The white-collar workspace of the mid-to-late twentieth century is an assemblage of productivity design concepts: spatial, sartorial, conversational – each sensibly and deliberately anodyne. In Alexander Clare’s Striplight [UK, 2018], these concepts are constructed as monolithic abstractions before which the human animal is rendered feeble and absurd.
Miller (James Sheppard) is one such subject who, after reporting at a purgatorial reception desk “to start work”, appears to confront each quotidian step toward the office floor (doorways, corridors, lifts) as if expending his very last reserve of credulity. A windowless interior lobby – glimpsed en route through the prism of the elevator porthole – is an ordeal barely survived, its walls, floors and ceiling a clinical white gloss, austerely lit under the titular halogens.
The Platonic open-plan office is a familiar enough look for such Kafkaesque tribulations, but Clare has the nous and (with cinematographer Robbie Bryant) visual wit to tease out broader strokes while sidestepping cliché. Sheppard is a brilliantly expressive lead, too – febrile, unbearably hesitant, visibly moistening in eye and palm at each newly perceived gauntlet.
Having finally installed himself at his desk, work proceeds busily enough for Miller, until a momentary mid-day reverie – a long close-up which Sheppard holds with commendable ambiguity, the brief calm on his face quickly tinged with vulnerability – seems to invite the attentions of an extra-dimensional succubus (Dana Smit).
Captivated and assaulted by the vision (the girl appears out of an abyss partitioned from Miller’s reality by standard-issue cubical walling) Miller shudders into a fit of self-relief, his free hand groping in climax across a stack of papers – the sound of their crumpling, either by association or design, seeming to deliquesce on the soundtrack, a nimble piece of aural texturing. Credit is shared between sound designers Stuart Dugdale and Beresford Cookman, and their percussive composition of drones, synths and creaks aches with transportive intensity as Miller ventures in the third act beyond the grey-paneled dimensional barrier.
Erupting in the place of oppressive, repressive sterility, the suddenly present sexual energy arrives as a force both liberating and menacing, and in the interplay Clare achieves a sensation that is distinctly, hypnotically weird. In surrender, Miller is either too naïve or indifferent to have much regard for the danger that fringes this elusive and alien pleasure – either way, it promises a carnality by design precluded from his existence, and in that, a promise of existence itself.
'Striplight' was a film in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.