Tuesday, July 3, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin: A "Vision Apparent by Shock"

(Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

The surreal bumps up against the ordinary, and violence, death, and horror run as disturbing threads through all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction: in “Revelation” a pimply teenaged girl suddenly and viciously hurls her book at the middle-aged, happily complacent woman who sits across from her in the doctor’s waiting room; in “A Good Man Is Hard,” three men savagely, one by one, kill a stranded family with car trouble; “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” ends with a mother dying suddenly of a stroke in her son’s arms; in “Greenleaf” the main character is gored through the heart by a bull in the very last scene; in “Good Country People,” a Bible salesman woos a young woman and steals her artificial leg, leaving her, helpless, in a barn loft.  Not only do these kinds of violent, bizarre events run through O’Connor’s work, but her stories, set in such ordinary contexts, are also filled with “freaks,” as O’Connor called them, physically and spiritually ugly people.  And if we are honest as readers, we do not really sympathize with them in the violence and horror under which they suffer.  If we are even more honest, we might often even find the horror funny. A pimply girl hurling a book at a woman in a waiting room? A stolen leg? O’Connor’s stories are as stuffed with humor – dark though it is – as they are stuffed with horror.  The violence, the freakishness, the humor – all of these elements ultimately make for a very uncomfortable, provocative mix, and inevitably, when I assign O’Connor to my American literature students, the reactions I get from them are extreme: they come away either loving O’Connor’s work or hating it.  In both cases, the reactions are passionate, for O’Connor forces her readers into a confrontation, and some readers thrill to it while others are enraged. 

O’Connor felt that shocking her readers, provoking such reactions, was necessary: “If you want to show something that the majority don’t believe or wish to see, then you have to get and hold their attention usually by extreme means,” she wrote.  And further, “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do,” she said, “you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.”   Hardly a very flattering portrait of her readers, the blind and the nearly deaf.  But O’Connor’s unapologetic bluntness about what she was doing stemmed from her assurance in herself as a writer (to the question, “why do you write?” she once said, simply, “Because I’m good at it”) and from her assurance in the importance of what she wanted to say.  For the combined effect of her stories’ violence, grotesqueness, and humor is not an end itself; her end is not merely to evoke a sensation; rather, it is to say something she felt was true about world as she saw it, and O’Connor’s violence always aims at some sort of revelation or redemption, both for her characters and, I think, she hoped, for her readers.  Through the shocking violence, her characters reach a crisis in which they are forced see themselves and the world afresh, even if that violence brings them to their deaths. In “Greenleaf,” for example, the main character’s new vision comes - her eyes literally open and staring - exactly as the bull gores into her; the new vision is tied to her death.   O’Connor’s grostequery and violence are ways of rending the physical world, so literally and ruthlessly ripping it apart, that her characters and her readers must see through to something deeper, to that thing that O’Connor called, “mystery” – a spiritual, invisible reality to which her characters had been previously blind.

Brutally shocking garish red screams its way through Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

And the red is so very red, so very saturating that it is intensely uncomfortable, all the moreso, given the key bloody incident that hangs over the film, the incident the red forces us to look at, again and again.  We viewers are forced to confront the violence, to be rubbed with it until we are left smeared with something from which we naturally and instinctively recoil.  Ramsay’s film isn’t gentle.  It isn’t graceful.  It’s as grotesque a vision as anything in we might find in O’Connor.  And confronted with such a blatantly provocative viewing experience, an individual can only react as extremely as the film itself.  There is no neutral reaction possible here.  Ramsay’s violent red, a red heightened even more by her assaultive use of sound and by her darkly humorous and on-the-nose choices in music, demand a response, even from those whom O’Connor might have called the “blind” and “hard of hearing.” And truly, reviews of the film seem especially extreme: 100-rated reviews on metacritic and 0-rated reviews, reviews that claim it is “masterful” and “exquisitely realized” and reviews that claim it is “soulless” and “unwatchable.”  No one seems to be able to offer a ho-hum response.

Perhaps it is my adoration of one of Ramsay’s earlier films – the beautiful, sensitive, and heartbreaking Ratcatcher – or perhaps it is my love for Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant use of violence and of the grotesque – perhaps it is both of those things and perhaps it is neither, but whatever the case, my conclusion, as I consider the shocking experience that is We Need to Talk About Kevin, is that Ramsay’s film is deeply revelatory.  It shocks, by means of what some might call “camp,” but the shock rends a kind of veil – woven, perhaps, of complacency and long-held assumptions – and reveals to us a vision of motherhood that runs counter to everything comfortable, sweet, and cozy.  It is thus more nightmare than epiphany, but because it embraces the nightmare so fully, I believe it is all the more visionary.

The film’s title features a son, not a mother, and that fact, along with the fact of the horrific act committed by the son, perhaps tempts us on an initial viewing into the idea that the film is most interested in exploring Kevin and in exploring the history and psychology that led a boy from a privileged home towards his brutal actions.  From the very first frames, however, we are shown that this is Eva’s story, the mother’s story, not the son’s.  Not Kevin’s.  The film opens with a scene that, at first and for some time as the film runs, means very little.  It is evening, and we are in a dim house.  A sliding door stands open to the air; a white, sheer curtain moves gracefully; the ballooning fabric presses gently into the room.  
The sound of a pulsating sprinkler – ch-ch-ch–ch – permeates the scene.  These are images and sounds, as we learn much later in the film, from Eva’s memory – only she was privy to them.  And that evening – with the floating white curtain, the nighttime light, the sound of the sprinkler – is the evening that represents the bloody crux of Eva’s journey.  It is, for her, the turning point of her life, where she is forced to face not only literal violence – a moment where one privileged, complacent life ends and a new destitute life begins – but also a metaphorical, psychological violence that forces her, finally, from one identity, to which she’d been desperately clinging, into a new identity.  The film, then, is not primarily tied to literal, factual events that comprise a life journey, but rather to a more subjective journey of the mind and of the emotions – Eva’s mind and emotions.  

A great deal of the discomfort of the film stems from the fact that we are immersed so uncompromisingly into that fractured confusion of Eva’s being.  Her story, her self, is filtered for us through a series of disjointed, seemingly mismatched images and sounds, and both are linked equally to past and present.  Her story does have a clear present: she lives alone in a shabby, unkempt home, a place actively void of her personality or care.   
She herself seems numb or sleepwalking, living in the wake of what we soon realize has been some horrific event.  But the film shifts so swiftly and so fluidly between that present and the past—several different pasts, in fact—that we are often unsure at first whether we are seeing the present or a past and we are unsure at first of the particular past.  But this fluidity of time, this lack of any chronology--as the red blinking 12:00 in Eva’s bedroom indicates
--represents Eva’s mindset: for her, the past is her present; it informs her present, overshadows her present; she sees it and feels it in everything. 
Likewise, the central horrific event of Eva’s life informs and overshadows everything that came previous to it so that every point in time is in some way the same.  Every moment in filtered through the red-colored lens of Eva’s horror.  Time is round, we might say, not linear. 

Given the film’s context then – Eva’s mind and emotions,   
which have no ordered time frame –-it is a film that demands second and third viewings, for a first viewing is incredibly disorienting; our senses are bombarded with images and sounds that feel powerful – almost unbearable in their power - but which we do not quite understand, and the sense of time is conflated and compacted to such a degree that, in the natural reaching for a linear path, we are easily lost, perhaps even frustrated.  We are not used, I think, to feeling a story, to tracking a character’s journey via such tangentially connected, emotive, and personally significant sounds and images; we perhaps long for more dialogue or even some exposition to give us a foothold.  But giving in to the film’s sensory journey via Eva’s emotions and state of mind offers a cinematic experience quite unlike any other– Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life imagistic journey, as it is linked to the mind of the main character might possibly be one unique parallel – and it is such an uncomfortable, unsettling journey that perhaps we are all the more resistant.  But if we are willing to give in to this journey and if, further, we are willing to take the journey twice or thrice, the path through the film is clear.  Impressionistic and associative as Eva’s story is –with her dreams, her present, her memory—all whirled together, it is nonetheless a journey.  Eva’s story does have an arc and a distinct resolution.

In spite of the fact of this arc, it is best, I think, to approach the film, as it itself is constructed: via its key moments in which we most clearly see time and space conflating for Eva.  We could, certainly, track the chronology of the events of the film, but if we are to approach the film as one about a state of mind, as a psychological and emotional journey, then actual chronology isn’t as important – it is perhaps even distracting.  We want to understand, finally, Eva herself, not the actual events as we might a news story, but her perception of them and her feelings about them. 
Any number of scenes beautifully and wrenchingly illustrate Eva’s state of mind: in one scene, set initially in the film’s present, Eva walks down a prison corridor after a visit to her son, Kevin, and she passes two guards holding a prisoner down to the ground – the struggling, helpless man looks up at her, in a voice that is somehow both screaming and pleading, “I didn’t do anything!”

The camera’s gaze immediately shifts to a hazy scene, 
 where someone – we don’t know who - is screaming, “Nooo!” -- and louder and longer, “Noooooo!”  We realize, slowly, through the haze and the fractured images and confused sound, we are in a hospital, at a birth; a nurse or a doctor says, “You must stop resisting, Eva,” and we see Eva’s face in the round hospital mirror, wrenched, topsy-turvy, upside down – clench-mouthed.
And Eva screams on, her experience and herself a mirror of the prisoner on the ground, restrained by guards.  Eva’s mind conflates what she sees in the present – the prisoner – with her past, with her own struggle – in this case, the moment in the past in which motherhood had been thrust upon her.  Kevin’s birth she associates with forcible imprisonment and with her own screaming and ineffectual protest against it. 

In another scene, again, set initially in the present, Eva drives through a neighborhood at night; it is Halloween, and children are dressed up in their finest ghoulish attire.  Eva startles when she notices them;

they seem to stare in the car windows at her, seeming to taunt her, mock her.  When she arrives home, closing the door on the Halloween night, the children glare in at the windows
and almost immediately begin knocking at her door, threatening and demanding, “Trick or treat! Candy! Candy!”  And Eva frantically searches her bare cupboards for a pacifying offering for these children, but she has nothing, nothing to satisfy them, and so she hurriedly turns off her light, a poor attempt to indicate she is not at home, and shrinks into a corner,

while the pounding on the door grows louder, louder.  Eva covers her ears, and the scene shifts: her house door becomes a refrigerator door of the past and the pounding becomes the smack of a toddler’s bowl of food being thrown at that time distant refrigerator.
Pound, pound, smack, smack, “Candy! Candy!”  The children are monsters.  Her toddler, her child is a voracious monster, demanding food and then hurling it from him in a vicious attack upon her being and senses. 

The Halloween scene is perhaps one of the most obvious indicators of Eva’s state of mind – an indicator of her feelings about her son and of the violent pressures closing in upon her psyche, an indicator of her relationship with and feelings about him.  There is nothing fun or sweet for her about the children dressing up for Halloween and going trick-or-treating; it is only a horror in light of what her own child grew up to do and, also, most particularly, in the light of her own ambivalence about motherhood, an ambivalence that was with her from her first-born, Kevin’s, very conception, a moment imagined as maliciously dividing cancer cells:  

Ultimately, though, I think we must say, this is not a sideshow story about one unique woman and her mutant, monstrous killer of a son; it is not a story we can dismiss so easily as merely camp, or freakish, or ghoulish, something wholly other, something apart from the ordinary.  No, it is a great deal more piercing and uncomfortable than that.  The film isn’t interested in giving us Kevin’s psychology; it isn’t interested in helping us understand why Kevin went on to so wantonly murder his classmates.  We never see Kevin’s journey.  We never see into his mind.  We are never alone with him to do so.  We see him, only, through the lens of Eva’s own perspective.  As such, the film is interested in showing us the cognitive dissonance a woman – dare I say, any woman - might experience when her body, her life, her mind – her self – are disrupted by the birth of her first child, when her identity is no longer her own but instantly and inextricably linked to another human being’s.  For the rest of her life.  Motherhood.  Eva is no longer Eva, the lover,

the career woman and "Legendary Adventurer"; 
she is a mother, “Mummers.”  Eva becomes a name absolutely tied to motherhood, and the universal overtones of Eva - “Eve” - cannot be missed, as Eve means “living” or “mother of the living.”  

We might ask, then, if this is such a big sort of story, reflective in some way, of the experience of all or many women who become mothers, why make it such a gruesome story?  Why make the first-born child of this mother such a horrific person, so, apparently, evil?  Ramsay, I believe, like Flannery O’Connor, uses the horrific to force our attention; she shocks us, casting her story of motherhood in an unthinkable context to reveal something to us that we might normally pass by or take for granted.  “Sure, I have a mother” or “Yes, I am a mother” and “Yes, yes, I know all about that.”  But perhaps we don’t.  What are the stories of mothers around us, what are our common myths?  Mothers in movies, for example, are often one extreme being or the other, the angelic nurturer, for example, in Malick’s Tree of Life or the brutal religious fanatic in Carrie. Eva is neither one of these kinds of mothers.  She is certainly at odds with the other mothers around her – she doesn’t fit the type, as we see so vividly, in a scene in a locker room: Eva, sitting slumped in sloppy, loose clothing that hides her pregnancy, is contrasted to the happily chatting women around her, their skin glowing, their bulging bellies, bare and triumphant.
Eva isn’t one of them, clearly. She is isolated even as she is surrounded and suffocated.  And as she walks later, alone, her expressionless face is like a horrible wince of pain as she is enveloped by a wave of children, skipping, pink little girl ballerinas.
Eva in the midst of the bulging bellies, Eva in the midst of darling pink tutus – these are just two more images of Eva, showing us so vividly her state of mind, her sense of herself in its disjointed state, her mind disconnected and resisting her physical state, her pregnancy, herself as mother.  Unlike the women around her, her pregnancy is something she cannot embrace as something she has chosen for herself – it is, rather, an alien imposition upon her very being.

Disjointed as her sense of her self is, however, Eva isn’t a monster: she isn’t Carrie’s mother, and she doesn’t fit the monstrous woman myth.  She will not acknowledge her pregnancy, she screams and resists through her childbirth, and she sits in an emotional blank in the hospital bed as her husband fauns so smilingly over his first-born son,
 but at home with Kevin, she tries. Kevin’s screams cannot be drowned out by even a jackhammer,

and her body is not her own—she lies exhausted, with outlandish, engorged breasts when Kevin finally sleeps
—but alien as this motherhood is to her, she tries. 

Lifting baby Kevin up in one scene, she smiles at him desperately, her smile almost ferocious in its effort;

in another scene, she sits on the floor to play ball with the toddler Kevin, plastering on her smile at intervals again in her effort to engage the glowering boy by sheer force of action.

But Eva’s efforts at motherhood with her first-born are just that – efforts that are--and clearly feel—unnatural to her.  Motherhood is still a thing that has been thrust upon her and that drowns her; her smiles are really a drowning woman’s desperation to stay afloat, not the indication of a truly happy, natural swimmer. 

Throughout the film we see those threads of the self that Eva would like to be, the self she sees herself as – a self that is disconnected from the domesticity of motherhood and, specifically, from Kevin.  Some early images of the film (though still bathed in red, and thus bathed in Eva’s present mind’s consciousness of Kevin) are of Eva alone, her pre-Kevin self, exulting in the tomato festival of Spain, limbs splayed and lolling in utter freedom and lips joyously parted.
Peppered throughout the film, too, are images of Eva and Franklin in their early days of falling in love; here, again, Eva is joyous, full, exultant.

Eva’s conception of herself, we see , through these images of freedom and through the paired images of Eva’s various moments of resistance against the bonds of motherhood, is as a free agent.  Her love for her husband, Franklin, is something she chose, something her emotional and sexual self gravitated towards organically and freely – her relationship with Franklin is mutual and mutually fulfilling; her career, too, as it is so linked to world travel, is something she chose naturally, chose passionately, as we see in her exultation in Spain, as we see in the room in her home that she tenderly covers with world maps – her designated room, her room, so satisfyingly for herself alone.

The advent of Kevin impinges on Eva’s notion of her deepest self, and Kevin’s assault with ink upon her map room is not primarily an indication of Kevin’s evil: it is an indication of Eva’s perception of Kevin’s assault upon her own being – it is personal. 
Kevin intrudes into her emotional and sexual bond with Franklin (often literally interrupting); he disrupts her ability to travel anywhere she likes at any time, as we hear in a remembered argument with Franklin in which he protests her desire to leave for Ecuador; Kevin, as we have seen, invades her very physical self – her belly, her breasts, her body’s need for sleep.  And while Kevin goes on to do a truly horrific deed, we must acknowledge the fact that Kevin the baby—and even his later self, as a toddler, as a 6 or 7 year old, as a teenager – is not actually, based on the facts we can glean, a monster.  The factual things we can confirm that Kevin is, the things we see him do are not, in themselves, monstrous.  Apart from the actual murder, there is no real, factually demonstrable thing that Kevin does that is horrific, that makes him a literal demon seed.  As a baby he cries. A lot.  Many babies do.  As a toddler he is non-responsive, or he hurls food.  He has potty training issues.  Lots of young children do those things or have that issue.  (Show me a normal child who hasn’t. Let me introduce you to mine.)  As a teenager, he teases his little sister, demands she get him soda, and vacuums her hair.  (Is there such a thing as a big brother who doesn’t torment his little sister?)  Certainly, there are suggestions of Kevin’s propensity towards violence.  Eva believes he has killed his little sister’s guinea pig; she believes he has poured Dran-o in his little sister’s eye; and he keeps computer viruses, inexplicably, on disks in his room. But the computer virus might be a thing any disgruntled teenager (or adult, in fact) might keep, and the horrific things Eva believes Kevin does are suggestions Eva herself makes – these things are confirmed by no one else.  We don’t know they are true; we never actually see him do any of those things.  We are following her character, so we do believe her –or we want to –but the evidence of the film demonstrates Eva’s limited perspective as a narrator.  Can she, in fact, interpret Kevin for us, when from the moment of his birth, we see she has refused him, resisted him as hers?  Can we, in fact, rely on her interpretation of her memory of the events of the past (a double remove – an interpretation of a memory) when her memory and her interpretation are all filtered through the murders Kevin commits?  All filtered through her own desire to disassociate herself from him? All filtered through the idea that his very being is an assault upon hers?

The bare fact of the freely associating images of the film—showing us that the present, for Eva, is all connected to and associated with her past and her memory—pushes us towards the fact that Eva’s memory is just that – her memory. It is not neutral.  It is hers. And notably, for example, we do not see the murders, but we see Eva imagining Kevin posturing with his bow and arrow, just having committed the murders.

It is the one key scene, however, of Eva’s mind, the one linked to the very opening images – of the dim evening with the white billowing curtain and the sound of the sprinkler—that finally reveals, just how far Eva might be misremembering or misinterpreting any number of the events of her life, especially those related to Kevin.  The film returns us, at various points and often, to the sound of the sprinkler, to the image of the curtains.  We hear the sprinkler, for example, when Eva discovers that Kevin has splattered ink all over her lovingly decorated map room. We hear the sprinkler when the camera focuses in on Kevin’s little sister’s guinea pig.  That sound filters Eva's memories of the times Kevin had assaulted her - or when she feels he had assaulted her.

The significance of the evening with the curtains and the sprinkler isn’t fully revealed until late in the film.  We return to that evening, just after Eva has learned of the multiple murders at the school that Kevin has committed, and Eva is returning home, to her dark house.  She is alone – only her footsteps echo.  As she calls, “Franklin?” “Celia?” Eva sees the open sliding door and the billowing white curtain.  And we finally move—the sound of the sprinkler growing louder and louder, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch -–through the curtains (Kevin’s target only just visible through the sheer white),  
and out onto the lawn, where Eva discovers the final horror: her husband and her daughter lying wet in the grass, dead, shot through with Kevin’s arrows.  And the sprinkler shoots up and water rains down on them, an unrelenting, impassive.  But with this sound and image, we understand the deep disconnect of Eva’s mind-–the separation between an actual event and a memory of an event.  The sprinklers we see on the lawn are the oscillating, not the pulsating, kind.
They should make no sound at all, barring, perhaps, a very faint hissing of water.  But the scene is not silent.  The sound of a kind of sprinkler that is not, in fact, actually in the scene, confusingly permeates it. Image is disconnected from sound; image and sound are out of joint.  And this sign, among many others, is an indication of several key things: of Eva’s unreliable memory of her past; of the permeation and impact that this event has had upon her – her memory of the sound of it, filling other moments of her past; and, I think most notably, of the disconnect at the heart of Eva’s very being.
The film, I believe, is about a woman coming to terms with her new identity as a mother.  It uses a horrifying vehicle to do so – a bloody, some might call, tasteless and soulless vehicle – but the violent disruption at the core of Eva’s mind and being is so severe, it can only be simultaneously resolved within Eva and demonstrated to us, through these bloody, extreme means.  From Kevin’s conception and through her pregnancy, Eva rejects motherhood, and outwardly as much as she wants to show otherwise, she rejects Kevin as her son, from his birth onward.  The film is full of her fierce attempt to maintain her identity as a free agent and disassociate herself as far as possible from the emotional, physical, and mental consuming thing that is motherhood.  Eva’s very name indicates “mother of the life,” but she rarely refers to herself as “I” or “me” when we see her interacting with Kevin; she refers to her identity as a mother in the third person: “What Mummer did is very, very wrong, and she’s so, so sorry,” she says to Kevin – a forcible removal of motherhood from herself as an “I.”  But motherhood is consuming, and Kevin, both by his mere presence and by his personality, will not allow her continue distancing herself.  It is a bloody, horrific act by her son that finally strips her of everything that she identified as her own, as her self – her husband, her job, her chosen daughter.  She is left nearly penniless, destitute of comfort and friends, bathed in the blood Kevin shed, and identified by everyone, not as Eva Khatchadourian, but as Kevin’s mother.  She, for the world around her, and now for herself, is nothing else but his mother.  It is very, very bleak indeed.

The film It’s a Wonderful Life is a film I love in large part because it is about one man’s struggle with who he believes he is – a traveler, an adventurer, a builder – and who he actually is.  His life, as it comes, isn’t the life he wanted.  It isn’t the life he planned.  He was meant, he believes, for big things, for glorious things, not for a small, domesticated life in a “crummy little town.”  The joy of the film, of course, comes as he realizes the treasure that is his actual life, not his imagined life, the treasure that is the real George Bailey, not the George Bailey he thought he should be.  And the end of the film, as he is surrounded by warmth, laughter, happy tears, and friends, he shows us his heartfelt, and finally full, acknowledgement of that treasure.  The George Bailey that he longed to be is still out there somewhere, and that fact holds for me that sharp poignance that keeps the film from sentimentality.  But George, in the end, stops fighting himself, he stops fighting the forever falling off knob on his house’s stair railing and instead, kisses it.  It is his, it is himself, he will embrace it.

Eva’s bleak journey does not end with such joy.  She is not surrounded, like George is, by her loving friends, by a supportive town.  She has nothing.  Nothing but herself and her son.  And there lies the real resolution.  In the end of the film, Eva finishes cleaning the red paint that an angry world had splattered on her house in the beginning, a revenge given to her as much as it is given to Kevin.  She finishes cleaning and begins to make the shabby house which she’s been merely inhabiting, a place to live.  A home for herself and for Kevin, her son.  She paints the interior walls, and she carefully irons and folds Kevin’s shirts
– the maddening, tight shirts we’ve seen him wear and that have made her and us uncomfortable throughout the film.  She makes a bed for him, taking infinite care over the edges, tucking them smooth, and she places Robin Hood on the bookshelf, a book representing his violent action, her possible complicity in it, and the bond she and he share, a moment of connection between a sick boy and his mother.

Then, in the very last scene – a scene in which there are no interruptions of memories, of images or sounds from the past, no wildly associative and disjointed moments – Eva visits Kevin, and she is fully present – fully in the present.  In previous visits, Kevin and Eva have been at odds;
they have been clearly in a battle against one another – they either spar with one another – Kevin always taunting her – or they are silent.  More, we know, in a refusal to speak than in a lack of things to say.  

But this final visit, this final scene, is different.  Eva looks at Kevin, as if for the first time, for in her face is an open vulnerability
– wounded and wary, yes, but it is not the guarded shield, the mask we’ve seen on her in every other moment with Kevin.  She looks him full in the face; they have a real conversation, and Eva says very simply, “I want you to tell me why.”  And Kevin, during this conversation, for the first time, looks unsure, himself emotionally vulnerable, his head shorn of its shock of black hair
swallows, and says, “I thought I knew once.”  The two sit, in the wake of that answer, and look at one another.  This ending is not about that answer - it is about Eva and Kevin looking at one another, about Eva truly looking at Kevin.

Kevin, here, so vulnerable, even afraid, is, for the first time, real.  He is not the nightmarish demon-seed.  Not, I believe, because he is changed or because he is a different person, but because Eva has changed.  Eva is finally looking at him, without that resistant barrier, which she struggled to put for so long between them, in her desperate effort to maintain the identity she wanted without him.

And then, the guard calls time, and in what is the most moving moment of the film, Eva, without waiting for Kevin to make a move, deliberately clasps him to herself. 

It is a volitional, honest action – not the false action that was the plastered smile she gave Kevin as a baby – but an action that is both her decision and her emotional present.  It is an action that demonstrates to us her decision and her emotional ability to finally embrace Kevin as her own, embracing him for whoever he is and for whatever that embrace will continue to mean to her and to her life.

In this scene, she rejects the solitary identity she’d been struggling to assert and accepts, literally embraces, the connection between them.  And in that moment Kevin becomes, for the first time, a complex being – or at least, a being with the potential for complexity.  He isn’t a “thing” that has invaded Eva’s life anymore; he is her son.  We feel it. Her embrace of him as her son, of herself as mother, doesn’t diminish the horror of his actions– she knows, fully, that horror because she has bathed in it, but facing it straight on, as her own, is a release, a catharsis she needs.  Her life can never be a “wonderful life,” but she owns, fully, a kind of peace. She is at one with herself again.  And in the final moments, Eva walks down the corridor towards whiteness.  The red is gone.

Like Flannery O’Connor’s stories, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is an assault.  But it is in pursuit of an emotional truth and in pursuit of a journey through a mother's cognitive dissonance, through a war within herself.  The film is about that violent wrench in her notion of herself, of her identity, the disconnect between her perception of who she is or was as opposed to the new identity that has engulfed her. The film sets out to shock with blood and violence because it sees Eva’s mental and emotional journey as bloody and as violent as real blood, real violence.
I understand why so many of my students are angered by O’Connor’s stories, and I understand the anger a given viewer might have at this story, too.  That it dares to transgress our notions of decency acts like a kind of violence upon us, but ultimately, for me, the portrait it offers us of a woman struggling against motherhood and of a woman’s, final embrace of that motherhood as a part of herself, is as revelatory, as honest, and as human as the work of the most truly visionary of our artists. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Jane Campion's IN THE CUT: Shadows from the Lighthouse

When I was just a little girl,

I asked my mother, what will I be?

Will I be pretty?

Will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me:

Que sera sera,
Whatever will be will be
The future’s not ours to see

Que sera sera.

I first heard the song “Que sera sera,” a song about a girl growing - verse by verse - into a woman, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much; Doris Day, singing it in the film, a mother to her child, seemed to me, as I was then, a young girl, an emblem of cheery, sweet comfort, and wholesome, warm motherliness.  And there must have been something about Day’s recording of that song that warmed the hearts of the original listeners, too, for the song rose to the number two position in the U.S Billboard Hot 100 and to number one in the UK Singles Chart in 1956.

 Doris Day and her song in Hitchcock’s film reassure us of a comfortable, content 1950’s housewifely vision of womanhood, where a girl’s uncertain future – “what will I be?” - is nothing to fear, particularly when there aren’t many optional deviations from the traditional path and particularly when that lovable, faithful everyman Jimmy Stewart is there to make everything all right.  

Two years later, however, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Stewart would play, not the steadfast father and husband, but Scottie Ferguson, the San Francisco detective who becomes obsessed with his friend’s wife, not the cheerful Day but another, more mysterious and sensual blonde, Kim Novak.  And the relationship in this later film is not the happy marriage with children that Day and Stewart represent in the earlier film but something much more uneasy, a thing fueled by passion, a thing in which romance is inextricably tied to violence. 


Jane Campion’s In the Cut features another blonde actress, Meg Ryan, one whose character longs for romance, longs for the Doris Day-everyman Jimmy Stewart fairy tale life, where romance, marriage, and motherhood are the uncomplicated norm.  But in In the Cut, Ryan, whom we perhaps know best from her roles in romantic comedies as that sweet, effervescent, tousled blonde
of When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail – the 90’s equivalent, if you will, of a Doris Day – has hair that is a straight, lank brown and a face that is alternately blank or troubled – and her character’s life is neither one suited to Doris Day’s persona nor to the 90’s comedienne’s.
No, Day’s version of “Que sera sera” won’t suit the story for In the Cut’s Frannie Avery, Ryan’s character. Campion gives her, instead, the chillingly woozy Pink Martini version of the song:
And with this version, the song’s implications and ideas shift: from pleasantly querying and comfortable to queasily questioning, fatalistic, vertiginous.  The line “whatever will be will be” contains, here, no sunny, maternal comfort.  The mother we imagine in this version, interacting with her daughter, is no happy, loved Doris Day, cheerily making beds, but rather someone more confused and insecure. 

What a mother passes to her daughter, particularly in regards to her dreams of home and love and men, is something Frannie Avery clings to, even though the thing passed on to her unsettles her more than it comforts her.  In the midst of the opening sequences of the film, Frannie lies sleeping on her bed, in a sluggish sleep, 

and she dreams a dream cast in black and white: a man and a woman skating on a pond in a lovely winterscape, her mother and her father.  

But the dream has a nightmarish quality, the skates cut the ice cruelly, 
and the man’s hand grips tightly, a rubbery gloved thing, as he watches the woman skating.  Is this woman of the dream in a romance or a horror story?  Frannie’s dream blurs the line between the two sorts of narratives.

Also in those opening moments, we see another, parallel woman, whose narrative is blurred as well, and our ability as viewers to initially interpret the tone of her story is confounded: we see her high-heeled feet, fuzzy, and weaving a bit - drunk or injured - as she walks along the pavement.
But the camera tilts up, and it is not an unhappy, unsteady woman on the street, but one walking in an apartment’s garden path, meandering more than weaving, we realize, as she hugs her cup of coffee to her chest and lifts her face to the morning light. Petals in a snowy shower float down, moved by a sudden breeze.  She smiles. 
The shift for us as viewers from unease to peace is unexpected, and within the peace the unease remains.  The happy woman enjoying her coffee in a garden does not fully displace the vision of the drunken, hurt woman on the street. 

And above the woman in the garden, through a window, Frannie dreams her restless dreams.  She awakens and sees the snow-like petals outside her window, horror story-fairy tale dream and morning reality-surreality combine, indistinguishable, one from the other.  

In the Cut, throughout, plays with boundaries - between dream and reality, past and present, mother and daughter, sister and friend, dream and nightmare, romance and horror story, lover and killer, ecstasy and agony - as we follow Frannie’s character, who cannot see, as clearly or as quickly as we’d perhaps like her to, the differences, the boundaries. She, herself, frequently blurs in the camera's unsteady gaze.
She moves, often, it seems, as if in a waking dream, reacting slowly or oddly or lethargically, her volitional power compromised in the midst of a life she cannot grasp hold of, control, and define.  And her story takes on that weight felt in the throat and chest, when while struggling to scream in the midst of a nightmare, one is left only pinned down, open-mouthed, and voiceless.  

 Frannie’s voicelessness is highlighted, ironically, in her profession as an English teacher and in her obsession with words themselves.  Frannie keeps post-it notes with phrases or words scattered over her cupboards, desk, and walls in her apartment; she keeps magnetic words that form no sentences all over her door;
she rides the New York subway and seeks thirstily for the poem fragments posted on the train’s walls, 
and she mouths the words to herself, savoring them, seeking for some definition, some fulfillment - of a desire, of a whole story, for her story, perhaps.  

The words mean something - they must mean something; they must form, if we dwell with them long enough, some clue to herself and her life and her family - the random bits somehow coming together, we sense she hopes, as beautifully as does Virginia Woolf’s own semi-autobiographical, stream of consciousness novel To the Lighthouse, which Frannie assigns to her high school English class.  

 To the Lighthouse, which Woolf wrote partly as a way of understanding and dealing with unresolved issues concerning both her parents, also explores the boundaries between memory and reality, reality and perception, and it links the emotions of childhood to adulthood – the child and the childhood memory stays, a sticky residue, in the adult.  

But while Woolf successfully harnesses freely associating words, shifting perspectives, the randomness of thought, emotion, and memory to one whole thing, Frannie finds no such artistic, cohesive, self-expression, especially self-expression that satisfactorily melds the little girl she was with the woman she is in the present world she lives in. She can borrow only fragments of stories and words from others: from the subway train walls, from her mother’s story of romance with her father, from a magnetic word game on a door, and also from her gifted male student, Cornelius, with his street slang, which she grasps at as obsessively as the other words around her.  He tells her at one point, when she critiques his choice of a writing subject, “But you told us that everything we write is an expression of ourselves.”  She has to agree, but, in practice, self-expression evades her.  Her male student is more articulate than she.

Instead of expression and articulation for herself, the sense of things and of the self coming together in carefully constructed phrases of words, Frannie is faced with inarticulateness - and in the world of the film, her inarticulateness is paralleled by dis-articulation, the separation of body parts at the joint.  
For disarticulated women’s bodies keep turning up in her New York City neighborhood, an arm at the laundromat, a head in the garden.   

Frannie’s story - of a woman who cannot find her volition, her definition, and her voice - is linked to other women in this seedy vision of an immediately post-9/11 New York, women in a world of powerful, fully volitional men, 
who threaten to dis-articulate them.  

But the problem is not just that Frannie and these other women - her mother, her half-sister, the blank-faced bride in the subway, 

the hyper-sexualized women in the strip club
 - must live in a threateningly violent and masculine world, they must interact with it because their desire for men and for the romance that only the male-female pairing brings compels them to give in to it, to immerse themselves it.  

But the pairing is unbearable, confusing.  Frannie and her half-sister, Pauline, and their mother do not want just sex, like so many of the men in their lives seem to want: they want romance.  They want the path to the happily ever after.  Frannie clings to her mother’s story of the courtship with her father, not just because it is a clear articulate voice, a cohesive story, but because it is a love story, the kind that little girls dream about, with early, innocent desire.  In her mother’s story, the couple’s eyes meet across the frozen pond, they fall immediately in love, he gets down on one knee and proposes. 

And as he does, the snow falls as a blessing; 
the pair marries.  

“I don’t quite believe it,” Pauline tells Frannie, of this story.
And Frannie responds, not quite believing it either, but still saying, “‘That was my mother’s story, the way she always told it.’” The reality, both women know, does not match.  Whatever the initial romance, there was no happily ever after. “He killed her,” says Frannie.  “When he left, she couldn’t understand.”  And so while Frannie’s father found other wives and other lovers—among them--Pauline’s mother, Frannie’s mother remained in a death-like stasis, her dream turned to nightmare confusion, her romance violently extinguished by her lover.  

So Frannie and Pauline are not blind to the death of romantic dreams, but they still want that romance; they still want the fairy tale ending.  Pauline gives Frannie a courtship bracelet, an old-fashioned sort of thing a young girl might wear: the bracelet’s individual bangle charms - a heart, a church, a baby carriage with a baby that tumbles in and out - representing that Doris Day dream for the two women.  

  There is both irony and longing as Pauline fastens the bracelet on Frannie’s wrist - the music of sex in the strip club pounds below Pauline's apartment and the desire for romance and home pounds in the two women, simultaneously.
Frannie and Pauline’s desire for romance and relationship, of course, is not divorced from sex, and Campion’s portrayal of the women’s sexual desire is frank, unabashed, raw.  Both women, however, cannot seem to distinguish between sexual violence and sexual love, between sex and violence – particularly because in the dominant attitudes of the men around them, sex and violence are treated as two halves of the same thing; as Frannie observes of her student’s street slang, the words and phrases are “either sexual or violent.”  

In the male-female interactions in the film, indeed, sex and violence often seem indistinguishable; sensuousness might turn quickly to violence or violence might turn into sexual passion.  Throughout the film, a former lover of Frannie’s (Kevin Bacon) after having been rejected by Frannie, dogs her steps, his unwashed presence and intense gaze constantly invading and unsettling, disrupting.  He is the lover turned to stalker, capable, we must suspect, of violence. 

Red is the repeated, constant theme throughout the movie, too, a non-specific visual text, but nonetheless evoking both the violence of blood and the hotness of desire - and the blurring of the boundary between the two.  Red is present everywhere, even in the ordinary, the mundane:

The red, we must note, however, runs as an undercurrent and plays into the more explicitly specific thematic content without calling flamboyant attention to itself.

Indeed, the interactions between the characters are so compelling, so much themselves speaking to Campion’s themes, that the red never intrudes even though it pervades.  In another scene, which plays on the theme of violence and sex –a scene notably reminiscent of the classic scene in In a Lonely Place, when Humphrey Bogart savoringly describes how a man might slowly strangle his lover with an embrace of the arm –Frannie and the police detective, Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who becomes her lover, turn a role play of violence into sensuality.  Frannie, who, previously, was attacked by a mugger on the street, her attacker’s arm grasping from behind her and around her neck, allows Malloy to attempt to jog her memory of her attacker: Malloy, behind her, grips first one arm, then the other, around her neck. 
“Like this?” he asks softly, and the stranglehold turns smoothly to love-making, a striking, visual shift from violence to sex.

It is in the relationship between Frannie and Malloy that the boundaries between sex and violence become most blurred and confused for Frannie, and it is this relationship, too, that becomes the crux of Frannie’s desires, both her grown up sexual desire and her inherited girlhood desire for the Doris Day tale of romance and marriage.  Frannie is drawn to Malloy, aroused by him, from the very first, but the relationship between them is unsettled from the first, too.  Frannie encounters him initially, she believes, in the shadowy corner of a café basement; she gazes at him, riveted and unseen, as he enjoys favors from the woman between his legs.  

She next sees him, his full face this time, in her apartment, where he’s come to question the apartment residents about one of the murders.  
She recognizes the tattoo on his wrist as same as the man’s from the café.  Ruffalo, as Malloy, exudes a quiet, unreadable charisma, and we cannot tell if we should be repulsed by him or as attracted to him as Frannie is.  In Malloy, Frannie sees both the kind of male dangerousness that she knows has hurt her mother, her sister, and herself, and she is nonetheless – or all the moreso - drawn to him.

Frannie’s next interactions with Malloy, particularly because they include his partner, Detective Ritchie Rodriguez, highlight even more the dangerous maleness, particularly in the way that they flaunt their exclusion of Frannie and her specifically female presence.  The detectives, because they are police detectives, have already a kind of power, volition, and authority, and an exclusive partnership and job-related banter that shuts Frannie out, shuts her up.  Frannie is put behind them in the backseat of their police car, where she cannot open the doors for herself to get out; she is, as such, immediately degraded in class, infantilized, diminished.
A diminishment we see she feels, and we feel the men accept as their due.  

The fact that the men are armed further highlights their position and power over Frannie; that Rodriguez carries only a water gun, having been demoted for attacking his wife with his gun, only highlights the male power of the scene.  Rodriguez playfully interrupts a conversation between Malloy and Frannie, once Frannie is out of the car and on the street again, by squirting water at them, effectively underscoring both his prior and more important relationship with Malloy and his male power.

Frannie’s relationship with Malloy becomes still more confusing, and with her, we continue to be drawn to Malloy and, increasingly, to fear him.  His presence and his covert gaze here, for example, are reflected back to us as having that same stalking threat of the other men in her life:

Campion, though, subverts the typical thriller arc, where the tension is steadily tightened, and gives us, instead, scenes in which we are not sure if we should be calm or fearful.  In one scene, Malloy drives Frannie out to an isolated wooded area, casually mowing down a red stop sign when he pulls off the main road, 
and at this point, Frannie already suspects Malloy as a killer, and yet she will not make a decisively distrustful move since he has also become her lover; she submits to him, letting him drive her where he wills.  

The setting itself is full of confusing indicators, a deer gracefully leaps across the road in front of their car, and the green light of the trees filters down on everything – and yet the pool by the wood is littered with black bags of garbage. 
When Malloy pulls out his gun, neither Frannie nor we can predict what he’s about to do with it, and when he teaches her to shoot  – “You need to learn how to handle a gun,” he says, in double entendre – instead of shooting her, the question of his intentions towards Frannie only continue to be muddled.  Is he her killer or her lover?  Both?

The film plays again and again on this confusion between violence and sex, and as the details of the serial murders become clearer, the confusion intensifies.  Each of the disarticulated women has a diamond engagement ring on her hand, a gift and a signature of the killer, a killer who asks a woman to marry him before he kills her.  

When Frannie eventually finds herself in the presence of the man who will kill certainly her, the scenes play like a distorted romance, like a vivid, fully nightmarish version of the story of Frannie’s mother and father where this time, her father slices through her mother and leaves her on the cold ice, her new engagement ring still on her hand.

The killer takes Frannie to a red lighthouse, 
 a graphic symbol of violence and sex and, in its reference to Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse, a more subtle symbol of Frannie’s psychological confusion.  In the end of Woolf’s book, the adult characters return to the lighthouse, a kind of attempt at reconciliation between their childhood memories and their adult selves.  At the film’s lighthouse, Frannie must face her mother’s inheritance, her girlhood dreams, her desires, her confusion, her lack of volition, her voicelessness.   The lighthouse becomes the place where she must make or unmake her own story, where she will either emerge an articulate woman or a disarticulated one. 

Campion, beautifully, denies us the thrills of conventional catharsis though, and we are left with an image, an ambiguous image, of Frannie, under the shadow of the lighthouse, bathed in blood, the killer lying on top of her in the attitude of sex.
In that image, we cannot be quite sure what has been resolved for Frannie or for us.  

She is not disarticulated, to be sure, however, and in those final moments of the film, Campion gives us a character who, in some sense at least, steps from the path she’s been following, that passive path of inheritance from her mother, the path of succumbing to the death of the self at the hand of a lover.  The delineation between sex and violence is, perhaps, not fully marked out, but Frannie does become a volitional being in those final scenes, one who refuses, finally, to be led and controlled, one who refuses to sit in the back of the police car, as it were.  She becomes the one who handcuffs Malloy - while he protests that he “feels like a chick.”

Jane Campion is a filmmaker who defies any tidy pigeon-holing into a particular genre.  I believe the defiance stems from her place as one of our true artists, an auteur, if you will accept the term, and it is likely the attempt to fit this film into the thriller genre that has left it so underrated.  While it employs some plot points that fit into that genre, it isn’t a thriller, and seeing it as such will cause the viewer to miss those questions and ideas that Campion is most interested in exploring, exploring so deftly with her camera in this story.  

No, this film is a not a traditional thriller, if it is a thriller at all.  It is an exploration of the conflation of sex and violence, where women--still clinging to the stories and myths of their girlhood dreams, the inheritance of their mothers--are relegated to the place of second class citizen, only so many bitches to be gazed at, dismembered, and discarded, in a masculine world.

This is also the portrait of a particular woman, with her complex, raw desires, and conflicted dreams, and as such, it is the kind of female portrait in which Campion excels, giving us again --as she also gave us in Sweetie, Angel at my Table, The Piano, Holy Smoke, Portrait of a Lady, and Bright Star --a woman who defies conventional Hollywood categories.  She gives us another story - this one involving a serial murder - from that unusual perspective: a woman’s. 

She also gives us, less blatantly, a story of the world of a grimy New York, where the 9/11 tributes, the repeated images of the American flag,

remind us of the destruction and violence that might explode in our midst at any moment.  It is tempting, in fact, to consider the parallels between this film and the post-Vietnam vision of New York in Taxi Driver, since both films are interested in what’s crawling beneath the surface of that big American city, a city so ready to erupt into violence or succumb to violence. 

Dorothy Allison, who wrote Bastard out of Carolina, the semi-autobiographical story of an abused girl, relates in her essay “This Is Our World” that a friend once said to her, “'You write such mean stories . . . Raped girls, brutal fathers, faithless mothers, and untrustworthy lovers – meaner than the world really is, don’t you think?’”  And Allison, reflecting on this question, responds to us, her readers,

Meaner than the world really is? No. I thought about showing her the box under my desk where I keep my clippings. Newspaper stories and black and white images – the woman who drowned her children, the man who shot first the babies in her arms and then his wife, the teenage boys who led the three-year old away along the train track, the homeless family recovering from frostbite with their eyes glazed and indifferent while the doctor scowled over their shoulders. The world is meaner than we admit . . . for everyone who will tell us [artists] our work is mean or fearful or unreal, there is another who will embrace us and say with tears in their eyes how wonderful it is to finally feel as if someone else has seen their truth and shown it in some part as it should be known. ‘My story,’ they say. ‘You told my story. That is me, mine, us.’”  

Jane Campion’s In the Cut shows us a mean world, one perhaps that we’d like not to see; we might prefer the world of the cheery Doris Day or the lovable Meg Ryan.  Those worlds, those women are much more comfortable, easier to understand, easier to live with.  Or perhaps, if we’re to have garish red blood in our movies, we’d like the movies to be more satisfying thrillers where evil is evil and the protagonist is threatened but not confused.  Or perhaps we’d like our blood to come with the splashes of a genre horror film, where the scares are jump scares and the blood sizzlingly horrifying rather than sickening and lingering.  But like Dorothy Allison, Campion is not interested in showing a comfortable, easy world with tidy definitions and traditional perspectives.  

She gives to us something much more pungent, a story to which we can more honestly say, as uncomfortable as it might be, “That is me, mine, us.”