4.28.2016

Double fantasy: Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures"


"It is indeed a miracle, one must feel / That two such heavenly creatures are real": Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet.

Will Peter Jackson ever make another film as good as Heavenly Creatures (1994)?  It’s an unlikely—and unholy—marriage of his ability to create elaborately detailed fantasy worlds with a nastiness and a psychological complexity that Jackson has dropped ever since he first embarked on the first installment of his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  While those films launched Jackson to super-stardom, I much prefer the intensity, wry humor, and sharpness of Creatures.  (Even on a technical level it’s superior to the LOTR films, which increasingly suffer from prestige-picture bloat; Creatures is, by contrast, thrillingly cut together.)  The lush tone and keyed-up rhythm of the film perfectly matches the emotions of its characters, two teenage girls coming of age in 1950s New Zealand, queer misfits whose thwarted efforts to escape into a private world of their own making eventually culminate in violence. 

Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) are so single-minded, so passionately devoted to each other, that everyone and everything else falls away; like all young lovers, they want nothing so much as to move in each other's orbit, and they resent being pulled back down to earth by meddlesome parents, doctors, and teachers.  (That's another thing that Jackson's subsequent films have lacked—a real understanding of love and sexuality.  The closest thing to sex that we get in LOTR is Sam and Frodo making puppy-dog eyes at each other for eleven hours.)  Pauline and Juliet's love becomes a kind of obsession that only deepens with each attempt by their families to de-escalate it.  As it careens toward a tragic and absurd conclusion in which the girls murder Pauline's mother in a misguided attempt to ensure their freedom to be together, Heavenly Creatures joins such films as Rope (1948) as a gay murder story in which it becomes difficult to say whether the characters' criminal impulses are an expression of their sexuality or a consequence of its invalidation (or both). 

What's thrilling about the film is the way that Jackson draws us into the heady, emotionally volatile world of the girls and their relationship.  As “unlikable” as Pauline—played with beady-eyed cunning by Lynskey in her first film role—may be, we come to identify completely with her both in her rapture for Juliet and in her desperation to remain close to her at any cost.  Hysterical and moony, the spirit of the girls’ romantic energy dominates the entire tone and style of the film.  When, for example, Pauline and Juliet thrill to a song as sublimely ridiculous as Mario Lanza’s “Donkey Serenade” (which becomes a backdrop to their innocent first kiss), the moment feels as thrilling to us as it does to them.  Like the girls, Jackson’s camera is in constant motion; it pulls us into their secret world and whips us into a state of pleasurable excitation along with them.  Then, in the final moments, the hammer (as it were) falls.  Heavenly Creatures suggests that the state of being in love is itself a fantasy world—the most beautiful, and fragile, fantasy world of all. 

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