Fear of Wasp

A guest post from film buff Dan Norman

The international success of last year’s American Honey, with big wins at the British Independent Film Awards and Cannes Film Festival, restored writer-director Andrea Arnold to the limelight that she first stepped into with 2003’s Wasp. Unlike American Honey, Wasp is a short film – Arnold’s last before transitioning to features – running 24 minutes, and winning, amongst many other awards, the Oscar for Best Live-Action short. Wasp showcased Arnold’s ability to create an atmosphere of dread from very little, luring the viewer into providing most of the tension for themselves.

Arnold starts working our brains with the title: Wasp. We read that title and begin to attach our feelings about wasps to the film itself. Wasps sting and do very little else, meaning that nearly everyone who reads the title will react the same way. Wasps mean danger. Wasps mean pain. Pixar aren’t going to be calling a film Wasp, even if it’s about wasps – it would be too off-putting for their target audience. [1] If the film were called ‘Dog’, our brains would be far less focused – there are too many characteristics commonly associated with dogs, and different people would have contrasting reactions.[2] Wasp brings about a more universal response. Even if you’ve read this paragraph desperate to defend the honour of wasps, Arnold catches you with your defences down. The title offers no judgement call, no need to protect wasps from slander. It’s just Wasp, and your brain jumps from there.

To then turn to the film’s plot: on face value, there’s not much to it. Zoe (Natalie Press) is a single-mother with four children – the oldest being about eight, the youngest being the baby, Kai. When Zoe goes to meet Dave (Danny Dyer) at the pub, the children follow – having no-one else to look after them. Worried that Dave will lose interest if he knows she has children, she tells them to wait outside. As Zoe stays inside with Dave, the children get hungry. They pick a discarded kebab up off the ground and share it amongst themselves. A wasp flies into baby Kai’s mouth. The panicked children call to their mother and the wasp flies from Kai, leaving him unharmed.

The wasp doesn’t enter the film until the very end – this isn’t Jaws where the animal is a constant threat throughout. Arnold finds other ways of holding our interest until the wasp appears. She seeds tension throughout the film – starting with that title. Shaky camerawork, and extreme close-ups on faces add to the film’s frenetic nature. Wide shots and smooth camera motions would subconsciously remind us that someone (the director) has things under control, making it easier to relax. By shooting so chaotically, Arnold loosens our confidence that there is someone preventing events spiralling into calamity.

Arnold plays with our heightened awareness of the children’s vulnerability by constructing a series of hazards, keeping the fear in our mind, while escalating tension. Firstly, the opening fight between Zoe and a neighbour – where the spectre of the neighbour already having hit one of the children is raised. From the start, we see the potential for violence to explode in this neighbourhood. Arnold provides us with a basis from which our anxiety can grow, and then proceeds to feed it even when no real danger is present. A shot of one of the daughters crossing a bridge over a busy road is framed with her face in the foreground, and the traffic rushing by below in the background – suggesting peril where none exists. A reminder of the film’s title arrives at 5:15 with a shot of a wasp flitting around on the windows of Zoe’s flat. Arnold cuts from this shot of the wasp to a shot of Kai watching it buzz – foreshadowing, but also clever use of the Kuleshov effect, wherein our brains form connections between consecutive shots. We now associate the wasp with Kai, centring him as the focus of our concern from hereon in, as the assumed target of the danger suggested by the title.

With our attention drawn to Kai, we become alert to actions which place him in danger. Zoe racing his buggy down a bumpy hill. The children pushing the buggy around the uneven surface of the pub carpark, spinning it around as they run. Kai eating a kebab picked up off the ground. Close-ups on the sticky sauce smeared around his mouth, just seconds after we’ve seen his sister shoo off a wasp. Finally, the close-up of the wasp, landing on his cheek, walking towards his mouth as his horrified family look on, helpless. Arnold draws this final moment out and it sets off a very primal horror – watching a child in danger, without the ability to intervene – made more powerful by the way she’s slowly been preying on our nerves up until this point.

A constant barrage of threats to children would become unbearable when continued for the film’s entire runtime, so Arnold paces them out. She counters them with a different kind of danger in what at first appears to be the film’s main plot – Zoe’s fear that Dave will find out about her children and walk out of her life. Again Arnold presents several close calls – Dave sees the children, but Zoe explains them away as being the children of a friend. One of the daughters taps on the window of the pub behind Dave, but he doesn’t notice. The neighbour from the opening scene is also at the pub, and shouts to Zoe about her children within earshot of Dave. Arnold uses this plotline to keep our attention before the arrival of the wasp and as a surrogate for raising tension. Although it’s a different sort of jeopardy, it keeps our nerves on edge, preventing us from relaxing in between the scenes of the children in danger.

Arnold’s techniques are reminiscent of an earlier, superficially gentler, film – 1948’s The Bicycle Thieves. Again, the title alerts us to the threat in advance, using our expectations to drive the tension.[3] Our main character Antonio needs the bike to keep his job, which is just about keeping him above water financially. He is so careful with it – carrying it inside to the office rather than leave it unsupervised elsewhere – that we expect it to be stolen when he briefly leaves it in the care of a stranger.[4] It is after the bike is stolen, and Antonio searches the city for it alongside his young son Bruno, that the parallels with Wasp shine through most clearly. Our previous hyper-awareness of the bike is transferred to Bruno. Antonio’s treatment of the bike is replicated by his treatment of Bruno – at one moment ultra-careful, before leaving him behind in the busy city with little concern for his safety. Only our sense of danger is now increased for having seen the bike stolen. Our initial investment in the film might have come in not wanting to see the bike stolen but, following its theft, we become even more concerned that no harm come to Bruno.

When the plots are as relatively ordinary as those of Wasp and Bicycle Thieves, being able to cultivate tension in your audience becomes an invaluable advantage. No one likes being told how to feel, but both Arnold and Bicycle Thieves director Vittorio De Sica are so deft in their techniques that we don’t realise how much they’re influencing our reactions. It is only once the wasp flies away from Kai and we allow ourselves to relax, that we realise how much the film has had us in its grasp.

 

[1] Following this chain of thought, my first guess would have been that Pixar would call it ‘Buzz’ but then in this age of cinematic universes, people would no doubt assume it was a Toy Story spin-off. It’s a thorny issue, and I’d recommend Pixar avoid centring any films around wasps for the foreseeable future.

[2] I wrote this and then, researching Arnold, found that she had made a short film called ‘Dog’ that pre-dates Wasp. I have no idea what that film is about.

[3] The title in the film’s native Italy is Ladri Di Biciclette which Google assures me translates to roughly the same

[4] The stranger can in fact be trusted – the bike’s inevitable theft comes in a later scene.

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