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If… (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)
Lindsay Anderson’s boldly allegorical drama If… features a sly script that very slowly reveals just how strongly it is protesting against authority. Taking a strong cue from Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, Anderson pitches this schoolboys’ tale as a simmering situation that slowly grows into a wildly out of control fantasy of rebellion. Focusing on a small clique of “hair rebels”, but aware of the entire social structure of the elite academy it takes place at, the film manages to convey both an outsider’s perspective and the pressures that are exerted against those who even casually challenge power. The first third of the script is the strongest segment. For a long while, If… is merely observational, steadfastly refusing to make its ultimate plot, or its metaphorical import, clear. Grounded in specificity, the early scenes could be mistaken for exposition as the exposition for a nostalgic, if bittersweet, personal memoir of bygone school days. They allow the film to work its insidious magic, pulling in an audience accustomed to the British boarding school genre, before throwing proverbial cold water in their collective face. Goodbye, Mr. Chips, this is not.
As If…’s plot develops, Anderson begins switching, almost randomly, from black and white to color cinematography, providing an immediately distancing effect that is further reinforced by the increasingly fragmented narrative. At some imperceptible point, fantasy begins to gain equal footing with reality, and it’s difficult to tell where one begins and the other stops. Scattered throughout, there are shots and scenes that don’t exactly feel like realistic progressions of the story. For example, there’s one scene featuring two of the so-called heroes as they cut school, head to town, steal a motorcycle, and then ride wildly to a café where one of them meets and sexually engages a bewitching young girl. Given Anderson’s themes, it’s clear that at some point we’ve crossed into the boys’ imaginings, but it’s impossible to ascertain just where that moment occurred.
Other such moments are dotted throughout the movie. A woman is seen walking through the boys’ dorms without clothes. A slow-motion sequence atop a high bar becomes a blatantly homoerotic revelry. A horoscope ominously warns against conflict, stating that one of the young rebels might be “not only on the wrong side, but possibly in the wrong war.” The sum of all these possible digressions sets up a dialectic between oppression and freedom that culminates in the final moments, which make If…’s true intentions abundantly clear. An adolescent attack on all that England holds dear, from education to religion, the last scenes directly assault pomp and circumstance with an explosive, hormonal burst of rage. This sequence, unresolved but unforgettable, completes the proposition put forth by the elliptical title.