The Other Side of the Underneath: “Strength is Madness”(Femspectives Review)
The Other Side of the Underneath is anything but an easy watch, though it rewards viewers willing to enter its abrasive world of unmitigated horror and anguish.
We open to the sound of haunting strings, peering at a body of water surrounded by verdant fields and thin fog. The camera pans as several divers emerge from the water, carrying the body of a young woman. Director Jane Arden wastes no time setting up characters, story, or setting, instead immediately launching the viewer into a film-world awash with horror and anguish. The Other Side of the Underneath is a demanding watch, brimming with confrontational rage, unsettling, surreal imagery, and terrifying sound design. That said, it also makes for a one-of-a-kind viewing, and ends on a note of extraordinary catharsis.
While Arden is the mastermind of the film, she collaborated heavily with members of her all-women theater group, “Holocaust”. Many of the actresses in the film are from Arden’s group, and the abstract narrative is a result of improvisation, performance art, group therapy sessions (where Arden acts as the psychiatrist), and deliberate drug trips. The Other Side of the Underneath condenses all these elements into a poetic, unwieldy exploration of schizophrenia that relies more on symbolism and allegory than traditional modes of storytelling.
As a result, the film is very clearly not for everyone. Not only can it be almost impenetrably obtuse, but the overall work comes from a place of primal anger and unrelenting agony. From what little narrative there is, we learn that we are witnessing the experiences of a young woman who has schizophrenia. Throughout the film, Arden does not differentiate between reality and the unreal. For the main character, everything she sees and hears is equally real. Sally Minford’s brilliantly expressive score helps solidify this idea. She succeeds at planting the viewer within the protagonist’s mind by creating sounds that seem to exist between the diegetic and non-diegetic worlds. That is, Minford’s music exists both in and out of the film, so that the score reflects the character’s inner feelings.
But where is all the rage and anguish coming from? Everything in The Other Side of the Underneath feels like it’s one final, desperate howl to be seen and heard and understood. It is a cry for empathy within a fundamentally broken, patriarchal system. A system that demonizes women, refuses to take their mental health seriously, and enforces control over their bodies. Over the course of the picture we are shown images of menstruation, broken mirrors, crucifixes, marriage, and funerals. All these images and institutions compound onto the viewer and the characters, weighing us down, showing us how our selves are innately shaped by society. Specifically, the film seems to question if psychosis is at least partially a result of lifelong oppression and objectification.
The Other Side of the Underneath is a difficult film. At an hour and fifty minutes, it can’t help but feel too long, and the last thirty-five minutes feel too meandering for its own good. That said, it all culminates in a surprisingly incendiary and cathartic finale that finally gives the viewer room to breathe and ties up some thematic knots. In real life, Arden was part of the anti-psychiatry movement, and while much of her viewpoint informs the film, it is surreal enough for the viewer to get myriad readings from it. If anything, The Other Side of the Underneath is an undeniable and underseen achievement of feminist filmmaking. There is nothing quite as unrestrained and unnervingly personal as it. Brutal and punishing it may be, but it is also a profound realization of the desire to be treated as an equal, as a human being.
The Other Side of the Underneath will be screened at Femspectives, the third annual Glasgow-based feminist film festival, running as an Online Festival Weekender from 23 – 25 April, 2021. Click here for tickets.
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