“We have decided how sad it is for other people that they cannot appreciate our genius.”
“Only the best people fight against all obstacles in pursuit of happiness.”
Juliette, so skilled in French, must have known the phrase: folie à deux, a madness shared by two. When any two people become so close at such a young age, insanity can grow and spread between them–insanity, and the softening of moral boundaries. The friendship becomes more important than school, than family, than anything else, and it seems as though once the society against which you judge your actions becomes a society of two, it becomes easy to justify murder to one another. After all, what are friends for?
Based on a true story, the next Killtoberfest 3 film in my “Is this even a horror movie?” sounder, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), is indeed horrific, even if it only becomes overtly so in the last portion of the film. Jackson begins and ends with the murder of Honora Rieper (Sarah Peirse) by her daughter Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Pauline’s friend Juliette Hume (Kate Winslet), but his real interest lies in the deep, deep bond the two girls shared that led to such a thing. The unfortunate result of this is that the movie is more of a formless mood piece than a narrative; the only forward movement among scene after scene of the girls’ seemingly idyllic friendship is an increasing sense that this will all end badly. Pauline calls it a “three act story with a tragic end,” but only the tragic end really stands out as distinct.
In Act One, the two girls meet in Christchurch, New Zealand, where they attend a fairly strict school for girls. It is 1952, and notwithstanding the specific NZ setting, Jackson portrays this period with the same sort of brightly colored soft focus dreaminess that American movies often use for our 1950s. Later, as subplots randomly arise to darken the girls’ lives, Jackson will maintain the style through a series of fantasy sequences–for example, when Juliette is hospitalized for several months with tuberculosis, the girls write back and forth to one another endlessly, pretending to be characters in an elaborate medieval fantasy world they’ve constructed together. They daydream about a castle courtyard where life-size clay figures of these characters live, and about escaping their rather ordinary lives to a beautiful garden realm they call The Fourth World. Special effects are one of Jackson’s strengths, and these early digital effects are striking in their depth and unusual design, but they rarely matter to the story. (That said, we realize later that Pauline has been using the visual language of her daydreams to stage versions of the eventual murder.)
The second Act is not appreciably different from the first, except that the girls’ parents become aware of their unhealthily close bond and attempt to separate them. It becomes clear that Pauline, at least, is homosexual, and deeply in love with Juliette, who is blonde and more beautiful and whose parents are, if much less happy, at least wealthier and more accepting of the girls. (One of their recurring fantasies is of Pauline becoming Juliette’s sister.) Juliette, for her part, seems to have found in Pauline the perfect audience for her rich inner fantasy life and overdramatic emotional pronouncements. This is Kate Winslet’s first film role (although she had worked in television for about 3 years before Heavenly Creatures), and her performance here is that of a child who never stops performing, endlessly casting and recasting herself in those roles which will give her the most admiration or sympathy. For her part, Melanie Lynskey is closed off and sullen whenever she’s not nodding along to Juliette’s lead, her bog-standard teenage angst hiding disturbing amounts of arrogance and resentment towards others. In fact, even though in most aspects Juliette is the leader, it’s Pauline who decides to murder her mother, and Juliette who (somewhat nervously) goes along with it.
The planning and execution of the murder itself is incredibly difficult to watch. The reasoning behind it doesn’t make much logical sense; upon being told that Juliette’s parents are splitting up and her father is taking her to South Africa, the girls panic and begin scheming on a way to leave the country together. Pauline discovers she can’t get a passport without her mother’s approval, and so apparently the murder is meant to remove that obstacle to their happiness. Yet it feels more like Pauline choosing this moment to unleash her anger and resentment toward her mother, her life, and her perceived lack of freedom from the interference of others.
It is hard not to sympathize with Pauline and Juliette to a certain extent. They have reasons to be unhappy, including Juliette’s unhappy home life and families who seek to restrict and control their sexuality. One of Pauline’s frequent murderous daydreams stars the psychiatrist who tells her parents that she’ll grow out of her homosexuality, and in that moment I was pretty much on her side. Yet when it came time for them to actually kill Pauline’s mother, all of that sympathy dissolved, and I simply felt sick, dreading the final outcome. It’s not a glamorous killing, not a beautiful daydream or a blow for teen justice. They hit Honora in the head with a brick and then run home covered in blood, crying that something has happened to Mother. A title crawl informs us that they are caught almost immediately, that the court rules them sane, and that they were released from prison on the condition that they never meet again. Left alone, each might have been lonely and moody but basically normal; but together, some emotional alchemy built up until it exploded in tragedy.
Knowing the full story, it’s hard to root for them; hard even not to resent Jackson for trying to make them sympathetic. “The friendship was for the most part a rich and rewarding one, and we tried to honour that in the film,” said Jackson. “It was our intention to make a film about a friendship that went terribly wrong.” The problem from a moral point of view is that it’s impossible to divorce the friendship from its results, and Jackson’s trademark style of loud, facile, conventionally beautiful cinema tends here to skate over some of the darker aspects of the girls. This is especially true of the voice-over, actual lines from Pauline’s diary (from portions read at their trial) that speak to a more maladjusted perspective, one that is seemingly at odds with Jackson’s portrayal of them on screen. But the problem with Jackson’s intention to make a film about friendship is that, however histrionic or special effects-heavy, friendship is a boring subject for a film. It’s a state, not a story, and since Jackson (and co-writer/producer Fran Walsh) is reluctant to focus on how exactly that friendship goes bad, the film ends up much more interesting to talk about than it is to watch. In many ways it is as boring and frustrating as these girls’ lives must have been–until they made a bad decision to liven it up. Even if they hadn’t, or even if they’d gotten out, it wouldn’t have mattered. New Zealand or New York, every pas de deux ends the same.
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.