A curious reference centers itself in the frame narrative of David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde: the 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio, by way of Toby Jones and a reel-to-reel tape machine. Both films are about a British national on assignment in mainland Europe crafting an image that ultimately proves lethal, and are self reflexive about their own similar objectives as well. Peter Strickland’s film opts to locate its genre iconography in audio, abstracting it for a top-down critique, while Leitch’s finds its content attacking its form’s fetishism.
Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is a desperate MI6 agent in 1989 Berlin tasked with tracking down a document of all undercover agents in the U.S.S.R and exposing a double agent, codenamed Satchel. She glides through her task with the disaffection that’s become hip for the genre, despite sequences back in her hotel room that reveal a humanity lost to the mandates of the job (though exactly where it can be found is a mystery). David Percival (James McAvoy) is a fellow agent who finds his humanity in the job, so enamoured with its deception, violence, and gamesmanship that his loyalty is in the doubt of the MI6 brass (Jones). These and other disparate motives, strategies, and personal implications of spy work converse in what is ultimately a genre deconstructionist treatise on authenticity and facade.
Perhaps the most (literally) bludgeoning access point to the film’s rich discourse is the brutal fight scenes scored to upbeat 80’s classics, which make explicit the duality of the legacy of the 1980s: when the Berlin Wall falls, the international intelligence industrial complex and the consequences of its chicanery don’t simply disappear. The new, supposedly open world is really America’s playground, and more solipsist than ever before. The songs themselves are fetishized in a similar way to the characters, simplified by genre but revived by history, reminding us of something lost. Atomic Blonde‘s modus operandi is as follows: remove historical and personal context in such a suspicious manner that one recognizes that some context must be there, and subsequently tease the viewer by never revealing it. The film understands that it must exemplify the problem in some capacity in order to fairly complete the critique.
At one point, Lorraine refers in voiceover to Berlin as a melting film frame, as the film itself dutifully melts along, revealing her delivering the line underneath. The formal trick is stale, as well as superficial in its tone for it, and as a result the topographic symbol for the genre’s narrative tropes is conflated with overplayed stylistic gimmickry. The action-espionage genre can no longer exist with total sincerity; it must bury its psychological turmoil underneath the shallow nostalgia of a blaring neon light. History is doomed to repeat itself in the simplified arena of genre, left to be subsumed by its heritage, one of showmanship.
A late, silent, one take, multi-minute melee finds the film’s style vanished; its stark, dualistic whites and blacks now a muddy gray, and its fight choreography now more comprised of brute force than the acrobatic. Such clarity provides a fascinating counterpoint to the mode of obfuscatory stylization prior. The long take itself, however, must be a signifier for cinematic stylistics, despite how stripped it is of anything but carnage. Atomic Blonde‘s breakdown of stylized violence here reaches its apex, as even an unadorned massacre must be considered “neat” by its audience, even when the exalted technique is used to strip it barren of directorial tinkering. Lorraine cannot even escape into reality.
Thus, the 80’s fetish is not merely there to be “cool” or “stylish.” Not only is it undercut heavily by subject matter, but its building blocks are comprised of aesthetics that have lain dormant with their spark of original purpose sapped. The entire aesthetic strategy (outside of the de-aestheticized long take) treats the legitimate Cold War-era alienation its genre antecedents were originated to mirror – and that our characters feel – as part of the aesthetic itself. Spies must now be detached not only as a result of losing out on their real life, but for the sake of the films they live on in. Narratively, Lorraine’s ending is defined more by genre than her own agency. Even after she verbally reclaims it, she’s found in the film’s second coda still in the game and loving it. But has she, like David, found contentment playing that game? Have Atomic Blonde‘s demands for her emotions superseded her own? Or, in a potential twist that would turn the entire theme structure on its head, has the film been under her devious control from the outset?