' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Heavenly Creatures

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Great Movies: Heavenly Creatures

The afternoon before February's Academy Awards in which Kate Winslet earned her long awaited Oscar I sat down to re-watch her first movie for the first time in a long time and it, as it always has and always will, enveloped me. Never have I started "Heavenly Creatures" and not finished it. It might seem strange when you consider its dark nature, based on the real-life story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker who in 1954 New Zealand, afraid Pauline's mother was conspiring to keep the two dangerously close best friends apart, murdered her in horrific fashion. Yet, it is eerily and deeply compelling, to see it once is to never forget it.

The inability to turn away could stem from the jolt of terrifying electricity at the start, a 50's-styled travelogue of the film's setting, quaint Christchurch, New Zealand, "City of the Plains", giving way to the wrenching shots of the two girls, played by Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, running up a garden path, screaming, faces covered with blood. And then it flashes back to the beginning of their story.

Winslet as Juliet, stricken with lung disease and in need of a warm climate, has come to Christchurch with her mother and father (Diana Kent and Clive Merrison), who is set to become President at the local college. She is introduced to her new class which contains Pauline (Lynskey), severely quiet and shy, who is drawn to Juliet the instant she cockily corrects the French teacher. Before long they are squirreling themselves away from their classmates, sitting off to the side, showing off their respective scars. "All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases," claims Juliet. "It's all frightfully romantic." It's clear that Juliet is more attractive and outgoing than Pauline but they are both loners and, most importantly, they are both creative and that is where the true compatibility lies. The film takes great care in painting them as two people who come alive to the fullest only when they are around each other and that, of course, is what ultimately leads to the tragic conclusion.

Juliet contracts tuberculosis and is cordoned off in the hospital where Pauline cannot visit and so the two girls write letters to one another in the guise of characters in their make believe world of Bovaria and when Juliet is finally released this intense infatuation with fantasy only increases.

Their parents feel the relationship is too intense. They even suspect lesbianism, though they would never utter this dreaded word aloud. It is decided the girls must be kept apart. Eventually Juliet's father is pressured to resign as President of the local college which coincides with he and his wife's decision to get a divorce and they determine to send Juliet away, all on her own, to South Africa, "for the good of (her) health." This is the last straw. The girls scheme to escape to America where their they can get a publishing contract for their fanciful stories except Pauline does not have a passport and must get permission from a parent to acquire one. Knowing this will not happen, the girls, far gone in their delusions, decide it is Pauline's mother (Sarah Peirse) who is preventing this escape and, thus, they determine to kill her, framing it as an accident, so they can run away together.

I feel that solely from a filmmaking standpoint - direction, acting, writing, production - only a very few films have ever come close to achieving utter perfection and "Heavenly Creatures" is one. Peter Jackson has said it was less he than his life partner and co-writer Fran Walsh who pushed him to make this film and, at initial glance, especially when you consider at the time Jackson's only films were "Bad Taste", "Dead Alive", and "Meet the Feebles", he may seem a strange person to helm this particular film when, in fact, his immense skill with visual effects made him the perfect choice. He maintains realism with the real life material but whenever Pauline and Juliet enter their fantasy world Jackson's camera dives deep into it as well, presenting castles ruled by figures made of clay, including one in the likeness of Mario Lanza, "the world's greatest tenor." In one infinitely creepy sequence the girls are pursued by a black and white Orson Welles. The more detached the two become, the more these effects are ratcheted up, which is to say they are in complete service of the story.

The two lead performances are extraordinary and even more so when you consider that it was not only Winslet's first movie but Lynskey's, too. Lynskey, unfortunately, may now be best known as the stalker next-door neighbor of Charlie Sheen on the sitcom "Two and a Half Men" while most remain unaware of this movie's existence. She is perfect as the dour, pouty Pauline, hunched over, arms crossed in the beginning, lighting up only whenever Juliet is around. Her transformation is believable and the way she icily cuts off everyone around her as the movie progresses contrasted against her complete (the detached way she sleeps with a boarder at her parents' house at one point is downright disturbing). Winslet, on the other hand, is jovial, always smiling and laughing, though making it clear hysteria lurks just around the corner. She speaks in such a way that suggests always nearly being out of breath and when her parents make any mention of leaving her alone her sudden shifts to anger are jarring.

The screenplay is delicate, allowing us to see the girls' relationship strictly from their vantage point, so as to show their deep empathy for one another but not necessarily force-feeding that empathy to the audience, and also fairly presenting why people on the outside would be wary of their closeness.

In not taking sides the movie opens itself up to the ancient, irritating question, "What were they trying to 'say'?" Why make a film about such a terrible real-life event? Jackson and Walsh spoke to many of the actual participants and examined Pauline's diary entries (the film presents these entirely in Pauline's own words) and other facts of the relationship very closely, but why dredge up these past nightmares for those involved? The reasoning may lie in the film's structure itself.

The trial that followed the murder was a national event with lawyers on both sides attempting to lend reason to what occured. Insanity, lesbianism, all of it was addressed. Yet the movie concludes immediately after the murder. The trial is left offscreen and, thus, the film chooses not to specifically provide a reason for what happened. It presents the facts of the story to the best of its ability and leaves the rest to the audience without pretending to have the ulimate insight into human behavior.

At the time of the film's release in 1994 it was revealed that the real Juliet Hulme was, in fact, the crime author Anne Perry, living in Scotland. The esteemed Roger Ebert writes: "Watching her on the 'Today' program, talking forthrightly about the events of 40 years ago, I got the impression of a sensible, thoughtful woman for whom the murder is as much an enigma as for everyone else."

Our society tends toward a need to rationalize and to find closure, most especially in situations that reveal the darkest side of human nature. If these events can be explained away then we feel as if we are still in control but by simply showing us the events leading up to the murder and nothing more Jackson and Walsh's argument would seem to be the opposite. Eugene Ionesco once wrote: "Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible."

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