Out of the blue I get an email from Brett Gregory, an English writer and filmmaker I’ve never heard of. He wants to tell me about his directorial debut, the arrestingly titled Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Influential New York-based socialist magazine Jacobin recently hailed it as “the best film about working-class Britain in years.” But, even though it’s been out for nearly 12 months, when I contact fellow writers and film programmers, there is a collective shrug. No one knows about it. What gives?
Nobody Loves You is a strange, roaring, wounded beast of a film. I’ve watched it three times and am still not sure what I’ve seen. It begins with a bear-like figure called Old Jack waking up in a spartan flat and being spattered with bad news: an old friend is on a ventilator with Covid; a distant grandmother wants to meet up before she dies. He washes down some pills and vodka before sinking into a memory vortex, fragments of his life suddenly rearing into view: aged 11, he was sexually abused by a babysitter; as a student, he struggled with classmates who thought him pretentious; at university, he discovers hard drugs.
Nobody Loves You is almost chthonically dark. Set in present-day Manchester, it portrays a city at once blingy and left behind, one that the musician-writer-broadcaster Mike Harding has described as being “designed by a schizophrenic drunk with attention deficiency disorder”. Its final, gloriously gloomy scenes evoke the gothic north of Wuthering Heights. The film has the historical sweep—reaching back to the miners’ strike—of Our Friends in the North (1996) and the spooling loquacity of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993). Yet every other scene makes showy use of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The lute-heavy soundtrack is intentionally medieval.
This, I suggest to Gregory, is not how working-class Britain is usually portrayed on screen. He tells me that he recently watched I, Daniel Blake (2016), Ken Loach’s portrait of a widowed carpenter struggling to navigate the British benefits system. “To be honest, I was really disappointed. It was very sentimental. Nobody swore.” He laughs. “One of my aesthetic aims is to liberate working-class representation from the prison of social realism. Loach doesn’t film interior lives. He doesn’t give any inner life or imagination or intellect to working-class characters.”
Gregory’s film, by contrast, deploys noirish dream sequences, a female narrator who serves as a waspish Greek chorus, and, influenced by Lars von Trier, faux interviews with some of the women in Jack’s life. Characters break the fourth wall to deliver incredibly long monologues (one from a standout actor, 11-year-old Reuben Clarke) that are both exhausting and compelling.
Underpinning everything is a passion for books: there is an epigraph by Borges, there are lingering shots of a Jean Genet photo and a Chekhov paperback, and a final sequence—in which Jack drags a suitcase uphill—that’s inspired by Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. “There is a complete absence of literature in mainstream cinema,” the director claims. “It seems to me, though, that cinema is totally dependent on literature, which is decades ahead in terms of psychology and techniques.”
The film is a portrait of isolation—that of the north of England, and of Jack at various stages of his life. Gregory is 51 and grew up on a council estate. He admits that much of the film is based on his own experiences. He says, without obvious rancour, that his parents never loved him. That he has suffered from depression. That he has experienced not a few “alcohol years”. Like Jack, he worked as a lecturer for many years, trying to hold onto his idealism at a time when education—especially the arts—was subject to growing governmental meddling. He started writing his screenplay after being made redundant in 2015, subsisting on loans and dole money. “Right now, I’m on Universal Credit. They’re stopping my money in June.”
Making Nobody Loves You, especially during Covid, was a gruelling experience. There was no budget to pay actors, some of whom were scared off by the intensity of the script. The finished film, so bruised and experimental, won’t be to everyone’s tastes. But it deserves to exist, to be seen, to be argued over.