You Were Never Really Here: Trauma, Violence and Society
by Marion Herve
You were never really here. From the little the synopsis and trailer offered, I had imagined the film to be your typical conspiracy thriller centred on a hammer wielding anti-hero (Jo) responsible for the saving of a teenage girl (Nina) from an organised group of paedophiles. Apparently not the type of film I would have spontaneously chosen to see, especially when the gruesome violence of Red Sparrow was still very fresh in my mind. However, as I promised myself to see more films made by women and/or people of colour, I decided to give this one a chance as it was written and directed by Lynne Ramsay (two times BAFTA winner) and starring the talented Joaquin Phoenix who I thought was brilliant in Her. This film was a metaphorical, but nonetheless brutal, slap in the face. If the main story-line was true to what was advertised, the film offered so much more than an nth action packed and/or dialogue filled thriller and proposed instead an incredibly disturbing insight into the mind of a person who has been through traumas, and must live with the long-term effects resulting from them. I propose to explore in this article how the film makes us feel the trauma and violence that the characters experience, and what questions it poses about our response to these phenomenon as a society.
It seems essential to first define what psychological trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are as they are words we often are aware of but whose meaning we do not necessarily fully grasp (most of the information given here come from helpguide.org, unless specified otherwise). Psychological trauma is defined as ‘the result of extraordinary stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world.’ It is important to understand that there is no definitive list of set events that are certain to result in trauma. However, there are elements that can largely contribute to an event being traumatic, e.g. the unexpected/surprising aspect of the event or our incapacity to do anything about it. Trauma can have short or long-term consequences on a person such as depression or PTSD. The latest is a condition involving a reaction to something reminding a person of the traumatic event. It includes but is not limited to reliving the trauma (e.g. nightmares or flashback), avoidance of places that might be linked to the trauma and emotional numbness… (Visit the NHS website to learn more about this condition which seems to affect one in three people who experienced traumatic events.)
The talent of Lynne Ramsay lies in the fact that she manages to make us feel like Jo does with actually very little dialogue in the film. Indeed, apart from the scenes that aim to expose the main plot points of the film, there is very little conversation between the characters and Jo’s thoughts and feelings are never verbally expressed. Despite that, we get a very clear insight into his mind, of how Jo carries around the memory of his traumas and how his PTSD affects his life. Lynne Ramsay uses different techniques to enable this emotional affinity between Jo and the audience. Firstly, music and sounds play an important role. At times, music is loud, speedy, almost out of tune, expressing his own difficulty to keep path with his thoughts as stress overwhelms him. At other times, it is the sounds of his environment that are very loud, bringing him and us discomfort. Scenes can also be silent, to show how disconnected from his surroundings he feels. Lynne Ramsay uses flashbacks such as a person with PTSD would experience. They are very short events of which we glimpse only a few seconds, just enough so we get an idea of the nature of the event and feel the shock with him as he relives it.
The talent of Lynne Ramsay also resides in the way that she chose to portray violence. It is a film about trauma and violence, yes, but the violence we feel as a spectator does not come from scenes picturing gruesome attacks or graphic sexual assaults. Indeed, the film is made in such a way that we will never see directly any of Jo’s attacks on his victims. We see him ready to hit and then we see the body on the floor. Instead, we feel the violence through the contrast between the brutal actions Jo carries out and the seemingly normal life he has and the love he is capable of towards his mother. He is a very multidimensional character and so relatable that we are shocked this person could be so brutal; it brings violence close to home. The violence is also felt more in the flashes of the traumatic events that Jo witnessed and in the way that they still poison his life. He carries this violence with him, daily. Similarly, the violence of the sexual abuses suffered by Nina is not perceived through a graphic depiction of the terrible mistreatments we can imagine her suffer, but instead through the contrast between these acts and the love and care given to her by her abusers. It is sickening and becomes even more so when, rescued by Jo early in the story, she seems to believe that the best way to thank him would be to give him sexual favours. At least, this is how I perceived this scene. In the film, the information we receive is transmitted through personal perceptions of, and feelings for the events that unfold. It is a sensory experience that makes us feel intensively the trauma and violence experienced by the characters. It is what makes the film so powerful, disturbing and personal.
On several occasions during the film, the relationship of society to violence is questioned. Several characters admit knowing about the trafficking of children and being disgusted by it even though they support it by being passive or active to different degrees. There is not necessarily any judgement there, but it leads the spectator to wonder how we, as individuals and a society, react to events such as child abuse, human trafficking, domestic abuse, armed children… Terrible phenomenon occurring around the world, sometimes not as far from us as we might want to admit. The film also brings our attention to what we tend to forget which is that, for the people who have lived these traumatic events, the story does not stop when it does for us: when the soldier gets home, when the rapist is jailed, when the refugee makes it to a safer country or when the abuser dies. Lynne Ramsay and her talented actors show us how difficult it can be to live in our society when you have been through these terrible things that others might not be willing or ready to hear. In the final scene, we see the remaining protagonists sitting in a diner, surrounded by the increasing noises of conversations around them. The experiences they have just been through separates them from the rest of society. In the following shot they have deserted their table, but the other customers keep on talking, lives keep on going, it is like they were never really here.
Title image sourced via https://www.youwereneverreallyhere.movie
Marion is a French Feminist and film buff. Harpy are proud to provide a platform for Marion's well-researched and thoughtful opinions, as she confessed that she had been toying with the idea of writing critically for some time.