Sex is public in the work of Andrea Arnold. The director’s first three films — the shorts Milk (1998), Dog (2001), and the Oscar-winning Wasp (2003) — use sex not to tantalize but rather to release narrative tension and affect.
Arnold’s first short, the ten-minute Milk (1998), follows Hetty (Lynda Steadman) after she loses her child to stillbirth. On the day of the unnamed child’s funeral — which Hetty’s partner, Ralph (Stephen McGann), positions as their chance to publicly grieve — Hetty plays hooky to go on a joyride with a stranger, Martin (Lee Oakes).
Arnold’s filmography grapples with the fallout of Thatcher’s disastrous policies, later amplified by Tony Blair, that devastated the British working class. In Milk, these issues lie at the periphery of the film and only come to the fore through Martin’s waywardness, but over the course of Arnold’s three short films she chronicles the slow degradation of Britain’s urban environments and working women’s intensifying struggles with access to childcare, funding, reproductive healthcare and education. Milk culminates with the grieving Hetty fucking Martin in his car. The encounter is erratic and Arnold fragments the camera’s gaze to portray the way sex scrambles the senses. At the conclusion of their tryst Martin sucks on her breasts — which are still lactating — while she sobs and openly grieves for her child and a promised future that has failed to pass.
Dog (2001) further solidifies Arnold’s style. We follow a girl (Joanne Hill) who is alienated from her mother (Veronica Valentine) and seeks affection from her boyfriend (Freddie Cunliffe) to boost her self-esteem. On her way to see her boyfriend she encounters a sick stray dog, a bit of rather heavy-handed symbolism. Her boyfriend takes her to his dealer’s house and goads her into handing over the money she stole from her mother. Although the scene is quick, it gives us a sense of how the girl situates herself in social environments, specifically in the company of men.
They go get high in a field where the boyfriend shows the bare minimum of affection towards her by kissing her between hits. Here, the film’s title takes on a subversive pun in that this outdoor dalliance is an example of “dogging,” British slang for public sex. Despite its salaciousness, the scene lacks any sex appeal. The softness of his hand cupping her breast is immediately lost as he begins to shout demands at her to lie down. The sex is sad. It bears a familiar sting at the ways in which first sexual encounters can often be violent. Her boyfriend hastily thrusts his fingers under her skirt and haphazardly throws himself on top of her with his fly undone. Any excitement, sweetness, and desire the girl had is now gone as she stares off into the field where her eyes meet the stray dog from earlier. The dog breaks the tension by causing the girl to laugh, which, in turn, draws out the aggression of the boyfriend who beats the dog to death. The film documents a simple excursion in a girl’s life who lacks access to resources that could help mediate the viciousness of being a young girl in the world.
Arnold’s most recent short, Wasp (2003), follows a young single mother with four very young children who lacks access to childcare, income, and affection. Desperate for a night out, Zoë (Natalie Press) takes up a suitor’s offer for drinks after running into him on her walk home from a front yard tussle with another neighborhood mother. The film does not condemn Zoë’s actions and instead draws us into the absence of affection plaguing the household. Arnold focuses her camera on fingers, tongues, and lips as Zoë tries and fails to call friends and family for childcare. These shots draw several desires for Zoë and her children: Zoë’s desire to be touched intimately and in a way that reminds her of her body as a woman and not as a mother; her children’s hunger as they eat sugar and crumbs from a cereal box; and the way the body is susceptible to harm from such things as insect bites.
Out of desperation Zoë takes her children, which includes an infant, with her to the bar. She parks them outside and delegates the eldest, about eight years old, as babysitter. Zoë’s night out with Dave (played by Danny Dyer) forgoes comedic effect and instead builds tension from the actions that individuals take out of desperation. The climax intertwines the children’s hunger, Zoë’s desire, and the wasp’s presence; while the CGI has not aged well in any capacity, the presence of the wasp as a threat to the characters’ bodies is no less frightening and believable thanks to Arnold’s affective direction. In Wasp, Arnold prioritizes how the body feels, which makes the tension feel real but also rescues the film from being a morality tale. We feel the characters’ wants and desires and sympathize with them for having those desires unmet until they nearly erupt.
Wasp, like Dog and Milk before it, features public sex, and while the threat of the wasp might be read as a way to punish Zoë for wanting sex, I think the correlation is more subtle and ambiguous. Zoë’s attempt at public sex in a parked car outside the bar exemplifies the living conditions and plight of her character’s situation. Zoë, like Hetty and the young girl before her, do not have the luxury of private intimacy. In Arnold’s work, sex is both affective and metaphorical, challenging the notion that women’s problems around sexuality, childcare, reproductive health, and education are private issues for the home. Arnold opens these private issues to the social realm where they become containers for dramatic and emotional tension that fill to the point of bursting.
Andrea Arnold’s short films and Fish Tank are streaming on the Criterion Channel.