Unmasking Daft Punk’s human side

In the cultural wilderness that is pop cinema (Spiceworld, anyone?), Daft Punk's arthouse film about robots in the desert is a delicious treat.

Neil Davenport

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The transfer of pop musicians to celluloid has often been an ignoble affair. It has led to such cinematic dross as The Bee Gees’ misfired Rock Opera, their take on The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; U2’s ponderous Rattle and Hum; and the Spice Girls’ cringeworthy Spiceworld. Only Slade’s cautionary music biz fable, In Flame, comes anywhere near to giving the big screen the respect it deserves.

So it was with some nervous trepidation that I went to see French Disco Tech producers Daft Punk (the duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo) unveil their 73-minute arthouse excursion, Electroma. So far, Daft Punk’s reputation is based on their colossal influence, their peerless agenda-setting, on the dance floor and in the charts. Can they also usher in a new era of credible, pop-based cinema? Or will they end up on the cutting-room floor of cinematic history?

It has been over 10 years since Daft Punk’s debut album, Homework, was unleashed and then quickly grabbed up, gobbled down and shamefully copied time and time again by other dance outfits. Daft Punk’s signature sound, a hyper-frenetic pinball of silvery, squelching synthesisers and vocodos put through a mangled C-90 tape, quickly established itself as the way to ensure bank-rolling royalties and press-pleasing kudos. After all, where would Madonna and Kylie’s back-from-the-dead career revivals be without ripping off Daft Punk? And the same can be said of any number of young hopefuls today. This year’s much approved dancefloor acts Digitalism, Justice and MSTRKRFT seem to take their riffs and ideas solely from Daft Punk’s 2001 album, Discovery (nee ‘Disco Very’. Ha!). And then there’s New York’s LCD Soundsystem, whose fanboy fantasy single from 2005, Daft Punk Is Playing At My House, really says it all.

If all this sounds annoyingly hip, self-consciously ‘cool’ and all a bit Shoreditch Twat, think again. A big factor in why Daft Punk are so genuinely adored is their levity, their bare-faced cheek, their contrariness and their refusal to play by anyone’s rules. Long before London dj Sean Rowley’s ‘Guilty Pleasures’ club night, wherein north London thirtysomethings go misty-eyed for old Leo Sayer singles, Daft Punk were already outraging some critics by incorporating AOR dullards Supertramp and prog-rock abominations Sky into their streamlined Gallic disco. Who else would decide to omit their most jaw-droppingly brilliant moment, Digital Love, from last year’s Greatest Hits set? Who else insist on giving (rare) interviews wearing robot masks? And who else could get away with playing big stadiums by simply miming to a mixed CD-R (and still make it sound great)? Daft Punk are slyly grin-stretching for all the right reasons.

So it’s with some relief, then, that I can report that Daft Punk’s idiosyncratic qualities can be found aplenty in Electroma. The plot is breathtakingly simple. Two robots, who you assume are Bangalter and de Homem Christo, but are in fact played by actors Peter Hurteau and Michael Reich, drive through the south-western American landscape in a Ferrari 412. They arrive at a small town in Inyo County, California, where the residents are also robot-like but are living a perfectly becalmed suburban existence. The ‘hero robots’, though, appear to want something more. They drive up to a hi-tech facility where liquid latex is poured over their heads and meticulously shaped into human faces (and they actually do resemble our Daft Punk heroes). As the ‘humans’ stroll through the small town, the robo-residents are nonplussed. When the duo’s faces start to melt in the sun, the locals realise they’re fake and chase after them. Once in hiding, the ‘hero robots’ reluctantly peel off the ruined masks, leave the town, and their dream of becoming human, behind, and begin a gloomy hike across the desert salt flats.

It doesn’t take a great deal of grey matter to decipher what Daft Punk are mulling over here. In many ways Electroma seems an outgrowth of Daft Punk’s third album, 2005’s Human After All, wherein the songs suggested a tension between being liberated and dominated by technology. In Electroma, there’s an obvious and simplified nod to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and his tract that modern-day technology has helped regiment and stifle our humanity and freedom. In particular, the suburban robots seem to play out Marcuse’s notion that ‘individuals identify themselves with the existence which is imposed upon them’ and that ‘the subject which is alienated is swallowed up by its alienated existence’. The two hero robots attempt to break out of such ‘one-dimensional conformity’ by attempting to be more real and human, playing on much of the counterculture ethos that Marcuse’s book influenced.

As this is an arthouse film, interpretation is obviously in the eye of the cinema-seat-holder. So while it might appear that Daft Punk are endorsing over-familiar themes here, the film’s closing scene suggests a critique of such ideas that has chilling contemporary resonance. As the hero robots become obsessed with being different to the suburbanites, their only way of fulfilling this desire is by being altogether estranged from them – hence their isolated hike across the desert. But rather than this providing fulfilment and meaning to their existence, they eventually become suicidal and blow themselves up. While it might be screamingly obvious to think of Islamic jihadists here, the murder/suicide pact in Electroma echoes that of other loathers of modern society: deep greens, perhaps, some of whom believe that voluntary euthanasia is a dignified choice in the name of saving the planet.

The real strength of Electroma is that Daft Punk use these rather slender contemporary ideas to their advantage. By having no dialogue there’s an absorbing quality, even intensity, to the slow-folding action on the screen. We become highly curious about the fate of the two placid robots on the Californian planes. Beyond that, however, Electroma is a piece of pure cinematic eye-candy, an indulgence of aesthetic pleasure – and it’s all the better for it. As directors with no previous experience, Bangalter and de Homem Christo are remarkably accomplished. Their ability to conjure off-kilter atmospheres has that same steady gaze that David Lynch brings to the screen, while the sun-bleached glare and slightly technicolour hue recalls Nicolas Roeg’s sci-fi masterpiece, The Man Who Fell To Earth.

And let’s not forget Daft Punk’s aforementioned humour. In one scene, which is already become a talking point and which caused outbreaks of laughter at the screening I attended, footage of a naked woman is shown dotted amongst the sand dunes. Bangalter and de Homem Christo had clearly read their viewers’ minds – those sand dunes really do have the shape of curved, attractive naked women. For all Daft Punk’s robo-obsessions, technophilia/phobia and Electroma‘s sci-fi subtext, it seems Bangalter and de Homem Christo really are human after all. At times, Electroma is flawed and self-indulgent, but in the slim pickings of pop cinema, this film, like Daft Punk themselves, stands robot-head and shoulders above the rest.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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