Active Ingredients: Social criticism; Changes in cinematography
Side Effects: Romantic subplots; Reactionary philosophy?
The Servant is an astute, acerbic portrait of a country – or a least a country’s cinematic presence – in transition. In 1962 London Tony, a wealthy, lazy young lothario hires a manservant to help him arrange his home, prepare his meals and allow him to continue drinking without needing to lift finger or risk suffering societal disgrace. The film begins innocently enough, in a manner befitting the upstairs/downstairs model of previous decades. The aloof, proper new servant takes pride in his work, admirably keeping his master afloat, while Tony speaks vaguely of a future business endeavor clearing the jungles of Brazil (or is it Africa?), which will, of course, never happen. The servant is “a gentleman’s gentleman” he says, a man who maintains an impeccable presence, an immaculate exterior upon which his superiors place their confidence.
Slowly, however, the veil begins to drop, and we see a sinful underbelly which Tony is too trusting to notice. The transition comes as a bit of a shock, but director Joseph Losey aides the audience by dropping stylistic hints to the much darker tones to come. Twinned images and mirrors, as well as claustrophobic interiors and creepy, suspenseful long takes, alert us to something boiling over just beneath the mandatory social roles both master and servant must uphold. Ridiculous as they are, these roles, remnants of an older, more proper prewar time, give both men something of a purpose. But the world is changing: skirts are getting shorter and sexuality more predatory, just as Losey’s camera grows bolder and more lurid, throwing long shadows over close-ups and undoing the neat order in Tony’s life. The fragile distinction between master and servant slowly dissolves, leaving only the chaos of men without a function to play or a reputation to maintain.