Daphne is on the edge. The titular character of Peter Mackie Burns first feature film is headed in the direction of a breakdown. Daphne, played by Emily Beecham, is an aspiring chef who lives alone, fills her life with a concoction of drugs, alcohol and sex and has a terrible relationship with her mother. It’s a story which probably feels quite familiar to most middling, twenty-something Londoners. Except Daphne is on the wrong side of thirty, and has just witnessed a stabbing.
Daphne is perhaps a character study in more ways than it is a film. We follow Daphne on her daily pursuits; work, home, bar, bed, as well discovering that she is in quite a complicated relationship with most of the people in her life – including herself. It’s all very subtle – Daphne is not a film that gives anything away. Burns wants you to work Daphne out for yourself. Midway through the film, Daphne is a witness to a stabbing in a local cornershop. In any other film, this might be a turning point for our main character – a jolt to shock them out of their ritualistic stupor. Daphne is smarter than that. With a great deal of nuance, we see Daphne take her very first steps in tackling her own feelings that she has suppressing for so long.
Though it may not sound it by the description, Daphne is not a bleak film. It’s quite the opposite. Visually textured, often using bright colours in the frame, Daphne feels light. It’s also incredibly clever in its design. Tiny details work to give us all information we need – Daphne owns a pet snake, a symbol of her desire to be independent, but also connoting her tendency to be untrustworthy. Only a few words are spoken between herself and the only friend we meet, but they are enough to show that Daphne doesn’t care for friendship very much.
Daphne lives in an unreasonably spacious and charming house for the fact that she is a junior chef and lives in London, so we can assume from the beginning that her parents are probably well off. This amplifies the tension that we later see between herself and her mother – Daphne dislikes her mother but she can’t rule her out of her life.
Daphne creates a cinematic vision of London which is in fierce opposition to most onscreen portrayals of the city. It’s gritty, dirty, loud and can feel pretty uninviting at times. The film declines us any of London’s traditional monuments and iconography, preferring instead to keep the film grounded in Daphne’s day to day life; her workplace, the streets she walks and the bars she frequents. It feels real.
The pivotal scene manages to come off as equally shocking and mundane. The stabbing itself is over before we or Daphne realise what has actually happened. Daphne’s initial reaction, to recoil from the scene, places her outside of that moment of action. There is little drama, the flash of a knife, nervous aggression from the assailant, and then very little. Daphne, who we remember is intoxicated, moves to help the victim reluctantly. At one point she calls him a ‘twat’ as his blood stains her clothing. This is perhaps the first moment that Daphne see’s herself as the nihilist that others do.
The Unlikable Woman
We all know that films about women, or with female protagonists, are on the rise and things are (very slowly) getting better. The thing about representation, though, is that creating only strong and likable women isn’t actually representation at all. Not all women are nice, friendly or accommodating. Not all women have to be relatable or compassionate. Women don’t have to have redeeming features and they certainly don’t need to have a sort of redemption arc to mold them into a more likable character.
This is where Daphne comes into its own. Daphne is not likable. She’s mean to her mother, she drinks too much, she is rude to her friends, she’s downright aggressive to strangers. She’s unsympathetic and to top it all off she regularly quotes Slavoj Zizek. She’s insufferable, but this is what makes her interesting. It’s fitting to the story and to her character that she doesn’t suddenly become a nice person after the stabbing. What does happen is a slow self-destruction and evaluation – like a slow motion explosion. She’s erupts little by little until she is forced to really look at herself.
Of course, there is no breakthrough moment because a.) that’s not the film that Daphne is and b.) that is entirely out of character for Daphne herself. Instead, there is an incredibly smart scene at the end of the film where Daphne visits Benny, the stabbing victim at his family home. Throughout the film, Daphne walks and talks with an air of superiority – correcting her date’s pronunciation, denouncing love as a ridiculous notion. Over a pretty awkward dinner, Benny translates for his wife, explaining to Daphne that she pities her. It could be a error in translation, but the word pity is apt here.
Daphne, with her superiority complex, should be pitied. She has a lot to learn about the world but is determined not to. She’s essentially a perpetual teenager, unable to take responsibility in her relationships, her work life or friendships.
Daphne: More of this, please!
Daphne truly is a fascinating character study. Emily Beecham is astounding, portraying a layered and complex character, and one that we rarely see on screen. I, for one, want to see more Daphnes in the future. We’ve had scores of unlikable male characters grace our screens and I think it’s time for us to hit back a bit.
Who is your favourite unlikable woman in cinema? Let us know in the comments below!
Daphne is was released in the UK on September 29, 2017. For all international release dates, see here.
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