The other day Cecily and I watched Captain Fantastic.  I still find myself mulling over the film– which means I got something out of it –though I’m not sure how I ultimately feel (spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned).  In a certain respect I found the film deeply depressing and perhaps, even, reactionary.  This is not a review, but rather some general impressions.  It take it that the husband and wife were attempting to create a line of flight from contemporary society.  They had moved out to the wilderness to raise their children with an alternative set of values and in a very different way.

What made the film interesting is that where this story is often told from a rightwing perspective– often these groups are depicted as withdrawing from society for conservative religious reasons to save their children from the corruption of the world –this film imagines a left version of that escape.  The children intensely read the great works of literature and philosophy.  The oldest son has an ongoing debate with his father over variants of Marxism.  He corrects Vigo’s character at one point on the finer points of Trotsky, and then adds that he’s moved on from Trotsky to Mao.  At one point, I believe, the parents even express pride that they’re the only ones to have ever genuinely attempted the experiment of Plato’s Republic.

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However, as the film progresses, we’re increasingly presented with the dystopian dimension of this utopia they’ve attempted to create.  The mother goes mad from a bipolar disorder and commits suicide.  It’s unclear whether this is purely neurological, or a result of the line of flight they’ve attempted to create.  The children are endlessly subjected to both physical and mental “training”, that is depicted in the film as being incredibly alienating.  They sit around the nightly fire in silence; their only affective relieve being the spontaneous music they create together.  There isn’t any discussion that isn’t subordinated to the evils of capitalism, its values, and modern society.  Their physical training is brutal and painful.  The middle son breaks his wrist climbing a mountain with the rest of the family and, rather than being given aid, is told that he must climb with his broken hand because no one else will be there to help him.  The father seems to have little in the way of genuine communication with his six children, but rather everything is didactic.  To his credit, he is absolutely honest with his children about every aspect of life and there are no lies or secrets.  The advice that he gives to his oldest son when he enters the world is among the most beautiful and powerful I’ve ever heard; especially with respect to the treatment of women in love and lovemaking.  It should be required education for parents everywhere.

When they enter the broader world to attend their mother’s funeral and save her from the fate of a religious burial (rather than cremation and being flushed down the toilet as she wished), they are completely maladjusted.  I won’t give away the rest, but will simply say that at the end of the film we see a sort of compromise with modern society:  the family now lives in a house– rather than the huts they had built –eats inside, though they continue to read in silence around the table, and the children will attend public school.  At this moment a deep melancholy descended upon me.  The message seemed to be that lines of flight are impossible and that you must accept the world.  I was left with the impression that the children, as they entered the broader world, would be increasingly consumed by the feedback loops of broader society, condemned to embody and live according to those values.  The message seemed to be that an alternative is not possible and that the pursuit of an alternative can only lead to totalitarian cruelty.  To be sure, we can make the case that as they enter the world they will perhaps be revolutionaries, carrying those values with them.  But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they would merely be devoured by the appetites of consumerism and the rules of the capitalist game as they lived their life.  The message seemed to be that an alternative is not possible.

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