Words by Bobby Vogel
In The Social Network’s (2010) final scene, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) sat alone at his laptop, repeatedly refreshing Facebook, staring yet dazed at the profile of his ex. The scene was depicting a new kind of passivity, a captivity to the screen that would soon be familiar, in which one clicked and got nothing, and clicked, nonetheless, again and got nothing, and knowingly, desperately, again clicked for nothing, in the face of the promise of the potential for something. It may have seemed melodramatic at the time, but the restless reloading of Facebook looks now like a prophecy: Zuckerberg was treating his laptop like a smartphone. Compelled yet lethargic, desirous yet spent, both occupied and vacant, he was clicking away his internal experience. Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Wobble Palace (2018) is the 90-minute sequel to that two-minute scene, courageously, relentlessly, farcically focused on the new ways we squander inner life, which has always, it should be said, been an easy thing to squander: the film is about technology only because it is resolutely about today, about the ease with which we disregard what was always commonly unregarded.
That people are “caught up in their own shit” now, “convinced they’re at the center of it all,” is obvious. It’s the kind of observation that a simpler film would fully embrace: the contempt is palatable and uncomplicated, hard to resist in part because it is true. And yet it’s the kind of thing one says to oneself in idle time, phone in hand, fumbling for a reason to put up with one’s loneliness. Dasha Nekrasova’s Jane looks fumbled herself when she appears in the main narrative, her under-eyes glistening, her nose a shade of purple; her whole body looks discarded beneath the denim of her dress, like a collapsed, half-sentient, congested marionette. A puppet of her absconded self, she seems genuinely immovable: her figure is lithe, but her spirit is leaden. At least until her boyfriend, Eugene (played by Kotlyarenko), leaves the house. Her voiceovers begin there, in rhythmic counterpoint to the music, and in spite of their tepidity, they are thrilling—a human being at last, one feels—yet because of that feeling, they are familiar, and painfully so: her incoherence, her insight, her anger are all ours.
A glance, inadvertent, turned into a stare, an article of clothing suspiciously forgotten, a stroll by a place slightly past one’s routine, a book lent with pleasure with margins marked up, or a corner folded down, are symbols of eros not different in kind from a text vaguely sent.
The moment she mentions social media in that first, digressive voiceover, Jane reaches for her phone: her disdain for “feeds” only serves to remind her of her own, which she habitually consumes, like everyone else. It’s the kind of little hypocrisy that Jane herself would judge harshly; when she goes on to admit that “this is clearly about me,” it’s both an admission of conceit and a preclusion of one-upmanship: she has “seen through” herself so that no one else will. Jane already knows that her posts evanesce, that her means of identity is easy to snub, that the traction she does have is proof of her sameness. “I wish I was basic,” she says half in earnest. When she sexually role-plays a girl at Coachella, complete with daisies and a list of bad music, it is less of a mockery than a thirst for release, a turn from self-conscious to blissful bad taste: part of Jane wants to be carelessly light, to be floral, to be ruddy, to be stupidly serene. “It’s so cool you’re in a band,” she tells a cute stranger, and her sudden affability is cheap, but not fake.
Which is what makes it startling: she is not quite insincere. When sex is in the air, her soul snaps into place, her mind sinks to her body; albeit skin-deep, she seems finally inhabited. But the same thing happens when she looks at her phone. When she FaceTimes her friend Marcello (Elisha Drons, inimitable), there’s a shot of her fixing her hair, slightly damp, in the FaceTime display as she calls him, and you can see her expressionlessness fading away; she is preparing to tap her reserves. When she gets a text from a hookup, the emotions come readily; she beams at herself in the way that one does when discovering a token of being beloved. A glance, inadvertent, turned into a stare, an article of clothing suspiciously forgotten, a stroll by a place slightly past one’s routine, a book lent with pleasure with margins marked up, or a corner folded down, are symbols of eros not different in kind from a text vaguely sent. We labour over texting precisely because it can only carry so much meaning, and usually carries little: what is paltry yet fraught easily rises to the symbolic.
If Eugene had a landline, a “dumb” phone with no touchscreen, a desktop computer, or even a mailbox for more than just bills, he might have more discipline: his buffoonery, in other words, is rooted in his habits.
The face of a person texting is a face that has been fallow, and is now legible with feeling; in returning to the screen, we return to ourselves. The truth that Jane demonstrates is not, as one might have assumed, that technology makes us wooden, but that it leaves us that way: when she puts the phone down, Jane promptly starts to masturbate. When a match on Tinder messages Eugene, but fails to text back, the fallout, conversely, is like the opposite of sex: no matter what Eugene does, nothing is reciprocated or even acknowledged; time oppressively swells instead of receding. When he finally gets laid, the conditions are squalid: the will by which Eugene could say no to bad sex is the same will that’s been broken by saying yes to the screen. His threshold of pleasure is at the level of impulse, which is the level he stoops to when he pulls out his phone. If Eugene had a landline, a “dumb” phone with no touchscreen, a desktop computer, or even a mailbox for more than just bills, he might have more discipline: his buffoonery, in other words, is rooted in his habits.
He might, paradoxically, also have more desire: spending the whole day on Tinder is no token of yearning. At the start of the film, Eugene is asleep. But when Jane leaves the house, his eye instantly opens: it was the presence of Jane that made him sleep or appear to; Jane, that eye tells us, is to Eugene a tough crowd. Yet it tells us this only by its readiness to open, not by any wariness or trepidation within. There is an eagerness in Eugene that is immediately off-putting; he smiles, off-camera, and reaches for his phone. That he lacks inner life—as he takes over the movie—is more obvious and grating than the emptiness of Jane. When an actor in her performance art does a caricature of Eugene, it becomes clear that his affected and increasingly insistent benignity only likens him to a demented TV talk show host for children. Still, when he dresses up for Halloween as Nosferatu, the fake ears, the long nails, the white paint give him pause; the two fangs in his mouth seem to act as a bit; Kotlyarenko seems bashful and inward in costume.
She is knowingly, willfully stagnant, not out of spite but a weariness of surfaces, a fear of one’s depths, a need to be seen, a gelid mistrust of those who would try…
And a costume is something that Jane will not wear. At least not outside of sex: she regards with disdain both the pressure to be intimate and the pressure to perform; if sex calls for one, she embraces the other; Halloween is her sex life come garishly to (real) life. In refusing to wear a costume, she deprives herself of the experience of taking it off, of glimpsing the bare self beneath the literal mask before one’s inner mask drifts back. Eugene peels off his appendages with a certain fragility—regarding them, discarding them, each one by one: he is taking himself apart; he is looking at the unknown. It’s a moment of spirituality unrealised by Jane, who weaponises self-awareness instead of surpassing it. She is knowingly, willfully stagnant, not out of spite but a weariness of surfaces, a fear of one’s depths, a need to be seen, a gelid mistrust of those who would try, an exaggerated sloth that, when mistaken for narcissism, whispers or cackles that the joke is on you. What is forgettable at worst is acceptable at best, generic and flat like the affect of Jane. Appealingly flat, perhaps one should say—but then so are the touchscreens of phones.