A standout British film from the ‘60s, this hypnotic take on class and sex with tantalising bits of latent homosexuality, sees director Joseph Losey, writer Harold Pinter and actor Dirk Bogarde at the top of their game.
Dir. Joseph Losey
1963 | UK | Drama | 116 mins | 1.66:1 | English
Not rated – likely to be NC16 for mature themes
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, James Fox
Plot: Hugo Barrett is a servant in the Chelsea home of indolent aristocrat Tony. All seems to go well until the playboy’s girlfriend Susan takes a dislike to the efficient employee.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature – Power Dynamics; Sexuality
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
The first screen collaboration between director Joseph Losey and writer Harold Pinter who were both at the top of their game here, The Servant is still regarded today as one of the standout British films from the ’60s.
Starring Dirk Bogarde (in a devilish performance) as Barrett, who gets a job as a house servant in a newly renovated apartment, The Servant is elegant, sensual and most intriguingly, a troubling exploration of the nature of power as channelled through the twin pillars of class and sex.
Barrett’s boss, Tony, an uptight upper-class man whose girlfriend despises his servant, has to maintain some kind of power balance among the trio, but when Barrett recommends Tony to hire his sister as an additional housemaid, all semblance of morality begin to disintegrate.
“Look, he may be a servant but he’s still a human being.”
Shot in a dreamy, hypnotic style with infusions of jazz, The Servant is anything but improvisational—every camera movement and framing, however unorthodox they sometimes may be, is deliberate.
Bubbling underneath the explicit displays of heterosexual desires are tantalising bits of latent homosexuality, which aren’t glimpsed but felt, however subtly, which makes Losey’s work also one on homoerotic anxieties.
Ultimately, rules are broken, emotions are shattered and the role each character plays becomes less defined by norms.
In a thematically-warped way, The Servant could be an interesting companion piece to Kim Ki-young’s well-revered The Housemaid (1960) in its portrayal of domestic and sexual tensions in conservative societies.