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Still from "High Rise"
via Recorded Picture Company

Faeces? Orgies? Could High-Rise be the new Trainspotting?

Based on the cracking novel by JG Ballard, High-Rise is a dystopian orgy of booze, bodies and building brawls

As director Ben Wheatley introduced his skyscraper-bacchanal-gone-wrong in Toronto last month, his top line painted a very fucked up picture: “It’s a big building, there’s lots of sex, violence, swear words, adult content, dancing – and it’s JG Ballard.”

A dystopian orgy of booze, bodies and building brawls, this stylised satire hints at a bleak battle between upper and middle classes in a pre-Thatcher, 1970s London. This gleefully unhinged adaptation of a JG Ballard classic zeroes in on upwardly mobile professionals like the young Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who moves into a swanky, high-tech tower block before amenities start breaking down, anarchic impulses are unleashed, faeces festoon the corridors, and Gatsby-esque orgies supplant the straight-laced cocktail hour. How exactly does Laing’s world unravel? Here, we revisit a few of the most bonkers bits we’re subjected to as High-Rise descends into luxurious depravity and architectural chaos.

“I spent a truly fascinating day with a forensic pathologist, somebody whose professional engagement is to diagnose the cause of death. It was pretty intense, unlike anything I had ever done to see a human body cut open” – Tom Hiddleston


The unflappable doctor (played with just the right amount of ironic distance by Tom Hiddleston) hacks away at schizophrenic skulls on the daily in the name of science at the School of Physiology. At TIFF, Hiddleston spoke of being sent on a fact-finding anatomical mission. “I spent a truly fascinating day with a forensic pathologist, somebody whose professional engagement is to diagnose the cause of death,” explained the actor. “He goes into a hospital every day to cut people open, and I did this with him. It was pretty intense, unlike anything I had ever done to see a human body cut open.”


A penthouse orgy only truly gets going when an uptight socialite shouts to a room full of men: “Who’s going to fuck me in the ass?” In another scene, the building’s white-suited architect (played with a kind of paralyzed panache by Jeremy Irons) solemnly warns a gaggle of distinguished guests: “I shall be the one who decides if someone gets lobotomized!” Ballard once said: “In a totally sane world, madness is the only freedom.” High-Rise finds the building’s tenants thoroughly exercising that freedom as society slides into chaos.


In the seventies Swedish supergroup’s “SOS”, Agnetha Fältskog sings: “You made me feel alive but something died, I fear.” To have Brit trip-hop icons Portishead record a devastatingly moody cover, and layer it atop a montage of the building’s residents hitting degenerate new lows, makes for the ultimate, end-of-world party track. “When the song is played, it’s almost like the heart of the building talking,” said Wheatley. “Listening to Portishead has always been a punch in the heart for me, so I wanted that moment to be pretty indelible.”


The hungry, blood-smeared doctor roasts a dog on a spit in the film’s surreal opening bit. Soon thereafter, we’re introduced to the architect’s batty wife, riding a white horse in the lush gardens of the skyscraper’s palatial 40th floor. It’s fair to surmise Wheatley’s delightfully twisted satire takes after a few pillars of surrealist British cinema. “There’s no escaping [the influence of] Lindsay Anderson because he casts such a massive shadow over British cinema,” he remarked. “But then it’s him, Nicolas Roeg, John Boorman, Ken Russell – and for me, weirdly, I find that they’ve been slightly painted out of the history of British cinema.”


Tenants throw kitchenware, garbage and themselves off High-Rise’s ledge in near-exquisite slow motion, almost making the building a character in every scene. Is High-Rise’s ominous, modernist architecture the root cause of its descent into madness? The fact that we question the shadowy hulk of concrete is a testament to the brilliance of production designer Mark Tildesley (a Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom regular). “What I really wanted for that building was the kind of architecture where everything looks really brilliant in drawings and models, but the actual building impedes on the people inside,” explained Wheatley.

High-Rise screens at BFI London, which runs 7-28 October 2015