It takes me a while to recognise creator Mercedes Grower in her own film. Off the screen, or rather, in front of it, as she introduces her two-year, zero-budget passion project, she seems entirely down to earth. Grower comes across like the cool godmother who used to take you to one side and talk to you frankly about the world in a way you wished everyone would. Her on-screen character, by contrast, is traipsing around Soho in the snow wearing a leopard-print coat, heavily pregnant and seeming young and very lost.
It is no surprise, then, that Grower was an actor first, and that most of the incredible actors who took part as unpaid collaborators in Brakes were already her friends and acquaintances. She is stunningly convincing, as well as effortlessly funny: just as much in fact as both Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, renowned duo from classic British comedy The Mighty Boosh, who also feature in the film. During the Q&A following the programme, when asked about how far the collaboration went, and to what extent the actors’ improv affected the thread of the scenes, Grower reveals that, on the whole, each scene was as much a riff off prompts as it was scripted. As the ‘writer’, director and producer, it would be perhaps better to term Grower the mother of this humble, unpolished masterpiece. She gave birth to a concept and surrounded it by the people who would take it to all the right places: and then had to organise all the distribution herself, as she tells us, humorous and fatigued.
The film follows nine couples, all based in London, who we watch break up and then meet for the first time. The first chapter, perhaps somewhat predictably named ‘Part 2’, interweaves a series of break-ups both absurd and familiar. Even Noel Fielding and Grower banging on either side of a public bathroom toilet door and shouting about how its not a ‘real front door’ is framed by the familiarity of feeling totally and utterly disconnected from someone you love. Another couple break up through a mundane argument about commitment dressed as a zombie and Frankenstein’s bride on a beautiful, dilapidated roof garden. In one of the weaker, though no less poignant, vignettes, a middle-aged pair can’t even summon up the energy to properly row about how they have fallen out of love with each other in their expensive Baker Street apartment and how he is probably sleeping with someone else called ‘Fiona’. The comic centre-piece of the film is Julian Barratt’s character, who stalks a guy he had a one-night stand with in Barcelona back to London, and then uses ice-creams to try and convince him that they should be together on the Southbank. The second – or ‘first’ – part, opens with him topless above the camera, playing the ukulele and singing creepily.
Grower tells us that they in fact had an earlier piece of narrative filmed for this couple, but that she was so determined to use this shot to open the second chapter that they had to cut it altogether. It is easy to see why she made this decision: it is the perfect incarnation of everything that is both ticklingly funny and quietly frightening about the subject matter of her film. At base level, it does end on a high. Instead of watching all these couples break up last, we watch them break up first, and get together last.
Grower describes it as a kind of figure-of-eight thought-process that we all go through with relationships. First, as we get to the end we all look back on, and reassess the beginning. Second, after it is all over we still find the courage to start all over again with someone else. It uses something cripplingly depressing to make us look upwards and laugh. The film would, in all honesty, be quite unwatchable if made the conventional way around. Not many people could sit through nearly an hour of emotionally draining, nihilistic break-ups without the promise of something better coming afterwards. All in all, it was heartening to meet the creator behind this piece of independent cinema. A high-budget gloss would almost certainly have ruined the concept. The homemade feel of the image and sound-quality, as well as the messy, ‘what-they-had-time-for’ nature of some of the shots, perfectly matches the sense of emotional messiness which comes with the subject-matter.
It is sad to think that, in being accustomed to Hollywood polish as the sole medium of story telling, we are unwittingly making ourselves incapable of appreciating anything with blemishes. Nothing in the breakups depicted here is fairy-tale or Hollywood, so why should it be filmed as such?