I set out to watch two very different films in a row today and through a strange coincidence both of them used the same seemingly innocent urban location as a sinister and lonely area of uncanny danger and fear. They both used motorway petrol stations.
The first was Michael Winterbottom’s Butterfly Kiss, which is a British film about a troubled and violent women named Eunice who travels around motorway service stations in the north of England trying to find her lover Judith. The second was Sluizer’s Spoorloos, a Dutch film about a troubled and violent man named Raymond who uses service stations in the south of France in order to kidnap women. It was only after I had watched them both did I consider how they connected thematically and started to think of other films that used petrol stations and motorways as symbols for danger.
The obvious answers lie in the (incredibly hit or miss) genre that best explores the aspect of the human condition that yearns for travel and freedom: the road movie. The road movie works by introducing (usually) a pair of characters on a literal, and spiritual, journey across a vast countryside. Along the way their mission creeps towards another goal and they always learn something about themselves as they reach their destination. The motorways in these films represent the best of human progress and always symbolically lead to ‘a better place’.
Motorways are the manifestation of modernism and capitalism, linking cities together for the benefit of trade and the movement of industry. They are both empowering and represent freedom (‘the open road’), as well as being cold and lonely stretches of concrete and darkness. The areas that punctuate these lonely expanses are petrol stations – places that offer sanity and human interaction. For a film to represent these places as dangerous and absurd destroys the positive symbolism of the motorway as progressive and empowering and replaces it with the more understated experience that they are unsettling and threatening hubs of strange lunatics. These areas are highlighted as absurd instead of functional, uncanny instead of familiar and lonely instead of friendly.
In Spoorloos, the petrol station is at first a space of relief and somewhere where Rex and Saskia can relax after an argument. It is a happy, sunny environment at first but over the duration of the narrative it becomes more and more sinister as the anonymity of the area becomes the cause of the film’s tragedy.
In Butterfly Kiss, the petrol station is a strange place where all of the attendants use the same language in response to bizarre questions from Eunice. The experience of visiting such a place is reductive and surreal. The characters travel from petrol stations, to cafés, to truck stops – each time being antisocial and committing acts of extreme violence.
What does these films say about motorways and how we interact with them? How do they manage to present a purely functional space and then represent them as uncanny and sinister?
There are other films that explore similar ideas: 28 days later and the road blockade; Cabin in the Woods and the postmodern gas-station weirdo… There is no surprise that in post-apocalyptic movies there is always an emphasis on using motorways to navigate the terrain – my favourite example being Wristcutters: A love Story and the desolate apocalyptic-but-not highway… (as well as The Road, Book of Eli, Mad Max etc.)