Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots in Vivarium (2020), dir. Lorcan Finnegan (image courtesy TKTK)

Gemma and Tom could be any young couple struggling to climb the housing ladder. In Lorcan Finnegan’s tragicomic horror, Vivarium, they make a last-resort trip to a new housing estate crammed with boxy, soulless affordable homes. Their suburban nightmare speaks to a generation cruelly mis-sold the idea that anything is possible. The anaemic house becomes a prison they cannot leave; the estate a labyrinth with no exit.

As the reality of home ownership comes under increasing strain, artists and filmmakers are using bricks and mortar to expose our intimate anxieties about materialism, social status, and gender identity. In her book, Art and the Home, Imogen Racz writes, “home both contains us and is within us.” It shapes and expresses who we are. While classic home invasion movies focus on the threat of unpredictable outside forces on the safety of the family unit, contemporary filmmakers are exploiting the politics and economics of home itself.

Julianne Moore in Safe (1995), dir. Todd Haynes (image courtesy the Criterion Collection)

Todd Haynes was among the first to turn the home invasion movie inside out with his taut drama, Safe, in 1995. Housewife Carol (Julianne Moore) suffers extreme allergies when her immaculate new home is violated by toxic chemicals seeping out of designer furniture and household goods. She abandons the house for a puritanical retreat and, stripped of all her material possessions, begins to question her identity.

The act of housing abandonment articulates a troubling shift in the idea of home as a place of safety to a place of oppression. In reality, dwindling employment is a common cause of this shift. But so too are poor quality homes and increased social stratification. It’s particularly staggering that, in the UK, the intensifying housing shortage has occurred alongside large scale abandonment: something that reflects the importance of housing aspirations and its relationship with our own self-worth.

From Vivarium (2020), dir. Lorcan Finnegan (image courtesy TKTK)

“That a housing project has won the Turner prize, one of the most prestigious art prizes in the world,” wrote journalist, Dawn Foster for the Guardian in 2015, “is a symbol of how deeply embedded the housing crisis has become in modern society.” For their Granby Four Streets project, multidisciplinary collective Assemble worked with local residents to take possession of demolished properties in Liverpool, redesigning them as attractive, modern, affordable homes. Turner prize judges heaped praise on their community-driven approach in refreshing “opposition to corporate gentrification.”

By contrast, Vivarium’s nauseating blue-green cinematography oozes the bleak inevitability of the corporate housing machine. It’s made flesh in the robotic platitudes of a creepy estate agent and an eerily similar, parasitical baby that invades Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma’s (Imogen Poots)  new home, exhausting and depleting them for his own gain. The film opens with gruesome images of a cuckoo laying its egg in the nest of another bird; its hatchling pushing the rival chicks to their deaths. The young bird grows into a colossal adult through the painstaking work of its tiny, duped, adoptive mother. This perversion of nature becomes a metaphor for the dual horrors of suburban life and the capitalist housing system. It’s no coincidence that both Jordan Peele’s Us and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite use disenfranchised imposters to illustrate social inequality, invading homes that are both expressions of material wealth and a lifetime of opportunity.

From Parasite (2019), dir. Bong Joon-ho (image courtesy Cinetic Marketing)

In both films, the contrast between living spaces lays bare the fallacy of social mobility. Vertical landscapes indicate social hierarchies, with poor and marginalized characters living underground: a literal underclass. Heavy rain refreshes the wealthy in Parasite, surging down their gentrified landscape to flood the semi-basement homes of their hard-working, low-income employees. Bong goes beyond mere symbolism, intimately connecting the life-limiting effects of these homes with their impact on identity and dignity. An employer’s offhand comment about the distinctive “smell” of the basement-dwellers — a consequence of cooking and sleeping in the same confined space — sets the film’s catastrophic climax in motion.

Home as a trap is a recurring theme in the genre. Finnegan even twists the aspirational expression, “forever home” into a frightening life sentence. Inside, physical spaces further expose constraining social divisions as labor is gendered. In Vivarium, the garden becomes a male space, the kitchen a female one. Finnegan explores these deep-rooted, gendered notions of identity as Gemma is unwillingly confined to the role of mother and caregiver. The film is a meditation on growing up — on accepting responsibility, parenthood and domestic routine — but one that stresses the implicit expectations placed upon women in the home. Like Carol — whose status as “housewife” aggravates her identity crisis in Safe — Gemma is left asking, “What am I in this?” Darren Aronofsky pursues a related idea in his melodramatic home invasion film, Mother!, equating misogyny in the home with our treatment of the natural world. Jennifer Lawrence doubles as both submissive wife and mother-nature, exposing the damaging effects of ignorance and abuse.

YouTube video

These metaphors — the reverse home invasion in Vivarium, the imposters in Us and Parasite, and the environmental metaphors in Safe and Mother! — force us to consider not only who we are, but what we have done. Danger no longer originates from an unknowable outside source but from home itself: a physical manifestation of the familiar and prejudicial socio-economic systems in which we are too often complicit. Us goes furthest in exposing our superficial public displays of conscience and solidarity. More than 30 years on from the Hands Across America event it satirizes, over half a million Americans still experience homelessness on a typical night.

The contemporary home invasion genre might seem pessimistic about personal action, but it reflects growing frustration with a system geared toward the privileged 1%. In the last few weeks, the economic consequences of COVID-19 have ferociously unmasked the problem of housing affordability. Low-income renters are being hardest hit and many are now calling for governments to intervene. In the UK, the number of Universal Credit claimants has increased by almost a million and the prospect of mass evictions is mobilizing tenants in the US, Canada, and Australia. As we inch closer towards a global recession, these films are remarkably sincere about the economic inequalities now predicted to deepen as a result of the continuing crisis.

Vivarium (2020), dir. Lorcan Finnegan is now streaming on multiple platforms, along with Us (2019), dir. Jordan Peele, and Mother!(2017), dir. Darren Aronofsky. Safe (1995), dir. Todd Haynes, is now streaming on the Criterion Channel. Parasite (2019), dir Bong Joon-ho, is now streaming on Hulu.  

Natalie Stendall is a writer living in Birmingham, UK. She explores the relationship between film and the novel on her website and has written for Little White Lies and Bright Wall Dark...