Gross-out horror has never been this highbrow
Directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia
Written by David Desola & Pedro Rivero
“There are three types of people: those on the top, those on the bottom, and those who fall.”
At the height of our foreign film craze here in the West comes a 2019 Spanish-language work of dystopian speculative fiction, The Platform, perfect for filling a Squid Game-shaped void. Adapted from a play, the film premiered at TIFF in 2019 and won the “Midnight Madness” category and a Netflix distribution deal (where you can stream it).
The Platform, sometimes translated from Spanish as The Hole, is a film with a stunningly simple premise. In a mysterious “Vertical Self-Management Centre,” there is one room on each level inhabited by two prisoners. No one knows for certain how many levels there are, and prisoners are randomly assigned a new level each month. All these factors compound to form an air of anxious uncertainty where nothing is as it seems. Every day, a concrete platform, laden heavy with a lavish feast, descends through the levels. With only limited time to eat, the feeding becomes a frenzy — prisoners are not allowed to save food for later, or else the rooms will heat up or cool down to a fatal temperature. In theory, the amount of food prepared in the kitchen on the top floor should be enough to feed all the prisoners. In practice, the lower floors starve. Or, to avoid dying, they find other ways to feed themselves.
The entire film is set in the prison, centred around the eponymous Platform. This film-in-a-bottle technique allows the all-encompassing, suffocating nature of the prison to envelope the audience. We feel like something out of a Sartre play: indeed, Hell is other people. The brutalist concrete blocks are the perfect canvas for the acting chops of Iván Massagué and Zorion Eguileor to shine. Their complicated relationship as fellow prisoners will continue throughout the film. Eguileor in particular stands out in the film with his character’s darkly comedic monologues.
Our audience surrogate, Goreng, played by a phenomenal Massagué, has signed up for six months in this experimental prison — and he has no idea what he’s in for. Each prisoner is allowed one personal item: Goreng brings his copy of Don Quixote. Goreng himself is a stand-in for the impassioned knight Don Quixote, nobly fighting for the downtrodden. The film is stuffed with symbolism and metaphor, which makes the gross-out nature of it so shocking.
Although heavy-handed at times, like when Goreng’s roommate scoffs at his idea to save food for the lower floors (“What are you, a communist?,” he asks) The Platform works best as a political allegory applied loosely to our society. I’d hazard to guess that the film critiques both the excesses of wealth as portrayed by the lavish feasts prepared by the chefs on the top floor as well as the mechanisms used to redistribute this wealth — namely Goreng’s many attempts to feed those on the lower floors.
The Hole itself is a prison as impractical and imposing as Jeremy Benthams’ Panopticon, the circular prison with a central tower that only needs one guard thanks to its architecture. In contrast to the Panopticon, the Hole is a prison seemingly without anyone monitoring the prisoner’s behaviour, making it more like the outside world than anything. The film asks: how would we behave if there were no checks and balances? This caused me to ask: is this how we behave now, or is it a cautionary tale about our future?
Cinematographer Jon D. Domínguez lingers on the disgusting: dirty fingernails, bodily fluids, the eager ruin of the feast. He paints the beauty and aesthetic quality of some of the dishes in sweeping slow motion, only for them to be destroyed in a series of rapid shots. The acts of violence between prisoners are so expertly paired with the violence committed against the food itself — a cake crushed by a human foot stands in for the destruction of aesthetic value in the face of survival.
Bloody, grotesque and not for the faint of heart, this film is perfect for an artsy Halloween get-together.