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From the London Film Festival: ‘Arcadia’ is a Hypnotic Trawl Through British Occultism

Arcadia is an experimental film that uses stock footage from BFI archives to tell a story about the English countryside. We have early scenes of quaint British life set to a calming and assured narration. This is no country stroll though, as the heart racing soundtrack and frenetic editing make it a truly mesmerising jaunt through anxieties about the occult, the modern and the “unnatural”.

The soundtrack deserves a great deal of praise. Written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp), it’s a pounding electronic cacophony that is both grand and terrifying. It lends a beautiful sense of importance to the imagery and a real menace to scenes of bizarre British folk traditions and the invasion of modern life on the countryside.

The film was a truly hypnotic experience, but I did find myself struggling with the actual message of the film. Experimental films usually forgo the intellectual rigors of a documentary in favour of urging you to feel your way through the audio-visual experience. But by including interviews with some opinionated individuals who condemn modern city life as being too far removed from nature and the younger generations as lacking responsibility, I couldn’t help but feel myself be put off by the cynicism of it.

If we’re to venerate the “good old days” of the British countryside when men were men and women were slaves, then why spend so much time showing the clearly terrifying folk traditions of these villages and the darker aspects to country life. Perhaps the destructive impact of capitalism and over consumption grew from these dark practices? This isn’t obvious. Country life is portrayed as being absurd, so it’s not obvious that this is the solution the film is offering to the problems of modern life.

The material about the young generations was very confusing. An archive interview with a farmer implied that the youth favour freedom over responsibility and that they will suffer as a result. But this message is then subverted by comparing rave and hippy culture to British folk traditions (quite successfully, believe it or not), implying that people are much as they always have been.

The English have really been struggling with our national identity since the empire fell apart. We don’t have a pithy mission statement like the US does so it’s always difficult to know what Englishness actually is and how it should be pursued, or whether is should be pursued. The assertion of the film seems to be that we should look to the earth around us for answers. It just doesn’t seem to share what those answers might be. If it’s that we should all become farmers again, I respectfully disagree.

There were some excellent interviews used, including an interview with an old woman who continued to treat her dead, stuffed pet as a if it were alive. It’s clearly very unnerving and the excellent score really makes it haunting.

As a fan of public information films it was fun to see some sequences borrowed from the almost always terrifying Central Office of Information. Classics such as Magpies, in which a flock of murderous birds invade a person’s house because they were stupid enough to leave a window open when they went out, and personal favourite Apaches, in which a gang of school kids all die horrible deaths because they played around on a farm. I also recognised some silent movie scenes, including a few from the exquisitely scary Haxan by Benjamin Christensen.

Some of the footage of folk traditions and the British occult really put me in mind of British Folk horror films like Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man and And Soon The Darkness or old BBC horror TV like Whistle and I’ll come to you and Robin Redbreast. We have a fine tradition of distrusting the countryside in this country and Aradia, perhaps inadvertently, is a pretty excellent example of the form.

The inevitably impossible to find Arcadia is a fascinating and beguiling film. It was a profound experience for me, and although I have issues with its philosophies, I cannot fault it’s presentation. The footage is wonderful, the soundtrack is superb and the editing is thrilling.

3.5 / 5

Paul Salt is the co-host of the podcast One Good Thing.