(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)
Today’s film just missed inclusion in The 13 Days of Halloween. Actually, it was part of the list as late as this morning, but a little more thought on my part led me to conclude that structurally, it’s not quite horror–it doesn’t have that beginning-to-end crescendo of suspense, it doesn’t have that allegorical/fable/fairty tale feel that most horror has at its heart. Quite possibly, this is because, in its joy and its terror, its humor and its cruelty, its beauty and its gut-wrenching ugliness, it’s true.
The film is Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet (in her film debut). Based on a true story, it centers on Pauline and Juliette, two teenage girls in 1950s New Zeland. Pauline is a sullen introvert, Juliette a boisterous, self-confident transfer student from England and sundry other countries to which she’s been either shipped or dragged by her free-thinking university-faculty parents. Together they construct an intense friendship, and a mutual fantasy world of medieval romances and Mario Lanza songs. They fall in love. And they go mad.
I’m surprised at this point to find myself at something of a loss for words. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this movie, and in watching it today with Amanda I was actually stunned to discover just how intense an experience it is. The first three-quarters of the movie are just about as delightful a cinematic experience as you’re likely to come across. Lynskey and Winslet are quite simply revelatory in their roles as girlfriends completely besotted with one another’s talents, intelligence, beauty, and joie de vivre, all of which seem to them compounded exponentially when they’re together. It’s the kind of friendship, so I’ve been told, that lots of girls have, one just as intense as first love with a boy, or even full-grown love with a man. Jackson, who at this point has so proven himself to be a cinematic visionary that no additional evidence is even necessary, demonstrates here much of the virtuosity he displays in his Lord of the Rings films. Then as now, his knack for harnessing gorgeous, inventive visuals to convey human drama and emotion is second to none. The whirling, constantly on-the-move camerawork that follows Juliette & Pauline’s joyous bike ride and Lanza-scored romp through the woods in their skivvies captures the giddy heady rush of happiness the girls are immersed in. Things get more elegant when, after bad news comes down from Juliette’s parents, the girls find “the key to the Fourth World,” and the countryside around them morphs into a secret garden of unicorns and giant butterflies. Then there are the shocking and hilarious moments when the human representatives of those twin bugbears of troubled adolescence, the Church and psychiatry, are dispatched by the clay-sculpted prince of the girls’ fantasy world. And of course there are our journeys into that world, Borovnia, a precursor to the kingdoms and creatures of Middle Earth, this time stemming not from the painstaking recreation of an Oxford don’s detailed notes, but the fevered, ecstatic scrawl of two girls falling in love with each other and out of touch with the real world. It all happens so convincingly, so entertainingly, so beautifully that, as Amanda put it to me tonight, you almost feel guilty of conspiracy when it all goes to hell.
The final quarter of the film comprises some of the most heartwrenching, nerve-wracking moments of cinema I’ve ever come across. One moment you’re in the tragicomic world of teenagers in love, one you’re intimately familiar with even if not under these specific circumstances; the next thing you know, it is announced to you that you are on a collision course with sheer, pointless insanity. You spend those minutes with your heart and stomach lurching around your ribcage like drunken dance partners. You alternate between sympathy and revulsion, a feeling of disbelief and a feeling (one you know is the right one to have, you’ve known it since the opening sequence) of inevitability. And when it happens, it’s not just bad–it’s awful. The sounds alone are pure horror. And it helps no one, and there’s no point to it, none at all, and it happens anyway, and your ship pulls away, and you’re left standing on the shore, crying (I’ve seen this how many times and I still cried?), and alone.
No monsters, no chainsaws. Just the horror of the inevitable, the horror of a decision that cannot be undone. The horror of the human.