Down with the rich! Class rage fuels new wave of ‘us v them’ films and plays

From Triangle of Sadness and Parasite to The Maid, audiences are revelling tales of inter-class violence that draw on growing discontent at inequality

A luxury berth on a superyacht might seem a good place to unwind. But cinema audiences will feel rather differently about the appeal of this sort of private cruise after watching Triangle of Sadness, the top prizewinner at the Cannes film festival.

One nasty, graphic scene, which features the copious vomit and diarrhoea of high-net worth passengers, drew whoops and gasps from the crowd at its premiere on the French Riviera, and then again at the annual film festival in Toronto last week, ahead of its release in British cinemas next month.

Similar noises of anarchic glee came from a London theatre auditorium on Thursday during the first night of Richard Eyre’s new play about class and politics, The Snail House, when the actress playing a poor Irish waitress issued an emphatic parting “And fuck you!” to the entitled guests at a silver service dinner party.

Both the new film and play are examples of a rapidly growing taste for angry attacks on privilege and wealth. Establishing the glamour and security of the rich villain in a script is no longer simply the lead-up to a satisfying de-bunking, but instead the prelude to an aggressive, or even fatal, challenge to the social order.

Two films out in the last fortnight, The Forgiven, starring Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes as rich travellers to Morocco, and I Came By, a Netflix thriller with Hugh Bonneville cast as a wealthy London philanthropist, also chart this rebellious terrain. In both films the comfortably-off are revealed to be callous, hedonistic and detached, and in the case of Bonneville’s Sir Hector Blake, very dangerous.

Patrick Walshe McBride and Grace Hogg-Robinson in The Snail House.
Patrick Walshe McBride and Grace Hogg-Robinson in The Snail House in London. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

“There is a certain horrific, physical element used to undermine the rich in these stories that taps into a well of anger against the system,” said film broadcaster and producer Jason Solomons. “I think filmmakers are intuiting the levels of anger and frustration out there, the frustration of trying to break through and earn a living, and offering audiences the pleasure of some catharsis.”

Also unveiled at Toronto last week was the unnerving Nanny, a horror film starring Anna Diop as a Senegalese woman working inside the home of an affluent New York couple, longing all the while to be with her own child.

British actress Florence Pugh is soon to tackle similar social inequalities. The star of 2019’s disturbing Midsommar is producing and starring in a film version of Nita Prose’s bestselling book, The Maid, in which Molly, an impoverished cleaner at the fictional Regency Grand, uncovers the murderous underbelly of the five-star lifestyle. “My uniform is my freedom. It is the ultimate invisibility cloak,” she notes in the novel, as she passes along the corridors in search of a killer.

In the wake of Parasite, the bloody South Korean Oscar-winner, and of the Emmy successes last week for the television dramas Squid Game and White Lotus, which is set in a luxury resort, there is a clear global appetite for exposing and satirising the huge gaps in wealth and status. Both series focused on the desperation of the serving classes.

The ill-fated yacht in Triangle of Sadness is laden with people who represent the moneyed private jet-owners of the modern world. Among them are a grizzled Russian oligarch, who sails alongside both his wife and his mistress, and an elderly British arms manufacturer and his wife. The reluctant captain of the ship is Woody Harrelson, ultimately the accidental agent of destruction in Ruben Östlund’s film. The Swedish director, who is best known for his alpine drama Force Majeure and artworld satire The Square, ultimately hands power over to one of the yacht’s cleaners, Abigail, played by Dolly De Leon, in a storyline that echoes a long history of cautionary tales in which the downtrodden rise up to wreak revenge on their masters.

Matt Smith, Jessica Chastain and Christopher Abbott in The Forgiven.
Matt Smith, Jessica Chastain and Christopher Abbott in The Forgiven. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Triangle of Sadness, like Parasite did, turns the power of class on its head by levelling people. It is a popular strategy, and often uses physical, bodily functions or violence to do it,” said Solomons, who is producing a film based on the book A Waiter in Paris that also examines the gradations of class. “We are seeing stories where money is reduced to mere detritus and waste. Cinema audiences, of course, are caught between these two wealth categories. It will be uncomfortable viewing for some and that is probably what some of these directors intend, ‘épater les bourgeois’, or to provoke the middle classes, as the French say. And after all, we all feel guilty about these divisions, wherever we stand.”

Director Jessica M Thompson takes class war firmly into the realms of horror in her film The Invitation, released last month. A fresh take on vampire legends, it tells of an American woman who is invited to a wedding in the English countryside by the lord of the manor, who claims to be a relative. Out of place in such lavish surroundings, the heroine quickly discovers she is staying in a home where wine is not the only red liquid to flow freely.

Violence is also literally below the surface in I Came By. Here the necessary encounter between the “lower orders” and the elite takes place when an urban protester and “graffiti writer”, played by George MacKay, breaks into the posh London home of a former barrister to discover that his cellar is much more than the pottery studio it appears to be.

As in the established tradition of horror, cellars play a big part in many of these plots. In 2019’s Parasite the basement door behind the store of Korean pickle jars holds the key to the dark household mystery. In I Came By it is the place where Bonneville takes out his warped fury, as payback for a perceived childhood slight at the hands of a young refugee boy. Homicidal, but protected by his social rank, he tells his next unsuspecting victim that he feels no guilt because “Everyone has a choice” about how to live their life.

“Not when you are poor, with nowhere to go,” replies his Iranian masseur, a young man hoping for asylum in Britain.Eyre’s new play, his first after a long successful career of directing, was written during the levelling conditions of the Covid lockdown and was originally to be called Zero Hours, he has revealed. He sets his drama at a public school on the evening of a celebratory meal in honour of a renowned and self-satisfied paediatrician who has been knighted. The evening, however, is punctured by the interventions of the catering team and by the contrasting political views of the surgeon’s two children.

Eyre targets the complacency of those who become removed from the experiences of ordinary people. And he gives an idealistic young teenager some revolutionary zeal. Sarah, 18, tells her family that despite the pandemic “we are still slaves”. She goes on to quote enduring lines from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia: “When I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organising society.”

We may think we are on the point of bringing about social change, she says, but these words were written, she points out, in 1516.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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