Masters Of Cinema #84 - If.... - Blu-ray Review

'How much of If.... can you really believe and does it matter that Anderson's answers aren't always immediately apparent?'

There's plenty in Lindsay Anderson's If...., even if quite what all of his elements are doing, especially in the latter half of the film, might not be immediately apparent. Certainly there's a story about lowly proles (Malcolm McDowell's Mick and his small band of friends) being downtrodden by their superiors, within the confines of a house at a private school. What of the rest though? Some of the film is in black and white, some in colour and at points where the switch occurs there seem to be regular sequences which play with the narrative, jumping in to and out of fantasy. How much of If.... can you really believe and does it matter that Anderson's answers aren't always immediately apparent?

In David Cairns' highly entertaining essay, Mick Travers And The Chamber Of Secrets (included in the Masters Of Cinema booklet), Cairns' reveals that the official reason for the colour change was down to the chapel scenes being too dark for the colour film stock. Having made the change to black and white to shoot inside the chapel, Anderson began to play with the stock in other situations. This, for me, goes some way to suggesting a) why the change from colour to black and white seems to happen without much of a plan and b) that it's OK to be flummoxed by this particular mystery of If...., because it is, really, a red herring, an aesthetic change with little thematic message.

What then of the fantasy sequences (Cairns says Anderson preferred to think of them as poetic, rather than fantasy). There's little doubt that they are odd. Having shot at and possibly killed the priest (Geoffrey Chater), Mick and his friends are directed to apologise to him, at which point the headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) pulls open a drawer to reveal Chater, who sits up and shakes each boy's hand.

At the very least, that and other scenes where Anderson takes his poetic licence have the power to jump you out of the narrative, but perhaps, in the context of the modern day, it is a different power that becomes more noticeable. Because of the fantasy elements of If...., it becomes harder and harder, especially during the final third of the film, to know which parts of the film should be taken seriously and which are there as semi-ironic jibes. In the context of the film's main controversy (a final scene shoot out between teachers and pupils) it allows If.... a distance it wouldn't have if everything was on the nose. There's an immediate defence here for the film, an immediate 'we were only joking', when confronted with the accusation that the revolution it suggests is an action which has caused countless pain to countless 20th and 21st century families, in schools across several continents.

Back on the film-making, Cairns levels a ripe accusation at If...., wondering if it can 'risk total obscurity at times', despite his obvious love for the film. The main reason If.... never fully gives in to Anderson's poeticism (sometimes with a plan, sometimes without), is that, for the most part, the risque and dreamlike elements of the film do reveal something of a public school's sex-starved character. Look closely and there is very little about If.... that is not erotic, not concerned on some level with sexual desire. Cairns' raises the scene of the housemaster's wife (Mary MacLeod), wandering the corridors naked, but there are others everywhere; the charged scene of gymnastics, for example, the whip's sexualised conversation about their younger charges, and Travis' fantasy (or is it?) romp with the girl from the cafe, who adds to the poeticism by making an appearance during the gun play. Why and from where is something Anderson never feels like explaining, similar to why and from where the school has acquired a gigantic crocodile replica, un-ceremoniously deposited on a fire.

If.... isn't a film with answers, and even its questions are sometime mal-formed, but it is a film with a lurid desire to show things below the surface, to talk about sexual desire in interesting and advanced ways, and to do both of those things whilst experimenting on several levels. It doesn't work all of the time but it does make Anderson's film an intriguing watch.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

If.... is released in the UK on Monday 9th June 2014

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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