If we deal with the glaring fact that I am a little uncomfortably obsessed with this film straight away, I think we’ll all be able to move on from that and carry on. And this is still vaguely London related, in that it’s currently showing in Bloomsbury and Soho at some very cool cinema spaces if you fancy a little trip out, but apart from that tenuous connection if you let me get my rambling about this out of my system I can get back onto drinking lager with dead people in locations you could find on the Monopoly board. Oh and the film is set in London too! Yeah, it’s about feeling alone in London. Fine, yes . . . that counts. Right.
Benjamin is a hilarious and charming romantic comedy about a film maker terrified of intimacy and writhing with creative anxiety as he approaches the release of his second, and less successful film. He finds himself associating with this young and trendy face of London surrounded by a collection of ridiculous characters that isolate him in their pretension and who Simon Amstell hysterically exposes seemingly by means of comforting his suffering lead, and his past self. Though we might find ourselves disgusted or even intimidated by the grossly unpalatable portrayal of damaging characters in Benjamin’s life such as Billie and her boyfriend, when their worlds and values are directed in a way that has the audience laughing at the idea of a new chair release that ‘doesn’t look like something you’d want to sit on’ or an interpretive dance piece about the womb, that threat of how they are defining themselves dissolves away and you see them in the light as real, vulnerable people. There’s a beautiful comment in Simon (back on that again, sorry)’s fantastic book ‘Help’ in which he becomes aware enough to reflect back on all the scary ‘cool people’ in his young TV London life and realise that they too were probably scared and vulnerable, and ‘maybe even more scared and vulnerable’ than him. It’s this profound insight into people that paves the way for the comedy involved with the portrayal of the avant-guard art scene in Benjamin, of when Billie tells Benjamin to ‘laugh’ with a soft ‘a’ before quickly correcting it to ‘l-a-r-f’, and of the much more comforting and less anxious story of a man with problems in a world that also had problems, as opposed to the how-it-felt of a man with problems in a dauntingly cool and normal success-world. There’s a perception of London and the successful people in it (of the people ‘in’ the television) as having everything you wish you had yourself and of somehow being more substantially made up of more innovation, more insight and more depth – but all you have to do is live in that world, that London, for a little while, meet the people and it blows away so easily. You can start to see through the cracks in their language straight into the eyes of the children cowering inside the professionals. There’s a point towards the end of the film at which the aggressive Billie becomes the aggressively vulnerable Billie and desperately says something along the lines of ‘don’t leave me alone, wait until Harry gets back’.
If you chose to see Benjamin at the Curzon in Soho where a lot of it is set, you might find yourself thanking God that it’s a comedy. Quite alike the character, it seems we as an audience also cannot deal with being so intensely in the moment with these feelings without a joke. This film is so real, and so direct that even those of us without a fear of intimacy would find it a bit too personal to watch without the natural humour of a stand-up’s perspective. Benjamin, like the fictional film within the film ‘no self’, debuted at the BFI festival and Benjamin, like Simon, introduced the film to an audience at the Curzon. To sit where they are sitting in the film and to watch that anxiety play out of its poor reception is an incredibly jarring and endearing thing. As the character says things like ‘this film’s all I’ve got!’ Or ‘I don’t know who I am if this isn’t good’ you start to consider that the only degree of separation – Colin Morgan’s soft Irish accent – isn’t totally accidental. That crutch of humour for us, however, isn’t always available throughout the film meaning that we too are forced to challenge our fear of the truthful moment alongside Benjamin in a therapeutic way. In that cinematographically gorgeous bath scene, the silence is just as real and rare in screen time as it is in the narrative for the agitated character. It’s great that that intimacy is the focus of that scene, and not the fact that it’s two men sharing a bath . . . Benjamin isn’t interesting because it’s about a gay romance, the characters just happen to be men that love men (there’s something to say about that but I can’t quite elucidate it.)
Art that tends to be truthful, also tends to have quite a substantial wedge of ego getting between that truth and the story at the end of it. I’m sure that under closer scrutiny you could find some evidence of this in Benjamin, but on the whole I don’t think I’ve ever seen something as honest and self-annihilating as the way Simon Amstell critiques and mocks (with sympathy!) the personality patterns of himself through his characters. Benjamin, the character, is often shown watching pop-Buddhist YouTube clips in a way that rings true to, I think, everyone who has been young and infatuated with ideas they know little about. The character clumsily tries to shove these things that he’s attracted to into his art through the use of a misplaced monk and that, as a phenomenon, isn’t something that is usually talked about out loud. It’s as though the director is pointing to each and every one of us and saying, ‘see! You do this, this is what people do, isn’t it ridiculous? Why has nobody mentioned it?’ – and it is, we see ourselves through that hilarious and humble reflection.
I’ve talked a lot about how self-aware the writer/director must be to do all of this, but there is something in the second scene that suggests it doesn’t always come from self-awareness, but simply from a desire to find that through humility and an expression of the truth. It seems the creator gets a lot of this awareness from the therapeutic act of telling what happened before he can understand it, and finding out about himself from the observations and the reception of the audience. The fictional producer asks him, “It’s about a man who’s so defended he’s incapable of love! Isn’t it?” – to which Benjamin replies, “Say that again?”
I realise I’ve gone on a little too long again, but the final thing I wanted to mention was how much I appreciated the not-killing of Stephen. In a very intense, emotional sequence the audience comes under the impression that Benjamin’s friend has killed himself. Simon builds up so much emotion, so much intimacy and so much raw truth in that lead up that the weight and impact of the suicide is carried so deeply through the film . . . and he doesn’t even have to kill the character to do that. We are enabled to feel and understand that pain, only for it to transpire that he isn’t dead, and it’s actually all quite funny. He did all that, without killing the man. And I think it’s important that he didn’t kill the man. I’m glad that he didn’t kill Stephen.
Anyway, watch the film. It’s a good one. I liked it anyway, in case you couldn’t tell. Liked it the first time, liked it the second time . . . I’ll save myself the embarrassment of going on. My mum had some interesting musings on it too : “I wonder why he went for Benjamin, and not the more common, Ben?” – food for thought! Thanks mum! Anyway this was all a bit too deep. Feel free to stop reading my blog around now.