‘Afire’: The Price of Art

Watching Afire (2023) always reminds me of In the House (2012) by François Ozon.

Certainly, both films boast entirely different themes and styles. However, both films examine literature and art from different perspectives, touching on the darker aspects of these creative realms.

(Left: Afire; Right: In the House)

In the House talks about the bloodthirsty nature of art, showcasing a teacher, a typical middle-aged educated man, who is caustic and selfish by nature. Despite his seemingly mundane life, he is restlessness, having gotten weary of his ordinary yet peaceful middle-class life. When a malicious student directly reveals the monotony of the seemingly flawless life of another student from a middle-class family, he is actually delighted to watch his revelations. He secretly seizes the chance to intensify the situation. He further urges his student to dip deeper, and sometimes even interfere with the lives of his friend’s family, all in the pursuit of an exciting story. He disregards and shows no concern for the fact that such interventions could impact and even destroy the life of the innocent classmate. A conflict with a heavy cost is turned into art through the lens of so-called literary works. Shielded by the guise of artistic expression, the teacher calmly indulges in his voyeuristic endeavours with great satisfaction.

The student acquires the legitimacy for his actions in the name of art. In the guise of his work, he seduces his classmate's mother, driving a wedge between his classmate and his father. For the young man who is born into an ordinary family of blue-collared workers, he is very jealous of his classmate who comes from a middle-class family. His desire to both assimilates and dismantle the family consumes him. Finding inspirations for his novels fuels a powerful motivation in him to pursue his innermost, wildest desires.

The teacher-student duo both used art as a facade. Their interest in the lives of others stems from a desire to fill their emptiness from within that is slowly consuming them.

In this film, we the viewers find ourselves peering voyeuristically at the two protagonists through the screen; and how is this any different from them? The role of art in this context becomes unprecedently questionable and even pathetic.

Afire explores another repercussion of art. While In the House portrays using others' suffering for artistic expression, Afire explores the idea that art can deprive the creator of their ability to live the life of an ordinary person.

(Top: Afire; Bottom: In the House)

The film's protagonist is very dedicated to his work, and everything in the outside world fades into the background as mere noise to him. While the coastal forest might seem serene and beautiful in the eyes of others, the protagonist only focuses on the relentless buzzing of flies and mosquitoes. Yet the moans and breathes of making love, which symbolise the best sentiment in the human world, push him to the brink of collapse.

His job entails uncovering the intriguing secrets of the real world, yet when he's immersed in his work, he has little time to spare for the reality unfolding around him. When his work faces scrutiny from the publisher, the world surrounding him transforms into an even greater hell.

He cannot stand the happiness of those around him; in fact, he feels intensely jealous about it. He approaches everything in his life with bitterness, unknowingly causing harm to others and abruptly ending their moments of joy. His unconscious hatred becomes a tool, unintentionally destroying others' happiness, only to ensure that others suffer from the same hidden pains of his heart.

Indeed, he turns down his friend's invitation to go swimming, rejects the girl's numerous invitations, and declines the kind gestures from his friend's new boyfriend. He has refused everything; he does not have much to ask for, as his only wish is for his pain to remain undisturbed, especially by external sources of happiness. These moments of joy are like a tight slap to his face, which exacerbated his sense of inferiority.

The film thus reviews the deep and concealed emotional scars that plague writers and artists. Underneath their outward displays of confidence lies their very fragile nature. They may come across as arrogant, but beneath that facade lies a sensitive personality. They pretend to distance themselves from the rest, yet in reality, they are haunted by the fear of rejection. Nonchalance is their safe haven, in which they can conceal their vulnerability and provide a sanctuary for their delicate emotions.

(Scene from Afire)

The film has scored an understated precision in the settings of the scenes. When the protagonist ventures outdoors, the house stands as a sanctuary which he hesitates to enter. The laughter of his companions becomes sharp thorns, making him feeling restless and uncomfortable. When he is inside the house, he peers out of the window just to watch his friends play with fluorescent tennis rackets. His expression turns desolate and helpless. These are the moments when the very house that once offered solace transforms into a prison of his own creation. He feels trapped and he is unable to break free and muster the courage to step out it.

The heightened sensitivity of artists endows them with a remarkable ability to perceive subtle shifts in the world and also amplifies their own emotional pain. Their personal sentiment becomes the focal point of their mental world, which often overwhelms them with the depth of their own emotions and experiences.

More importantly, he has learned to make use of others’ emotions and turn them into the tools for his own craft. When dealing with the emotions of those around him, he instinctively maintains a composed and cautious demeanor. This detachment allows him to gain a clearer perspective, transforming the swirling emotions of others into tangible material for his novels. However, this prolonged role as an observer has a downside: he is increasingly unable to unleash his real emotions from the standpoint of those directly involved, and this turns him into someone who is emotionally incompetent.

Indeed, this is the underlying cause in the film for his cold reaction when both he and the female protagonist face the lifeless body of their friend; and this is also the reason for hanging his head, refusing to engage or respond to her.

He is profoundly shaken by the death of his friend, deeply affected by the helplessness of the female protagonist, and conflicted by the contradiction between his cowardice and desire. Yet, amidst this turmoil, he finds a strange excitement from what he has encountered. Even at this moment, he remains instinctively heartless, akin to the characters in Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly (1961), much like the father in the film who is more preoccupied with whether her daughter’s sufferings from her medical conditions can serve as inspiration for his novel. It is at this very moment that creators transform into vultures, hovering over and looking down on human emotions. They nervously yet carefully observe the bleeding wounds of human sentiments, ready to claim them as their food anytime.

Eventually, the protagonist crafts a masterpiece inspired by this experience, yet he has to come to terms with his emotional incompetence. Amidst a lingering sense of desolation, he continues living his lonely life.

The entire film, unlike the aforementioned In the House, lacks the ambition to be a social critique, and neither does it have the peculiar and inventive angles of storytelling, nor the complex attitude of François Ozon that is contemptuous yet compassionate. Instead, it is maturely prudent yet carefully-crafted with a solemn tone, even carrying a touch of old-fashioned sensibility in its plots. However, it's undeniable that the film offers a deeply personal and profound perspective. It painstakingly depicts the creator's struggles with embarrassment, pain, and even destiny in vivid detail.

If In the House explores the notion of using art to cause pain to others, then Afire delves into the idea of art as self-harm. If In the House were to be a sharp thorn which pierces through the glossy exterior of the glamorous middle class to reveal its dullness, then Afire functions like a blunt knife, slowly uncovering the fearful and pathetic innermost being of an artist. Both films bravely dismantle the glamorous facade associated with art, uncovering the inherent cruelty and ruthlessness that may reside within.

(Top: Afire; Bottom: In the House)

On the other hand, this is what holds the greatest significance in terms of their value, as raising doubt in the audience is inherently nobler than making us believe.

By Mei Xuefeng

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