sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2013-05-09 04:46 am

Conclusion: This is a time for ghosts

The Awakening (2011) is exactly the sort of movie [ profile] handful_ofdust would have written if she hadn't been the person who recommended it to me in the first place. It is a classic ghost story; it has a mystery and a revelation and any number of tense, ambiguous moments in between. It is also a poignant and very fine exploration of what it means to be haunted in the more figurative, Henry Jamesian sense. If there are no ghosts, Rebecca Hall's Florence Cathcart remains as haunted by the loss of her lover in World War I as Dominic West's Robert Malory by his survival of those same trenches: his slight stammer and shuddering fits, the grief that cores through her with every phenomenon debunked; the skin-hunger that flashes between them in a mix of trust and trauma, as if they can prove on one another's bodies that they still have a right to the living world. (It is not at all the romance expected of their initial pairing, the shell-shocked Latin master and the professional skeptic called to investigate at his school; there are ways in which it is barely a romance, meaning I approve. Florence's sexuality is not the repressed force behind the hauntings, not a symbol of her mental unraveling, not the consequence of her Cambridge-educated, sharply compartmentalized life as a woman who lives by cool, efficient intellect when the loss of a cigarette case is enough to open an abyss of suicidal grief beneath her. Her work at the school is raking up private terrors faster than she can lay them with tripwire cameras and dusting for prints. Gazing covertly at Malory in his bath, touching herself as she lies pensively in the same tub, kissing him for the first time as the impossibly screaming face of a child blurs up from a tray of developer, she is trying to use her body to drown out her brain. I have rarely seen movies with contemporary settings, let alone a softly speaking ghost story set in 1921, acknowledge that this is a thing women also do.) At times the story plays almost like a remix of The Turn of the Screw, housekeeper, groundskeeper, and eerily self-possessed boy all present, Florence in danger of falling into the governess' role. There are eches of The Waste Land: a famous clairvoyant, a line from the Morte d'Arthur, Malory's unhealing wound like the Fisher King's in his thigh. Mostly there is Florence, sharp-edged and wounded, striding in her soldier's greatcoat and her restless intelligence, refusing to live in fear even if the exorcizing of it destroys her. Yes, it is probably unnecessary to have her threatened with rape at any point in the story (although I would note that Malory is explicitly not her rescuer: a painting the camera keeps returning to is Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes), but I spent so much of the film wondering when it would toss aside her agency in favor of the aesthetic potential of a frightened woman, it was a pleasure to find the denouement her decision, too. Online research suggests that some viewers find the ending ambiguous, but I don't see it. The confusion of living and dead is almost inescapable. Florence walks like a revenant through her own memories, wryly admitting that "a life haunted . . . isn't a life at all." When Malory says he can always see his ghosts, it doesn't matter whether he is speaking literally or metaphorically: their weight on his shoulders is the same.

That was a textbrick. I'm going to bed. I meant to three hours ago, but I was writing this.

[identity profile] 2013-05-09 03:05 pm (UTC)(link)
Such a perfect summation. What annoyed me most about the response to this film at the time of its release was how much people fought against reconciling all these threads at once--allowing Florence to be both intelligent and self-blinkered, full of agency yet also desperate and mistaken and vulnerable. Whenever someone else in the narrative tries to force a choice on her, she manages to wrest it away from them and make it her own, and I love that about her. But then again, I love that she's both strong and flawed, haunted long before her haunting becomes literal, and that the story is about healing as much as it is about solution, since solutions can be brief and specious and subjective, while healing is necessary in order to simply live on--itself, a species of victory.

[identity profile] 2013-05-09 05:54 pm (UTC)(link)
It's an excellent textbrick.

I meant to three hours ago, but I was writing this.

I know the feeling. I hope you've found some restorative sleep.

[identity profile] 2013-05-11 04:50 am (UTC)(link)
Weirdly, I got about five hours max, but I woke up fine.

I'm glad for the waking up fine part.
gwynnega: (lordpeter mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2013-05-09 08:32 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, I must see this.

[identity profile] 2013-05-09 09:13 pm (UTC)(link)
Should I see this film or never, never, ever see this film? :D
seajules: (worth a thousand screams)

[personal profile] seajules 2013-05-09 09:34 pm (UTC)(link)
Funnily enough, I saw this film about three weeks ago and considered writing about it, in conjunction with ParaNorman and The Gift. I was going to talk about what was really haunting Florence, the horror of our own heads and lives and all the damage inflicted thereon. Unfortunately, I think this comment is about all I have the spoons for.
seajules: (gojira matinee)

[personal profile] seajules 2013-05-10 12:28 am (UTC)(link)
I think you might like ParaNorman. It is not the feel-good family movie it was advertised to be. For those with a certain sensibility, it is much better.

The Gift is a pretty straightforward "local psychic investigates murder mystery" plot, including the standard twist of said plot. It is also quite violent. It is set in a very small town on the bayou, though, and it's that atmosphere that I think sets it apart. Also, the soundtrack is amazing.

As for The Awakening, I liked how the standard ghost story of the piece is almost incidental. It's a movie about hauntings and ghosts, oh yes, but not of the supernatural kind. Every character in it seems to be traumatized one way or another. There's grief and PTSD and loneliness and pain and survivor's guilt, all weighing heavily in those long white halls and nearly empty rooms. And there's Florence, debunking frauds as a form of exorcism that never works.

I don't know why anyone would think that ending ambiguous. It seemed pretty clear to me.
seajules: (gojira matinee)

[personal profile] seajules 2013-05-10 05:04 pm (UTC)(link)
ParaNorman's zombies both are and aren't humorous. They start out that way, but then you learn what actually happened, and it's not so funny anymore. I was fearing a Burtonian pastiche, myself, but while there are elements of the sort associated with Burton, they are largely stripped of the whimsy and exaggerated grotesquerie he likes. There's also a very modern crudeness to the movie that I can just imagine horrified any number of parents taking their kids to see what they thought would be, well, what it was advertised as being, a safe, quippy cartoon. What it is, though, is an animated zombie movie with a protagonist rather younger than the usual.

This is a piece from the soundtrack of The Gift, just to give you an idea.

I loved that The Awakening drove home the point that all of England was haunted in that period. You can read about "a whole generation of young men lost" in history books, but this is the kind of story that makes that visceral. And the four men featured in the narrative illustrate the impact of the war: one dead and commemorated with a cigarette case, two wounded and haunted by their own survival, one essential "draft dodger," despised and despising and outcast.

And then there's Tom (I don't mind spoilers if you don't), whose blurry, twisted, screaming face brings to mind photographs of the dead in the trenches, felled by mustard gas and grenades and all the terrible machinery of war. Once you realize who Tom is, and what happened to him when, you also realize he was always destined to haunt Florence, one way or another.

[identity profile] 2013-05-10 04:23 am (UTC)(link)
Do you agree that a life haunted isn't a life at all? .... I don't mean the question in an aggressive way, and I'm not intending to comment at all on the film, which sounds engrossing and altogether good. But I just wonder about that line, because I think as I started to read it that I expected it to say the opposite--that an un haunted life isn't a life at all.

I understand very well the sense of being a revenant in one's own memories. We're our own ghosts, in our memories. Future ghosts, witnessing our past.

[identity profile] 2013-05-10 03:42 pm (UTC)(link)
the image of a person rather than their substance, clinging to something you have no right to anymore, knowing you should just let go—is a very bad thing for a person who isn't actually, clinically dead.

ugghhh, yes, okay, I can see how that is no life at all, yes -_-

[identity profile] 2013-05-10 11:26 pm (UTC)(link)
Well written; I should get hold of this.

[identity profile] 2013-05-10 11:35 pm (UTC)(link)
It sounds like a film I'd enjoy - I've shared covers with Volk, and he's a decent writer.