The Servant (1963) is a cold, cruel film. Tony, the young aristocratic protagonist, is established as listless, confused, and prone to alcoholism. His house in the opening reflects this. It is totally bare, a fresh canvass waiting, like Tony, for someone or something to show up and provide it with some kind of direction. Tony choses to let Barret, his recently appointed manservant, model his home and by extension, his life. This threatens Tony’s girlfriend Susan, and Tony’s house becomes a battlefield for control of Tony’s life.
No one treats Barret worse than Susan. She speaks to him brusquely, callously orders him around and enjoys mocking him and forcing him to demean himself in front of her. While this treatment is somewhat justified considering Barret’s ultimate motives, her treatment of him is still off-putting; she is needlessly cruel. Susan is a good aristocrat, she is aware of her place in society and constantly reminds the servants of theirs. We get a glimpse of the type of life she would lead with Tony during their stay at the Mountset estate. The Mountsets are parodies of the extremes of aristocratic life. They sit in stiff, unnatural positions in a house replete with extravagant and expensive decorations and talk about nothing that matters. The sound design for their house is quite unlike any other scene in the film. The noise they make is extremely reverberant, suggesting a large and empty house that, like Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941), sounds more like a tomb than a home.
His life with Barret however is not seen as a useful alternative. Barret begins taking control over more and more aspects of Tony’s life, and even after Tony fires him he cannot break free from his influence. Barret ends up back in the house but the relationship between master and servant is all wrong. Barret is no longer the quiet and calculating manipulator but the bold and terrible tyrant. In an effort to retain his agency, Tony lashes out at Barret to pick up his tea dregs, but it is too little too late. The two men play a ball game upon the stairs and Barret remarks “I’m in the inferior position, I’m playing uphill” but by the end of the sequence Barret stands victorious at the top of the stairs while Tony fetches him some brandy. The enormous and ominous shadows they cast on the wall betray the importance of this encounter, Barret has not only won the ball game but also the role of master.
The film is obsessed with the pettier, crueler side of human nature. The mise-en-scène is covered with mirrors and the scenes themselves are constantly shot in reflection, giving the world of the film a cold, narcissistic quality. Mirrors also reverse the images they reflect, as they do in the bar scene where Barret apologizes. The scene starts in reflection and then switches to a normal point of view, deliberately switching the relative positions of Tony and Barret just as their positions as master and servant are being switched in the drama. One particularly ugly convex mirror constantly appears in the film, and the reflections inside it are twisted and pinched, suggesting that mirrors and reflections themselves have the ability to reveal the psychic state of the world. In this way the narcissism and materialism inherent to the mirrors also becomes the truth about the world.
In The Servant, some things really are just skin deep. There is no deep revelation as to why Barret treats Tony the way that he does just like there is no deeper reason given for Susan’s treatment of Barret. The characters in the film are cold, stupid, and above all cruel. Their eventual slide into pure decadence–the movie does end in an orgy, after all–reflects only the parts of them that were already there. Tony’s boredom and laziness reduces him into a shadow of his former self while Barret’s cunning ambition turns him into a brute. Only Susan remains untouched by the corruption, but her ready acceptance of her place as an aristocrat suggests that she will end up like the Mountsets. There are no real survivors in the film and no better alternatives are given. The lethargy and apathy of the aristocratic life is taken to its extreme and it is horrifying to behold.