05 January 2010

L'enfer, C'est les Autres Candidats

I have been looking forward to watching the film Exam since it was discussed on the Kermode and Mayo Film Reviews podcast last summer, when the film was shown at the Edinburgh Festival. The premise is simple--so simple you wish you'd come up with it yourself and made it into a film--and yet Exam gets top marks for its stylish, intense execution.

Eight people are vying for a job at a mysterious, powerful and at times sinister corporation. They have reached the final stage of the hiring process and they are taken into a small room by Morpheus an invigilator, who sits each down at their desk and explains the (vague and somewhat misleading rules). They each have an exam paper on their desk and they have eighty minutes to find the answer; they are spied on by an armed guard and a camera. Of course, when they turn over their question papers, they find out they are blank so they have to find out what the question is (if any) as well as the answer. If they break any of the rules (which include things like spoiling their papers, leaving the room and trying to communicate with the guard or the invigilator).

I attended the Q&A with the writer-director-distributor Stuart Hazeldine, who said the stages through which the candidates progress trying to solve the puzzle move from practical to philosophical to psychological to physical, although he didn't plan it that way. The film turns out to be an interesting hybrid of The Apprentice, Huis Clos, The Running Man and something Kafkaesque. In fact, one of the loudest of the characters (who assign one another crude nicknames based on appearance--Black, White, Blonde, and so on), even sounds and acts like the guy who won The Apprentice last year--he even said, "that's wot I'm talkin' about," at one point although he didn't do a reverse Pterodactyl impersonation. Hazeldine doesn't watch reality TV, though, so the similarities weren't intentional (although, he said, he doesn't mind reviewers making the reference if it will broaden the film's appeal and either would be keen or agreed to put Kermode's tagline, "The Apprentice goes to hell," on the posters).

Naturally, game theory comes into it too--should they cooperate or defect? Should they work together in the early stages and then betray one other as they get closer to the end, as per The Apprentice? Some of the candidates also make the vacuous and self-aggrandising statements often seen in Suralan's boardroom. "If you take away the impossible, you're left with the truth," for example, which Suralan would no doubt dismiss as "tut." I was only slightly distracted by the fact that one candidate sounded just like Frances de la Tour and the voice of another had un certain air de Clive.

As for the Sartre connections, I felt a bit miffed when one of the characters brought up Sartre during the film, although they didn't directly reference Huis Clos, a film where three characters who have lived sinful lives and so when they die are forced to spend all eternity with one another in a bland room, decorated with Louis XV furniture. They are, they eventually realise, one another's hell. And here, the candidates are each other's rivals--there can only be one winner. Probably, anyway--who knows what will happen when the countdown ends?

Hazeldine had many other interesting things to say in the Q&A, although it's hard to say much more without giving away the plot. Suffice to say that I was utterly gripped for the whole 97 minutes (the action plays out almost in "real time" so the exam itself takes 73 minutes (cut down from 80 because it wasn't tight enough)) -- apparently some people have said it's just utterly boring and spent the whole time checking their watch, which is silly when you can just look at the countdown clock -- and was satisfied by the ending, which apparently changed a lot from Hazeldine's original vision. This isn't bad for a film that takes place with eight people in a near-empty room for its entirety; Hazeldine thinks that a future stage play is inevitable. One clever audience member mentioned that there were two filming locations in the credits, which was because the opening sequence had to be shot separately at a later date--it's worth watching this sequence carefully as a number of the details become important later on.

All in all, a stimulating and invigorating cinematic experience!

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