From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Cement Garden
Dir: Andrew Birkin
Once upon a time, before permissiveness, there was the family. Dad sat at the head of the table and did the outside chores. Mum sat beside him and did the cooking. The children were well behaved. Sex did not exist. When did this happen? If at all, the family last occurred in the 1950s.
This fantasy has had a bit of an airing recently. As their world collapses round them, the lower middle classes seek refuge in a never never world of family values. The Cement Garden, closely based on Ian McEwan’s novel, shows what monstrous perversions lurk beneath the surface.
The 1950s are suggested in the film through the style of clothes and furniture. But the house is dilapidated, a square box surrounded by a square garden, marooned in a concrete wasteland distantly ringed by high rise flats. Family values are already threadbare – but the threat is not from without. It is from within. Family values themselves are the source of all perversions.
Children are taught to play their proper roles, with father and mother as models. But when Dad dies of a heart attack, while cementing over the garden, and Mum gradually fades away, the role playing can become a bit too literal.
Abnormality flourishes in this thoroughly internalised world. The younger brother, Tom, is dressed up as a girl as part of a game of mummies and daddies. Jack and Julie, the eldest, adolescent children, play the parts of father and mother – but not necessarily in the ‘correct’ order. Jack, with his long hair, moods and narcissism, is much closer to being a ‘woman’ than his sister, who takes on the responsibility of running things and so of being a ‘man’.
Above all, keeping things within the family makes the consolation of sex a source of guilt and confusion. Jack slopes off to the toilet for a wank instead of helping his Dad cement the garden and so is ‘responsible’ for his Dad’s death. Mum tells him that doing ‘that’ is the equivalent of losing two pints of blood. When she dies peacefully in her bed, having long abandoned any attempt to get out of the house, he preserves her at home – in concrete in the cellar.
This then becomes the family secret, protecting the home against outside intruders, including Julie’s flashy, mature, businessman boyfriend. And in inheriting the roles of father and mother looking after the household, Jack and Julie also inherit their sexual roles. Incest is the ultimate in keeping the family together.
The Cement Garden is not exactly a jolly little film, but it is compelling viewing. In its cool, detached way, it is a splendid satire on family values.
Far from being the squeaky clean world of morality and purity, the family is portrayed as a putrefying mass of perversion, which no amount of cement can keep from cracking open.
As they consummate their incestuous relationship, Jack and Julie recognise that it is a fantasy to suppose they can exist in some changeless world outside time. That recognition is a kind of death in itself. They lie completely still in their parents’ bed, illuminated by the flashing blue light of a police car.
Gripping though the film is in its claustrophobic intensity, it leaves you with a problem. It too is caught up in seeing society as nothing more than the family and outsiders. The only alternatives to the hotbed of family perversion are a pre-Thatcherite businessman and the state he calls in. Of course, the nature of the film prevents these two from being anything more than ciphers. But it is difficult not to worry whether these rather nastier horrors are let off too lightly.
As a satire against Tory fantasies about family values the film is devastating. But it is a satire on a road to nowhere.
Last updated: 25 February 2017