The Servant

Dir: Joseph Losey, 1963. Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, James Fox. Gay/Drama/Classics.
The Servant

Not counting the fairly recent 300, the '60s produced my favorite gay films:  Basil Dearden’s Victim, Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George, and particularly Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter's The Servant. The three form a trilogy to my mind: all are British; like the kitchen sink realism of the period, they foreground class in their sexual politics; both The Victim and The Servant feature Dirk Bogarde, the finest of cerebral actors, making you feel every thought his characters have; Losey trained and will always be closely aligned with Robert Aldrich. Although Aldrich was more of a bare-knuckles kind of director, his film shares with the more intellectual Losey an approach to sexual identity and politics that I prefer: as a just-so given, full of suggestion, and with a good deal of nuance.

Compare the matter-of-fact presentation of lesbianism in Sister George -- where the indignities heaped upon its protagonist, June 'George' Buckridge, are more common, a fact of modern existence -- to the more literal minded identity politics of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. In the latter case, oppression becomes a matter of sexual identity, whereas in the former, said identity is just another method those in power might use as a means for subjugation. Not that there's anything wrong with the more particularized morality of Philadelphia in principle (Victim is, in fact, a much better example), but unless one already sympathizes with its gay protagonist, the story remains one about the Other. Aldrich’s film requires no such identification, but is instead a reflection of power itself, irrespective of the particularities of sexual orientation or gender.

Likewise, the sexual desideratum in The Servant isn't as important as the way desire itself is used for control. The film overlays Hegel's master-slave dialectic onto the sexual dynamics of Gilda. Whereas Charles Vidor's film had Rita Hayworth coming between two men in love, making it impossible (along with the Hays Code, of course) for them to ever conjugate their feelings in a more literal manner, The Servant features the corrosive effects a servant, Hugo (Bogarde), has on the relationship between an aristocrat, Tony (James Fox), and his girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Craig). Befitting their class status, Tony and Susan have all the style privilege can buy without any personal involvement, or real taste. They are what they are because it's de rigueur for them to be so. Hugo, however, has had to hone his taste in order to survive. Tony doesn't have to think about aesthetics – or much of anything, really – because he can just pay people like Hugo to do it for him. It's this lack of self-consciousness that Hugo uses to gain domination over Tony. This struggle is realized in Losey's triarchic mise en scène, where he consistently presents Hugo in-between the two lovers in an increasingly abstract fashion: first, as a physical presence, then, a reflection in a mirror and, later, a shadow. He goes from being a mere bodily intrusion to a psychological one, casting doubt over every aspect of Tony and Susan’s relationship.

The master-servant domination in social hierarchy won't work if the upper class becomes fully conscious of the lower classes as an equally present, fully conscious agent. Morally equivalent agents require a parity of treatment, i.e., the same respect one would give to another of one's own class. Thus, as Susan becomes aware of the structural influence Hugo is having on Tony, she resists by reasserting her position over the servant through a variety of petty means. For example, she constantly rearranges his placement of flowers and demands that he drop what he's doing in order to walk across the room to light her cigarette. Now, a lesser story would've set up Hugo as an anarchic outsider hero, demolishing cultural institutions and declaring his independence. Certainly, Tony and Susan are real unlikable snots, but The Servant reveals Hugo as just as dependent on social roles as the master class. When he can assert the power that comes from his position as an upper crust retainer, he becomes just as petty as Susan. Rather than identifying with the carpenters working on Tony's home, Hugo micro-manages them, telling them to do things they already know to do. And, without a whit of self-reflection, he becomes offended in the next scene where Tony orders him to bring brandy while he's already in the process of doing so.

Like the poor Midwestener voting for corporate interests on the always-undelivered promise of future wealth ("everyone could be rich someday," cry dittoheads), there's no moral purpose to Hugo's machinations, only a desire to usurp or feed off Tony's privileged existence. The film demonstrates how the powerless need to serve the dictates of the empowered – taking the practice of the dominant as its own – in order to achieve a semblance of power. When Hugo says that he really loves his work, you believe him. He isn't a butler just to pay the bills, but has constructed himself to be the ideal butler as a means to access a lifestyle that would've otherwise been denied him by birth. He lives for those moments when Tony is away, so that he can sleep in his master's bed and bathe in his bath. For these brief pleasures, Hugo spends his days warming his less refined boss’s feet in a foot tub, decorating his house, and supplying him with a bottomless glass.

Tony's progressing addiction to alcohol is symbolic of how reliant he becomes on Hugo. When the repressive girlfriend demands that Hugo be fired for interfering with their relationship, Tony asks how could he ever find another like him. By this point, Hugo has effectively won the battle, becoming for Tony what semiotician C. S. Peirce called an interpretant. As the subject, Tony relates (applies meaning) to all the objects in his life – including Susan – through the refractive lens of Hugo. Losey uses the distortion of a convex mirror as an objective correlative for the character’s emotional disintegration. By the end, he's reduced to a cultural place-holder for Hugo's own desires.

The servant’s pièce de résistance is in getting his fiancée, Vera (Sarah Miles), hired on as the maid. Tony is led to believe that she's Hugo's sister. Having no firmer grasp on morality than the two men, the déclassé succubus tempts Tony (at the butler's devising) into giving up his last breath of potential struggle. When the cord gets pulled, and Tony discovers the truth about his servants, his cultural position no longer provides a place to hide. As an extension of Hugo, the sexual gratification offered by Vera proves to be little more than Tony's sublimated dirty desire for his man-servant – homoeroticism by proxy. When he's depicted crying on Vera's bed, the posters above him say it all:  a bunch of muscle men circle his head like thought balloons.

Although no sexual contact is ever made between Hugo and Tony, the latter now needs the former for satisfying even that most basic human desire. After Hugo wiles his way back into Tony's home, the old master-servant arrangement is nothing but a game they play, when it appears at all. No more buttoned up suits and slicked back hair. The house is in shambles just like Tony's mental state. The only things Hugo now supplies are women, food and booze. Otherwise, he openly mocks his erstwhile master. like a demented form of The Odd Couple, they waste their days throwing balls at each other, bickering, and playing hide and seek. The irony here is that after realizing his desire, Hugo's life is emptier than his days as a butler. Not that he's complaining. He began as a specular entity, reflecting the desire of the wealthy, and ends up pretty much the same. Any power that he's achieved is as its doorman. Only now he doesn't have to clean so much or keep his mouth shut. And his master can no longer ignore him.

If you compare the repression in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven or Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, what you get is a problem with a fairly easy solution written into it, namely an enlightened liberal attitude. Isn't it awful how gays used to have to hide their sexual identity in the '50s, or how transvestites are treated in some Podunk Nebraskan town? Well, yes, that's going to be glaringly apparent to anyone willing to see such movies in the first place. You come out with what you brought in. That's because these movies stop at presenting identity, without really critiquing what structures it. Their problematic is localized to a time and/or place. "Such repression isn't really like me," the target audience can safely say. The Servant doesn't provide its audience with that escape hatch. The homosexuality might be latent, but it's pervasive; no scene in the film can be read without it. It's not borne out of the positive or romantic love seen in Peirce's film, but is a function of power, a hamster-in-a-plastic-ball struggle between the dominant and the submissive. So, in that sense, the literal-minded might not see it as a gay film. Certainly, the depravity of the heterosexual relations is rendered less ambiguously. The film’s traumatic theme is that subjugation of the will doesn't always occur from the outside (the rednecks, past societal norms, the upper class), rather it's constitutive of society itself, regardless of particular identifications. Sexual politics, for one, couldn't exist without it.

Posted by:
Charles Reece
Jun 3, 2009 2:41pm
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