Austrian filmmaker Ruth Mader depicts a future under the absolute triumph of capitalism in her new dystopian sci-fi drama. In a society run by overachievers leading an “optimal” lifestyle, where anybody under the benchmark is sent to live in the sedated “Fortress of Sleep” neighbourhoods, financial analyst Alexander Dworsky (Fritz Karl) one day finds himself feeling not so optimal. Immediately Life Guidance steps in to “help” him, but Alexander will soon discover that this outsourced agency who helps people get back on the optimal track may not be so benevolent after all…
In her second feature film, Ruth Mader continues the style and themes of her previous feature, Struggle (2003). The grey emptiness of capitalism and the poverty of its castaways keeps seeping through the core of Life Guidance. Mader’s camera stays still and rigid and her actors, too, are often stuck in stillness. The performances are often charged with a Brechtian distancing effect, in which the subjects often appear devoid of emotion in even the most charged moments of an episode. The stylistics of political theatre indeed might seem appropriate for Mader’s politically charged film. However, it completely lacks the humour carried by some other well-known champions of it, such as the Lobster (2015) of Yorgos Lanthimos or the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and this causes it lose momentum.
The set of Life Guidance, just like its performances, is devoid of decor and emanates sterility. Oftentimes, this landscape conveys much more than the characters do. Mader’s camera accentuates buildings over people, showing how the system has taken priority over the individuals living under it in the landscape of capitalism. At the same time the shots of every building, every room are constructed in such a way as to accentuate their cubist nature. Almost everything in Life Guidance is constructed out of boxes. (Even the opening titles are projected on top of many expanding and shrinking boxes). This symbolises the overachieving individuals’ entrapment in boxes, as they ever try to push themselves “outside the box”. Life, in this future, is a sick joke.
In a sense, we watch the protagonist Alexander Dworsky’s journey through these boxes. He moves from one box to another, ultimately unable to break free from the prison of the system. Alexander is often devoid of any emotion, but sometimes, in rare moments, his eyes open up in horror ever so slightly; and that is when Life Guidance catches a glimpse of the beauty of the cubist horror of German Expressionism. When he enters the poor areas of the town, so-called Fortresses of Sleep, Alexander’s journey becomes reminiscent of Freder’s journey in Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927). Except for this time, it’s not the poor workers of Metropolis keeping the city running, but rich men like Alexander—and while Alexander spends his free time looking at picturesque lakes, the dwellers of these fortresses spend their time staring at juice in a sedated haze. If the capitalist system in Metropolis used the workers as slaves to run the town, the system in Life Guidance altogether disposes of any need for them. It is for this reason that Life Guidance does not attempt to suggest an alternative system like its predecessor did but immerses itself in its bleak vision of the future. Is this future worth living in? Perhaps this is the question that Life Guidance wants us to pose.