The Moth Diaries

Can you open the window a little bit?

Much of The Moth Diaries, a film by Mary Harron based upon a novel by Rachel Klein, revolves around the question of whether Lily Cole’s character is a vampire, and we’re (to a certain degree) left to our own analysis in the end.  I wonder whether my recent interaction with Cole has colored my comprehension in some way.  “No,” I think, “she can’t be a vampire.  She’s a really nice person.”

The Moth Diaries follows Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) as she attends a new year at an all-girls boarding school.  She and her roommate, Lucie (Sarah Gadon) are inseparable.  In an early scene involving these two and several friends (played by Valerie Tian, Laurence Hamelin, and Melissa Farman), a sense of foreboding upstages an otherwise garden-variety “teenage girl” conversation, perhaps due to the deliberate wide shots, which allow the viewer to memorize each face and personality, inviting us to figure out which qualities of each girl will lead to her inevitable exeunt from a horror movie.  The first night of the semester goes as usual, but soon, a teacher introduces Rebecca to the new girl, Ernessa (Lily Cole).  Ernessa appears sullen, ignores Rebecca’s greetings, and looks past her to make eye contact with Lucie, who has just gotten out of the shower.

Rebecca bonds with the only male teacher on campus, Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman).  Rebecca’s father was a poet (who later committed suicide and was found by Rebecca), and Davies is a big fan of his work.  Davies is teaching his students Carmilla, the vampire novel by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, from which Bram Stoker took a heap of inspiration for Dracula.  “There are always three things that show up in a vampire story,” Davies says.  “Sex, blood, and death.”  From here, we can guess what structure the film will take on.

The film loosely adapts two formulas: the Alien school of horror, which first introduces us to the band of main characters, then sees them picked off one by one; and select plot points of Carmilla itself (because Klein/Harron apparently believe a novel written in 1872 is fair game).  But the film deals with these two structures in interesting ways: the supporting cast is trimmed, as you would expect, but we never actually see anyone killed, nor do most of the characters die – some are expelled or kept by their parents from returning to school.  Secondly, the plot of Carmilla doesn’t happen to Rebecca, our protagonist; it happens to Lucie, into whose life we are given very few glimpses.  Rebecca’s obsession with the novel and her trauma regarding her father make her believe that her time at school is becoming a real-life Carmilla story, and because we see the story through her eyes, we begin to believe it with her.  In this way, the answers are never dropped in front of us, regardless of how obvious the film may be with its references.

Is Ernessa a vampire, or is Rebecca losing her mind?  The film, like Carmilla, contains a certain amount of circumspection regarding what’s actually happening in the story.  Le Fanu’s novel concerned a woman’s romantic affair with a female vampire; Harron’s film forgoes even telling us whether the narrator is in her right mind, let alone whether Ernessa is a supernatural creature or not.  The unreliable narrator, however, is a brilliant device in this story, because we are able to examine the clues for ourselves:  Ernessa, when misbehaving, is made to swim laps.  It appears she’s afraid of water and cannot swim.  She never eats.  When the other girls smoke pot, she refuses to be near the smoke.  Rebecca walks in on Ernessa and Lucie having sex, but from Rebecca’s angle, Ernessa appears to be biting Lucie’s neck.  Another time, Rebecca sees Ernessa walking the roof of the school and passing through a closed window.  Or was the window open?  These scenes are shot so well that we truly cannot be sure.

The story is more about suicide than it is about vampires, so its focus remains on its main character.  Rebecca is bursting with melancholy, desperate for the attention of her best friend, and frequently muses upon her father’s suicide.  Why did he do it?  Was it something she did?  Did it hurt?  How is she supposed to recover from it?  She even carries around a razorblade, the film’s one true attempt at symbolism, which actually works in a film with so many fairy-story attributes.  The threat of Rebecca’s own suicide seems sincere.

The performances of Sarah Bolger and Lily Cole are the linchpins by which this film is made or broken, and both deliver.  Bolger allows us to feel Rebecca’s sadness and confusion, and even though The Moth Diaries is billed as a vampire story, we honestly want Rebecca to reunite with Lucie and have a normal year at school.  A scene in which Rebecca professes her need for Lucie’s friendship, despite the way the latter has treated her, is rife with emotion and feels incredibly genuine.  Cole manages a performance that can be interpreted in two ways: that of a stoic, manipulative succubus, or a timid misfit whose only modus operandi for making friends is to inadvertently steal them from other people.  All of this is present in Cole’s Ernessa, and the few scenes in which she appears as a “vampire” (floating through the air, causing a storm of blood to shower the library while taunting Rebecca into killing herself) are wisely contained within Rebecca’s dreams or visions.

Ingeniously, even the ending, which seems “happy” at face value, can drastically change in tone depending on whether or not you think Ernessa was really a vampire.  Rebecca finds Ernessa’s diary, which states she may have died at this very school when it was a hotel back in 1907.  Using this evidence along with her own suspicions, she breaks into the school’s basement and finds Ernessa sleeping in her own trunk (a “coffin” of sorts?).  She then makes a decision that will have a lasting impact on the school and everyone she knows, a decision she claims has “freed” the two of them.

The Moth Diaries is a good story about a girl finding strength.  Aside from the use of the shopworn “perverted male teacher” trope, the film hits all the right notes.  I don’t believe I have ever seen a film in which the intention of making the audience “interpret” the film’s action actually worked, perhaps because most of those films also lack a real ending, whereas this one sees Rebecca all the way to the fresh air she severely needs.  I felt a good breath of it once the credits rolled.

The Moth Diaries (2012); based on the novel by Rachel Klein; directed by Mary Harron; starring Sarah Bolger and Lily Cole.

Rage

Show business kids makin’ movies of ’emselves…

As much as I enjoy the little featurettes on Rage, Sally Potter’s latest effort, the term “naked cinema” has yet to be defined for me – whether that is because I suddenly find myself a victim of the times and think the absence of a Wikipedia article means a term has no definition, I couldn’t say.  I’m going to venture a guess, though: it means something more than a “cheap movie.”  Rage was made with only $1 million (a phrase I still snicker at when I hear it spoken aloud – “only one million dollars”), and I assume the lion’s share  went to the actors.  If hats didn’t give me headaches, I would wear one and subsequently take it off to this stellar cast of accomplished performers for snubbing expensive jobs they surely could have taken in favor of being involved in a truly ambitious artistic project.

Potter states that “we…live in a culture that is kind of fetishizing fake confessions in the form of reality TV, confessions made for an effect, or to get famous or whatever…I tried to go back to an earlier lineage of confession, which is a kind of…lifting off, if you like, of a mask.”  This film is fully comprised of confessional interviews, supposedly filmed by a high school blogger calling him/herself Michelangelo (yes, it’s important to note that the gender is never revealed; don’t just assume it’s a male).  Michelangelo, a silent, off-stage presence, spends seven days behind the scenes at a fashion show, witnessing a murder-mystery in progress while the key players share their musings with the camera (and quite often share too much).

The colorful ensemble includes appearances by Jude Law as a drag queen named Minx; Steve Buscemi as Frank, a homeless photographer; Judi Dench as Mona, a pessimistic fashion journalist; the gorgeous Lily Cole (who has grown on me) as Lettuce Leaf, an exaggerated version of herself; Eddie Izzard as Tiny Diamonds, the owner of the fashion company; Simon Abkarian as Merlin, a master fashion designer and blowhard extraordinaire; Patrick J. Adams as Dwight Angel, a young, bigoted marketing exec who happens to be ignorant of his own racial insensitivity; David Oyelowo as Homer, a “detective” straight out of a blaxploitation film; and John Leguizamo as Jed, Tiny’s coffee-addicted bodyguard.

For a film almost completely devoid of a traceable story arc, it is impressive to find two sideplots alongside the documentary/murder-mystery (though the first is more of a “side subject”): 1) the creation of a new fragrance, simply called “M,” which leads to insight from several characters about what “M” stands for, resulting in characters “saying more than they’re saying;” and 2) Lettuce Leaf needs to “get away” from the barbarous stress of being in the studio, and asks Michelangelo if she can come home with him/her.  The final shots of the film, quite different from anything previous, are touching, gorgeous, and…shucks.  Just see it.

Rage is a film for the film enthusiast, the writer, and the minimalist.  It’s a film entirely comprised of dialogue, dismissing the importance of plot and resolution, revolving completely around characters and their immediate emotions.  It’s a murder mystery with no possible solution.  It’s a satire of the fashion industry, and more so a satire of reality TV and its dedicated viewers who gawk hopelessly as their idols, people who have done nothing and are nothing, weep and whine about silly, grandiose, arbitrary schlock, and the camera zooms in for a deliberate closeup.

Rage (2009); written and directed by Sally Potter; starring Lily Cole, Jude Law, Judi Dench and Steve Buscemi.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

You and your mind control thinga-ma-jigomy

Can anyone other than Terry Gilliam make a film that manages to be colorful, imaginative, gritty, funny, and ironic all at the same time?  Well, yes, there are others, but Gilliam has a unique touch, seen in several of his great and wild films including Brazil, The Brothers Grimm, and his latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a mesmerizing journey through (what appears to be) the imagination.

The story involves a traveling performance troupe led by the 1,000 year-old Doctor Parnassus (played by the immortal Christopher Plummer) and which includes Anton (Andrew Garfield), Percy (Verne Troyer), and Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole).  Since his days as a monk, Parnassus has made several wagers with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a personification of the Devil, and in exchange for eternal life he must relinquish his own daughter (unbeknownst to her) on her sixteenth birthday.  While traveling, the troupe finds a stranger named Tony (Heath Ledger) hanging by his neck from Blackfriars Bridge.  Claiming to have amnesia, Tony joins the troupe as a barker, and Mr. Nick soon returns with a new wager for Parnassus: if Parnassus can convert five souls to good before Mr. Nick can make them give in to greed or petty desires, he can have his daughter back. Valentina, of course, while being wild and independent, is the bargaining chip, the subject/object to be bought, sold, traded, and possessed.

The film contains the last footage of Ledger’s acting career, and it’s a strong enough film that if he had to have a final film at such a young age, I’m glad it was this one.  Three other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell), all good friends of Ledger, take on the role of Tony as he passes through the mirror into the Imaginarium, and Gilliam shoots them in such a way that Tony’s transformations seem like an organic part of the story and not a production issue.  The three have to do very little to look like Ledger, and they do the character justice.  Using Depp as the first was a wise directing decision: in the words of Gilliam himself, “I just thought if it works with the transition to Johnny and if the audience goes for it, they’ll follow the next two. And that’s exactly how it works.”  It does.

Christopher Plummer surpasses nearly everything he’s done, and he even gets a sequence in which he’s reverted to his youth and we’re treated to The Sound of Music Plummer for just a moment.  Lily Cole’s Valentina is a character we can all believe both Tony and Anton would be crazy about – confident, strong-willed, and mysterious in that male fantasy sort of way (which lends itself well to a fantasy film, but is problematic in the usual ways, not least of which is the ratio of women to men in the cast).

As mellowing as the ending is, it’s the only ending, and it’s the only farewell we’ll ever have from Ledger.  Thankfully, it’s Gilliam’s most solid work since Brazil, and although the loss of Ledger is devastating, maybe there’s some solace in the fact that we’re leaving him in a place so full of magic.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009); written and directed by Terry Gilliam; starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits, and Lily Cole.

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