Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Subjective reality (Heavenly Creatures)

It's my final 1001 Movies Blog Club post for the year, taking a look at Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures. A somewhat fitting choice for this holiday season, if we take into account (as I always do!) the ancient roots in Saturnalia and its attendant carnival atmosphere and overturning of social norms. Certain plot details of Heavenly Creatures fit that theme, but in a broader sense the entire movie is a reversal of something I've obsessed over in the past. I'm still a defender of my general theory that storytellers love stories about stories and storytellers, but Peter Jackson offers something of a sobering counterpoint to that notion in this movie. Instead of praising the transformative and redemptive powers of escapism, Heavenly Creatures is a disturbing cautionary tale about overindulging in personal fantasies.

Based on a true story, Heavenly Creatures centers on two teenage girls living in Christchurch, NZ in the early 1950's. Pauline and Juliet are not merely adolescents; they are deep in the turbulent throes of adolescence. There's an inherent challenge in making teenagers point-of-view characters for a story, since they invariably emerge as unreliable narrators. To a certain extent, that's the point of Heavenly Creatures, since it chronicles the development and deepening of the girls' attachment to one another to the exclusion of almost everything else, climaxing in the horrific murder of Pauline's mother at both girls' hands. Pauline and Juliet gradually, increasingly substitute the world they perceive around them with their own interior reveries, until it seems to them obvious and unavoidable that a woman must die because she is a mere obstacle to the girls' continued happiness in one another. To try to distill the causes of a brutal matricide into a single word leads to convenient labels like "crazy" or "evil", but Heavenly Creatures attempts to lay out a more nuanced explanation. It does not attempt to deflect or redirect the blame for the crime from the girls to their parents (or, shudder, "society") but merely to provide a context that makes the act less of an utter anomaly.

It's very telling that the first meeting between Pauline and Juliet happens in two stages. Juliet arrives at Pauline's school and interrupts French class. Juliet has no reason to notice Pauline, but Pauline is mesmerized by Juliet as she proceeds from introducing herself straight to correcting the teacher. Later, Pauline and Juliet are paired together for a life drawing assignment in art class, which gives Pauline the opportunity to tell Juliet she's brilliant. The two different classroom settings present recurring motifs which inform most of Juliet and Pauline's relationship, and the film as a whole. In French class, the teacher informs Juliet that the students use French names, and Juliet immediately re-christens herself Antoinette. We find out later that Pauline's family tends to call her by her middle name, Yvonne. Pauline and Juliet have dangerously slippery senses of identity, and are constantly renaming themselves or each other, assuming the fictional personae of Charles and Deborah in letters, and son. Meanwhile in art class, Juliet ignores the assignment to draw Pauline and instead draws Saint George slaying the dragon, which presages the girls' flights into pure fantasy worlds of knights and castles (and, not least, slayings).

The best part of the movie, for my money, is the ongoing build-up of the girls' imaginary kingdom of Borovnia. The girls quickly become so consumed by their shared creation that they devote time and intense energy to documenting fictional royal family trees and sculpting plasticine models of the nobles. Eventually, the film begins to show longer and longer daydream sequences in which the girls interact with Borovnians, now life-sized and capable of independent movement and speech, but still formed entirely of monochrome, decidedly non-fleshy substance. From a practical effects standpoint, this was achieved by dressing up extras in bulky latex bodysuits, but within the narrative it's a perfect visual embodiment of a fantasy taking on a life of its own, simultaneously all-encompassing and yet affectless and hollow. From the limited, uninformed perspective of a fourteen or fifteen year old child, it's something more magnificent than conventional everyday life, while to the (presumably) adult audience, it's blatantly off-model and off-putting. It's all puppets and dolls, and nobody likes those.

It's easy to say now that Peter Jackson, he of the triumphant realization of a physically inhabitable Middle Earth on film, was an obvious choice to create the uncanny Borovnia sequences. It's equally easy to say that Kate Winslet was tailor-made for the part of the luminous Juliet, drawing in Melanie Lynskey's Pauline like a moth to a flame. So it's slightly amazing to realize that Heavenly Creatures was made in 1994, that it was Kate Winslet's major motion picture debut and was only the fourth film Jackson directed, after such horror fare as Bad Taste and Dead Alive (or Braindead as it was known down under). Everybody has to start somewhere, and Heavenly Creatures turned out to be a fairly auspicious beginning.


  1. Regarding your theory about storytellers: it's an interesting coincidence that the same wariness about it occurs in Tolkien's work. There's a recurring pattern of creators becoming too involved in their creations, from Melkor to Feanor to Sauron.

    1. Nice pull! I hadn't thought about it that way but it is a good point.

      Some people might argue that there's a difference between something like The One Ring, which is just a thing, and a narrative/fantasy world which has characters and plots and is a full-on alternative to reality. Be that as it may, you could look at other elements of Tolkien as well, or particularly Tolkien-as-filtered-through-Jackson. Since I just saw Desolation of Smaug not too long ago, this is fresh on my mind, but I did notice there was a lot of tension wrung out of the prophecy of the dwarves re-taking the Lonely Mountain, which is itself a potentially counter-factual story that both the dwarves and the people of Laketown (except Bard) desperately want to believe in. And of course it just ends up waking and enraging a dragon ...