Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Heavenly Creatures

Heavenly Creatures is an especially succinct film (especially for a quasi-biopic) clocking in at just about 100 minutes. What makes it so special, though, is how saturated with different themes it is and for me it’s the power and implicit danger to be found in imagination that always me thinking when the credits role. I was one of those children who grew up allowed to watch even the goriest of films, so I was Heavenly Creatures well before I was into my teens. The ever looming figure of Diello was a constant source of terror for me the first time I saw it and while re-watching it this week, Diello remains as the most visceral source of terror in the film and Jackson’s decisions to mark the alternate universe with clay figures instead of actors always makes me ruminate.
The first shot of Diello is so incidental as the bedridden Juliet makes him in the hospital. It’s all about perspective, and there’s little terror to be found in something so small and unanimated. Even that close-up of the “toy” is hardly appalling....and yet...
And it’s such a marked difference from Diello’s next appearance, less than ten minutes later when the priest arrives to “deliver” Juliet. His image is obscured by the priest, and yet it’s terrifying. 
Pretending that your toys are real is one thing, but having them actually get up and do is something completely different. They’re miles apart but I always think of this arc in conjunction with that old movie The Indian in the Cupboard which exists as a fine example of childhood fantasy where a child’s toys become corporeal; and I often wondered how we would really react to seeing our toys reveal themselves with humanistic traits to us.
Even though that baleful image of Diello is Juliet’s projection, but it never fails to shock me – even now that I’m all grown up, sort of. It underscores the whole issue of perspective, really, which is something the film touches on effectively. It’s one thing for us to create imaginary worlds, children are so constantly playing “house” with their toys – pretending they’re real, even some in their teens but we take comfort in the fact that these things can’t really happen which is why my favourite shot of the film always haunts me.
It goes to show that my favourite shot of the film is also the one I find most horrific, and there really is little that’s expressly horrific about the shot of the clay figures in the throes of passion, but never before has lovemaking seemed so menacing. Which makes me return to my question: why clay? Had Jackson realised the imaginary world as if it were real this shot would have none of its profundity but it marks – for me – the film’s strongest theme. As much as we try to immerse ourselves, there’s something significantly grotesque about forcing imaginary things to be real. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it makes me think of the Tennyson poem “The Lady of Shallot” – when the woman in the tower, indicative of the artist in the imaginary world, goes down into the real world she’s destroyed – the two can’t mix. And it’s the same with the clay figures. The act of sex seems almost like an explicitly human which only underscores the unnaturalness of the image, before they were strange....but now they just seem particularly disturbing. There’s something distinctly awry in the images which their realisation in clay emphasises. It’s a brilliant decision on Jackson’s part, he’s always been a visual director and the decision here is not just aesthetically based it highlights one of the film’s more profound themes – the dichotomy between illusion and reality.
This is a part of Nathaniel's series Hit Me With Your Best Shot.


Nicholas Prigge said...

Nice post, even though now I'm going to have nightmares about that shot while I'm still awake.

This movie is a legitimate masterpiece and needs more love stateside. Orson Welles was always kind of intimidating but was he ever as intimidating as he was in this?

Jose said...

It is horrific but I love how much it displays Jackson's imagination, perhaps even more than the girls'.

CS said...

Great post. One of my favourite flicks of all time. Love how you dissected the shots, especially the throes of passion scene. I completely agree that it is both disturbing and brilliant all at the same time.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nicholas the funniest part of the film, for me, was juliette's response to paul wanting orson well's photo in the shrine. true, though, this film needs more love generally.

jose indeed. jackson sure does interesting visually without robbing the film of its soul. he teeters on the bring never overdoing it, but always overwhelming you - but in a good way.

Anonymous said...

I still say that "Heavenly Creatures" is the best film Peter Jackson ever made, and that includes the "LOTR" trilogy (of which, you might have guessed, I'm not a huge fan). Winslet and Lynskey are stunningly good here, and I love the opening footage that collides with the shot of both girls bloody and screaming. There's an eeriness about this film that sticks with you long after it's over.