Voyeurism is a popular theme in film. That is presumably no accident since the mere act of sitting in a darkened theatre and watching people’s lives unfold in front of our eyes can often feel like a case of voyeurism in itself. Sometimes that is because any given film is so deeply rooted in honesty and truth about life that it is almost rude to pry, privy as an audience is to the innermost feelings of a character and its creators. Other times it is because the images being shown on screen are so raw, whether sexually or otherwise, that going to the movies can take on the atmosphere of a peep show or a risqué dance that isn’t meant for our eyes. And sometimes it is a mixture of both.
I do not know whether the Slovak-born actor, writer, producer and director Peter Bebjak intentionally turned to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as direct inspiration for The Cleaner (Čistič’) or if it is just because Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece of American values gone mightily, terribly wrong is surely the most famous film about voyeurism that it’s only natural the two should feel similar. What I do know is that Bebjak’s film – only his second feature amid a steady directorial career that has mostly been focused on television – features a sequence in which our lead character (Noël Czuczor as Tomáš) sits in the closet of a woman and watches her be sexually molested and abused by another man just like in Lynch’s Oscar-nominated film.
It’s not pretty, and in fact there is another sequence later on in which Tomáš, now taking a hiding place under the woman’s bed, observes her in the reflection of a mirror being mummified and once again abused. But then, Blue Velvet wasn’t pretty either. Where the two films depart beyond the obvious elements like style and artifice is that, where Lynch’s film used this initial act of sexual defilement to peel back the curtain on American idealism and innocence, The Cleaner uses it more to confirm what we already know: life is tough in this part of the world for those who do not have the luxury of wealth and power, and many of the people in this situation are simply invisible with nobody to advocate for them, passing through life as if a ghost. For instance, would anybody notice if Tomáš vanished? It’s unlikely. Would anybody take the woman seriously if she spoke up? That seems even less likely.
Tomáš, a former felon, can only find sustainable work as a cleaner for a funeral company, scrubbing and mopping and wiping and sanitising homes where people have died. It’s a fitting role for him given his introverted and quiet personality. His only real human contact is with Kristina, the woman at the store where he purchases candles, and a psychiatrist/parole officer whom he regularly meets in a suitably dank and depressing building of grey concrete, trading predominantly one-sided conversations and covering up being involved in a fight by claiming he fell off of a bike to avoid going back to prison. He is more verbose with his mother whom he sporadically talks to on the phone, holding repetitious conversations of being nagged about getting a girlfriend and whether he would even bother telling her about it if he did.
His curiosity is piqued, however, when he finds himself cleaning up the home of Kristina and sneakily failing to return the key to his employer. He sneaks back inside and witnesses the woman being subjected to the aforementioned violence. And when, later, she is the victim of a brutal crime, he uses his position to keep an eye on her, hiding under her bed and even going so far as to purchase snacks. In the film’s best sequence, he is discovered to surprising results.
The Cleaner is not a feel-good film. Not at all, in fact. However, Bebjak is wise to have cast Czuczor, an actor of moody appeal who is able to swing audience sympathies towards him in spite of the curious nature of his hobbies. With the frame often obscured and limited only to Tomáš’ field of vision from whatever hiding hole he finds himself in, Martin Žiaran’s cinematography has a roaming quality to it that brings a freshness to this nevertheless gloomy, overcast world. The production design of Miroslav Král (not to be confused with the Czech football player of the same name, obviously) may be the film’s most important tech contributor, finding interesting ways to play with the sets, particularly the juxtaposition between the modern emptiness of Tomáš’ apartment and that of Kristina’s bigger post-war apartment.
The end of The Cleaner is ambiguous; it is not a film that will allow the viewer the ease of a ribbon-tied ending, akin to peeking through a keyhole only for a sheet to be placed over the door handle at the last minute. But Bebjak’s film satisfies nonetheless, thanks to its assemblage of talent. It’s true that the film takes a leaf out of much more famous titles, but it twists and plays with them enough not to feel like a mere retread. The longer the film goes on and the more we learn about Tomáš, the more involving it gets. Do we ultimately want the best for him despite the litany of wrongs he commits? That’s debatable. But as voyeurs in the dark watching the uncomfortable reality of people in this world, he proves a fascinating subject.
The Cleaner screens at ACMI on Tuesday, 20 September at 8.30pm. Classification rating: 18+