she’s stuck in this movie and has to sing all these insufferable songs. Eve escapes the evil clutches of this caring and supportive health service and goes to Glasgow where she meets Cassie along with a poisonous sociopath called James. They decide to form a band whilst simultaneously pissing off everyone in the entire city with their music and personalities. And that’s it. There is nothing more to this move in the slightest, and what is here is irredeemably obnoxious.
What’s immediately apparent about ‘God Help the Girl’ is the influence of the Nouvelle Vague, but it’s as though writer/director/songwriter Stuart Murdoch has closely and intensely studied the films of the New Wave — everything from Godard, Truffaut, Rivette etc — and then confidently declared “Oh, these films are all about hats!”… and that’s it. It’s an extraordinarily shallow interpretation of cinema; it’s like watching ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) and thinking it was all about enamelware making.
As Eve, James and Cassie run about Glasgow irritating the locals Murdoch also channels the spirit of the films of Richard Lester, though in the process totally failing to realise that Richard Lester was easily one of the most irritating and annoying directors who ever existed and that having your characters running into shops and stealing stuff is not cute or funny in the slightest no matter how much upbeat mediocre music you play over the top of it.
After that it’s nothing but a string of unwatchable scenes including one in a retro clothing store (this is a Belle and Sebastian film so of course there was going to be a scene in a retro clothing store) that’s physically painful to sit through as well as a scene in a swimming pool that seems to be going for some form of flashy style but falls completely flat because it shot with all the visual flair of a shredded wheat.
There’s also a rather creepy and uncomfortable musical number about James wanting to clean Eve even though she might be in the middle of a suicide attempt which, along with a lot of lingering shots of bras, thighs and female flesh, give the entire movie a distinctly sordid veneer (when I attended Glasgow University I always suspected the boys who were Belle and Sebastian fans only were so to get into women’s pants, and this movie proves that theory might worryingly be correct).
After that James ‘mansplains’ to Cassie and Eve how 10cc got their name, even though everyone already knows this fact which renders the dialogue here totally redundant, before he then goes on to state that talking about coming up with band names is inherently dull and boring which immediately begs the question — if coming up with band names in inherently dull then why put a scene about coming up with band names in your script in the first place? This is idiotic.
They then go canoeing and see some REAL Glaswegians on the river bank (James, Eve and Cassie live in virtual reality version of Glasgow where only white English people and sexy foreigners exist and where actual Glaswegians only appear as subservient serfs, if at all) but this experience comes as such a shock to our trio that they desperately paddle away from them in disgust whilst also calling them horrible names.
James then declares that Glasgow is a city “full of neds” and that he, an Englishman, actually knows the city of Glasgow better than anyone else in the entire city, specifically and ESPECIALLY the local Glaswegians. What a condescending asshole! Christ, I’m an arrogant Englishman who lives in the West End of Glasgow and even I have a more realistic view of this city… and I live with a Greek god!
James then moans that there’s been no good music since 1969, although it’s not clear if he’s including his own songs in all this although I heavily suspect not. Oh well, at least this guy James can’t get any more arrogant… right? Well, hold on to your fucking hats, folks!
James, and by extension Stuart Murdoch himself, then announces that the singer/songwriter, the creative artist, is in some way part of the divine. Not inspired by it, but actually part of it.
Hang on, let me get this straight. Has Stuart Murdoch just publicity announced that he is, literally, some form of god?! I mean, these words were written by someone who is a song writer and creative artist themselves and delivered with zero irony so I can only assume so. The problem is it’s a bit rich making claims to be the incarnation of the god-like divine nature of the creative artist when you’ve just made a film that feels like the product of someone who can barely operate a toaster. The arrogance at play here is obscene!
That’s my central issue with James and this whole fey, twee nonsense as there’s always a deep-seated arrogance behind all this posturing. Stuart Murdoch more than likely thinks James is a sensitive, whispy romantic along the lines of Nick Drake, but James isn’t like Nick Drake in the slightest because with his creepy sexual overtures, bombastic arrogance, predatory faux-geekiness and planetary-sized ego he’s more a combination of Bill Clinton, Michael Bay, Joss Whedon and Thanos!
The rest of the movie is just as terrible, with the character of Eve being particularly problematic. She’s an IKEA wardrobe of mental ailments and neuroses which feels both exploitative and blunderingly insensitive. She’s also laboured with some truly awful dialogue with “my cleavage cast a spell on him” being a line of dialogue that’s creepy, awkward and clunky on so many levels that it demonstrates that even though the music itself here might be inoffensively bland and unthreatening that the emotional and psychological beats of the movie have the jarring atonal dissonance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen.
Elsewhere the film is simply an exercise in substandard filmmaking and where the only time the director seems to put any real effort into the camera work is when he’s filming crowd reactions of people ecstatically cheering at songs the director HIMSELF has written. Who the bloody hell does that?!
As the film finished I kept on expecting James to be violently murdered as the closing credits rolled, chased through the streets of Glasgow and beaten to a pulp by women, the citizens of Glasgow, film and music lovers and anyone who’s had a mental illness. But no. It turns out that James has saved both Eve and Cassie by them simply being in his divine, god-like presence and they can now bugger off (who gives a shit about them now?) as we, the viewer, are left alone with James along with his Messiah complex, unhinged snobbery and raft of unbelievably mediocre songs. It’s a living hell.
‘God Help the Girl’s problem isn’t that it is fey and quaint but that it is fey, quaint, twee, condescending, patronising, elitist, boring, deluded, shallow, offensive and aloof. It treats women as disposable fantasy objects for male gratification, plays coarse and crass with issues of mental health and suicide, is self-aggrandising to the point of being pathological and is theologically and cinematically illiterate. The film was obviously a vanity project for Murdoch himself but he seems to have taken that expression at face value and literally made an entire movie about his own self-glorification.
‘God Help the Girl’ a film driven purely by rock star arrogance and the mistaken idea that success in one field means aptitude in another. Ultimately, however, it ends up as a convincing argument for why movies stars should stick to movies and pop stars to pop music. Otherwise we run the risk of living in a world where there’s only Bruce Willis’ Under the Boardwalk and whatever the fuck this is.