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"Orson Welles" as an evil apparition

Heavenly Creatures

1994. New Zealand. Directed by Peter Jackson. With Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse

This movie is disconcertingly acute about the intense attachments that girls sometimes form, and how these attachments get displaced onto a shared obsession with some male idol. It's quietly perceptive about social class. Without any pat cause-and-effect psychologizing, it suggests how family chaos can drive children to distraction. And it's just terrific about how fantasy and reality get confused in a culture saturated with novels, recordings, and especially movies.

Taking this movie as a study in abnormal psychology, or even as an anthropological look at teenage girls (here in an extreme form, certainly), misses how universal this movie's concerns are. Heavenly Creatures's subject is the danger of a romantic view of life. Pauline and Juliet are extremely disturbed girls, and they end up committing a horrible and pointless murder (the movie is based on an actual case, apparently well-documented in one of the girls' diaries) but the movie makes their pathology easy to identify with. In most movies about psychopaths, we start out liking the person and gradually come to realize how strange and dangerous she is (just off the top of my head: Play Misty For Me). But watching Heavenly Creatures we grow increasingly sympathetic to the girls even as their behavior gets more and more weird. I think this is because the movie uses our own viewing experience to involve us directly in the dramatic, passionate fantasy world that the girls create.

As the girls descend into romantic delusion, the movie follows along. The camera swoops and races in extravagant boom shots. The photography often switches into Golden-Age-of-Hollywood black and white, and once or twice Pauline is shot to look like Veronica Lake, all gray and silver with the shadow of an impossibly curled eyelash falling across her cheek. The score is emotional and old-fashioned, and it just carries us along. All in all, the movie is a dream to watch. Though we realize that the filmmaker is being deliberately imitative, perhaps even ironic, the fact is that this kind of filmmaking still works. It's like a warm bath. There's mystery, suspense, big emotions, poignancy, breathtaking highs and lows, exciting costume sequences and marvellous forward momentum. Like the girls, we feel giddy, out of control. When the final title informs us that when the girls were released from prison "it was a condition of their parole that they never meet again," the rational mind feel relieved but the moviegoer mind laments this tragic end to a great love.

I especially relish the way the movie uses Orson Welles. Pauline and Juliet adore Mario Lanza, who dominates the sound track and shows up in film clips and (impersonated) in person, and they abhor Orson Welles with equal fervor. (Their impassioned revulsion rings so true. When I was in my early teens a girlfriend and I kept our relationship going long past its normal course by forming the Marlon Brando Hate Club. Although we did not kill anybody, we did something quite reprehensible: We spent a day tearing pictures of Brando out of the bound magazines in the public library and ripping them into little pieces. We felt we were performing a public service.) Anyway, Orson Welles—"appalling, dreadful, hideous"—haunts our heavenly creatures. He appears in glamorous studio portraits and in clips from The Third Man. The girl Juliet looks amazingly like Welles, glaring up from under her furrowed brow and pouting her fleshy little mouth. And as the girls sink further into their folie a deux, Welles (played by an actor who does look something like Welles's youthful self) shows up in the flesh to terrorize them. Now, I suppose that Welles did have a brief career as a matinee idol, and perhaps the real-life murderesses did confess to a fixation upon him. But no contemporary filmmaker can weave the person of Orson Welles into his movie as a sort of wicked emissary from the world of movies without it being self-commentary. Welles is the Ghost of Brilliant Young Directors Past. He is self-conscious filmmaking personified.

Heavenly Creatures is an example of a movie that uses itself to illustrate its own theme. Instead of giving the audience a clinical, distanced look at over-imaginative girls losing touch with reality, this movie makes itself so seductive that we go part of the way with them. Their heightened emotionalism and extraordinary actions—the lifeblood of Hollywood—sometimes seems rather glorious, really.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein