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Daphne

Daphne

[…] While the film looks to critique psycho-analysis, the psychiatrist delivers one of the film’s main messages: you don’t have to believe in bullshit for it to work.

[…] There was something New-York in the way that cinematographer Adam Scarth filmed London: taking plenty of overhead shots of the city streets at night, lending the setting an authentic gritty, after-hours feel.

Daphne is a fierce red-head with a monumental chip on her shoulder. She lurches through the streets of London with a faux-punk attitude, though evidently not born from that class. With her clipped British accent, obvious education, and refined palate, her “in-yer-face” behaviour is a bit troubling in its contradiction as details of her life are revealed. There is an immediate desire to know who Daphne is, to find complicit pieces from the past or present, as we become privy to her everyday life rolled out in episodes; some more ordinary than others.

There is disappointment in needing to ask the question: why is she like this? The film (sharing the same name as the main protagonist) immediately falters in its predictable “psycho-analytic” treatment of contemporary angst and anxiety, leading us to wonder what trauma, tragedy, or childhood relation has befallen Daphne. On the screen is a young, privileged Western woman who swaggers to the precipice of debauchery and sexual promiscuity after work on most nights of the week, alerting us to the idea that things are not okay. Here, we are not dealing with a mentally healthy 30-something-year-old woman, and it is in our interest to ask why.  

At first, the film delivers a quasi-existential relation to psychoanalysis rather than one of therapy. There are drunken recitations of Freud on love as cathexis to the random men Daphne’s about to sleep with. Flashes of Lacan twisted through Žižek on political economy is obnoxiously espoused by her over beer. These are moments that seem to bore and alienate everyone, even the balding academic she picks up in a bar. Is Daphne existentially feeling angst? It seems so, but not in the Naked kind of way as coldly depicted by the British realist film maker Mike Leigh (1993). For example: Johnny’s (David Thewlis) rantings, nomadic drift, and violent bouts (mostly towards women) permit us to at least enter a “Camus-come-Hobbes” version of the meaninglessness and nastiness of human existence when stripped bare of any higher authority. Naked provokes the right reflections, as mucky and vile as they are.

But, as I watch Daphne, my curiosity deepens. We are able to rule out any childhood troubles as we learn that the anger toward her mother comes from a place of too much feeling and sensitivity. Her mother (Geraldine James) has cancer, and Daphne faces this mortality (perhaps her own) as a grief for the loss of someone she loves. This is supported by random acts of kindness toward the homeless, whom she feeds in passing and covers with a blanket. The event that peels the final layer from Daphne’s hardened shell is when she witnesses a violent stabbing in a convenience store and stays with shop owner, holding his bloody hand until the ambulance comes. This second encounter with mortality (where death does not eventuate) sparks a journey of recovery for Daphne. From what? We never really know. But, before we are to witness this resolution, Daphne’s life teeters more emphatically on the edge: drinking excessively, becoming aggressive in her sexual predation. She loses control.

In the end, Daphne’s recovery is aided with therapy. The city provides psychiatric services to victims who are witness to violent crimes. She is both reluctant and sceptical of this modality and “Jewish” analysis, dismissing it as harshly as she does her mother’s self-help craze. While the film looks to critique psycho-analysis, the psychiatrist delivers one of the film’s main messages: you don’t have to believe in bullshit for it to work. What fixes Daphne, what makes her feel again, is the trauma of the event itself. Rather than a brutal event provoking this emotional void, it in fact gives her life some meaning. The film ends with Daphne on the precipice of change to being a human being with the capacity to demonstrate warmth, care and love.

While the film would have been stronger without Daphne’s small salve of therapy and holistic rebound, Emily Beecham’s performance as Daphne was at all times commanding. There was rarely a shot that did not involve the actress expertly embodying the varying levels of toughness that shielded a ticking time-bomb, where she was figured in unappealing states of apathy and bursts of neurosis while almost always sharpening her tongue on her ill-equipped interlocutors with a mean wit.  

There was something New-York in the way that cinematographer Adam Scarth filmed London: taking plenty of overhead shots of the city streets at night, lending the setting an authentic gritty, after-hours feel. London looked unfamiliar at night, paralleling the same nocturnal shifts in Daphne. Some shots seemed to extend her interior, like the institutional sky-blue paint of the lobby in the apartment block of another one-night stand, which she flees in the darkened hours of the morning: it’s ugly starkness is a surface that shows every crack and miserable stain. Daphne is Peter Mackie Burns (director of the multiple-award-winning short MILK) debut fictional feature. There is no doubt that he has made an extremely viewable film that will resonate well and be liked by many.

First published: October 12, 2017

Daphne | Film | Peter Mackie Burns | UK 2017 | 87’ | Zurich Film Festival 2017

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