Memoirs of a Survivor (UK 1981)

Memoirs-1D: David Gladwell. S: David Gladwell, Kerry Crabbe. Novel: Doris Lessing. P: Penny Clark, Michael Medwin. Cast: Julie Christie, Christopher Guard, Leonie Mellinger, Debbie Hutchings, Nigel Hawthorne, Pat Keen. UK dist (DVD): Network.


This grim and enigmatic dystopian SF tale, adapted from a 1974 novel by Doris Lessing, is a fascinating and often troubling parable of sexual trauma and its aftermath. Aimed squarely at the arthouse crowd, it makes no concessions to mainstream taste and would probably strike most viewers as impossibly opaque. But its mysteries will reward the patient explorer, and as a rare example of feminist science fiction it’s worth seeking out on that score alone. The film uses its Norwich and London locations well, with Mike Thorne’s dark and brooding electronic score cementing the vision of a decaying future Britain.

memoirs03Memoirs takes place against a near-future backdrop of urban decay – not unlike Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass (1979), but with the bleakness turned up to eleven. Following an unspecified calamity, modern society is crumbling into anarchy and despair.Cars lie stripped and abandoned in streets piled high with uncollected refuse. Power cuts and water shortages are the norm. Scraps of newspaper drift by: looting, austerity, page 3 girls. (To a British audience in 1981, much of this detail wasnot science fiction, but very recent fact.) TV offers little by way of comfort: archaic, mindless light entertainment alternates with bleak news footage of violent riots. A tribe of savage feral children lives in an abandoned Underground station; it’s suggested they may be cannibals.

memoirs-4A woman known only as D. (Julie Christie), living alone in a run-down tower block, observes the chaos with weary resignation. One day she’s surprised to find a young teenage girl, Emily (Leonie Mellinger), in her living room; the man with her (a council official? – we’re not sure) tells D. the girl is now her responsibility, and promptly leaves. Somewhat reluctantly, D. accepts the new arrangement and, with Emily moving into the spare room, the two soon become friends. D. finds herself falling into the role of adoptive parent, regarding Emily’s sometimes gauche behaviour with tolerant amusement.

memoirs02She’s rather more concerned, however, when Emily falls in with a rowdy group of travellers, mostly kids like herself, led by an older man named Gerald (Christopher Guard) – whose reputation local gossip has painted in unflattering colours. But despite his rough exterior, Gerald is a dedicated social reformer, committed to improving the lot of his charges. Inspired by his example, Emily begins helping out with the community’s chores; before long, she and Gerald have become lovers. More startling developments await D. Her living-room wall, you see, has become a dimensional portal – and after careful meditation, D. finds she can actually walk through it…

memoirs-5D. finds herself inside a decaying Victorian manor house, showing some signs of modern renovation; white paint is glimpsed through an open door. But as she wanders through the house she seems to slip back through time, watching a Victorian family unit (who are unable to see her) go about their daily routines: a cold and distant father (Nigel Hawthorne), his wife (Pat Keen) and their small daughter – also called Emily. D. returns repeatedly to the house, but her later visits are accompanied by an air of mounting doom. Rooms once ordered are seen again destroyed, as if by a terrible storm. As D. becomes privy to the family’s most intimate secrets, the nature of the calamity begins to emerge…

memoirs_of_a_survivorMemoirs of a Survivor can be read, on one level, as a bleakly ironic rebuttal of old “father knows best” platitudes – and on a deeper level, as a study of how child abuse corrupts the future for the victim. The emblematically-named “D.” (for “damaged”?) seems like a nod to the schematic puzzles of Alain Robbe-Grillet. D.’s lack of a name, or an identity, may point to her being an alter ego of Emily – the grownup Emily, perhaps, listless denizen of a ruined future. (Fly-posters for Gary Glitter, glimpsed in the background, echo the theme with menacing prescience.) Director David Gladwell, editor of Lindsay Anderson’s If…. and O Lucky Man!, clearly relishes the allegorical qualities of the source material, though some might feel the symbolism of the final act a trifle overdone,as D. encounters a huge, Magritte-like egg almost filling a room in the young Emily’s house. The egg as symbol of the unborn future, an emblem of hope? – well, okay. But the shift from gritty realism in the film’s earlier sections towards outright surrealism at its close does render the film stylistically unbalanced, and the lack of a conventional narrative resolution is likely to leave trad-SF fans unsatisfied.

MemoirsOfASurvivorStill, this is anything but traditional science fiction. There’s some highly disturbing imagery here, pertaining to Victorian Dad Nigel Hawthorne’s interest in his (very) young daughter. (Mention here should be made of Hawthorne’s quietly chilling performance: entirely without dialogue, he conveys the moral turbulence – and the pitiless resolve – at the monster’s core, as his eye lingers over Emily’s exposed form.) Had the film dwelt too much on this grim content, it would be quite unbearable – but there’s room for optimism, too, in the form of Christopher Guest’s flawed altruist. Contrasting these two very different patriarchs, Memoirs concludes that what the world really needs is a few more bleeding hearts, and far fewer iron rods. The future-world “father”, Gerald, is certainly fallible: he’s not above sleeping with the underage Emily, and his final decision to reach out to the feral kids threatens what little stability his community has built. But his compassion, his self-doubt, his social conscience: these, it’s suggested, are his saving graces. (Well, maybe. For my money, Gerald’s selflessness looks dangerously like self-destructiveness – but then altruism is a closed book to me.) If the conclusion seems rather wishy-washy after all that’s come before it, at least it offers a glimmer of hope amidst the ruins. Despite its uneven style, Memoirs of a Survivor remains a highly original and thought-provoking slice of dystopian SF, and required viewing for those with a taste for arty genre fare.

memoirs dvdNetwork’s budget DVD release (part of their British Film line) won’t knock anyone’s socks off, but the anamorphic transfer seems to reproduce the film’s drab colour palette faithfully enough. Mono audio is clear and unproblematic. As is their custom, Network includes the UK quad film poster on the reverse of the cover sleeve: a portrait of Julie Christie, in appropriately stark monochrome. The image reveals nothing whatever about the film’s content; presumably, faced with a marketing nightmare, EMI simply threw their hands up and relied on fans of the star to flock into cinemas on autopilot. I don’t think the message got through.