Heavenly Tweetures

Our current Movie of the Month, 2003’s sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare fits into a thematic pattern I’ve recently noticed in a lot of my personal media consumption: the story of two damned souls who are relatively harmless in isolation but absolute menaces when working in tandem. Films like Sheer Madness, Heathers, Thoroughbreds, and Love Me If You Dare (not to mention one of my all-time favorite novels, Wuthering Heights) establish a canon of stories about young people whose violent, unignorable attraction to each other at the expense of engaging with the world at large leads to deadly, widespread mayhem. Love Me If You Dare is only an outlier in this genre because of its general adherence to romcom tropes and its weakness for twee whimsy. Its story of two young children who bond over an escalating set of dares as they grow into increasingly dangerous adults starts relatively cute & romantic before gradually mutating into an off-the-rails thriller of sorts. Love Me If You Dare’s adherence to romcom tropes & twee whimsy may establish it as an outlier in its own violent-attraction subgenre, but I still don’t know that I’d call the it the most extreme specimen of its ilk. That honor still belongs to Peter Jackson’s 1994 true crime thriller Heavenly Creatures, a film that knows a thing or two about sinister romance & childlike whimsy.

One of the most obvious ways that Heavenly Creatures represents a fucked-up extreme as a tale of violent romance & childhood imagination is its status as a true story ripped from 1950s Australian headlines. In their big screen debuts, then-preteen actors Kate Winslet & Melanie Lynskey star as a pair of misfit schoolgirls who become maniacally obsessed with each other to the point of detaching from reality entirely. Their dual “unwholesome attachment” results in the murder of one of the girls’ mothers, a scandalous tabloid story that made the girls locally infamous for decades. Obviously personally obsessed with the material at hand, Jackson shoots the girls’ murderous attraction to each other with the same funhouse cinematic eye he afforded the over-the-top splatter comedies of his early career, except with a newfound pathos. Jackson’s camera work is as drunk on the characters’ violent chemistry as they are, adapting the same cartoonish aesthetic of his zombie comedies to a newfound, purposeful effect. I could never choose between Heavenly Creatures or Dead Alive as the best title in his catalog, then, as they’re equally, weirdly broad & childish considering the violence of their content. Heavenly Creatures is distinguished there in its immersion in the imagination of two real-life children whose dual fantasy ultimately resulted in a real-life body count. It’s both incredibly impressive and incredibly fucked up how well Jackson manages to put his audience in the headspace of these two extemely particular young women.

The parallels between Heavenly Creatures and Love Me If You Dare are unmistakable once you start looking for them. The two girls in Heavenly Creatures initially bond over their shared history of debilitating illness, whereas Love Me If You Dare also begins with a long-term terminal illness disrupting a family’s functionality. Both films detail children forming intense bonds across class lines, with working class parents initially embracing their children’s intense friendship with better-off classmates for the potential social mobility before the red flags become unignorable. Most substantially, the two childhood bonds established between them are built upon flights of fancy that go too far: in one, the game of escalating dares; in the other, the roleplaying game of the fantasy kingdom of Borovnia. Although it is based on real-life events, Heavenly Creatures is just as prone to reality-breaking whimsy as Love Me If You Dare, bringing to life the made-up fantasy kingdom of Borovnia that the girls’ dual imagination concocted in real life. The clay figures the girls use at playtime are frequently blown up to life-size fantasy figures as they sink further into their escapist imaginations to avoid the dull Hell of reality. While the doomed pranksters of Love Me If You Dare grow up into the real-world adults, the fantasy-prone murderers of Heavenly Creatures shy further away from it. What’s really fucked up about that dynamic is that the young children of Heavenly Creatures are much more honest & active in expressing their romantic, sexual, and violent attraction to each other than the gradually adult players of Love Me If You Dare, even if both pairs’ inevitable downfall is an inability to fully distinguish the border between fantasy & real-life consequence.

Considering its own clash of childlike imagination & deadly menace, it’s tempting to suppose that Heavenly Creatures might’ve taken on a more twee aesthetic if it were released a decade later than it was. Peter Jackson would have been working on the Lord of the Rings films around the time of Love Me If You Dare’s release, a series that is in no way twee or cutesy (or, in my opinion, nowhere near as good as Heavenly Creatures), but a different director handling that same material in the early aughts could’ve transformed it into a twee classic with just a few tonal tweaks. It’s not too difficult to imagine a Michel Gondry or Jean-Pierre Juenet playing around with the same eerie whimsy of the Barovnian clay kingdom in their own retelling of the story. I’d even argue that you get a decent taste of what a twee Heavenly Creatures might have been like in the early childhood stretch of Love Me If You Dare. The debut feature of the much less-accomplished Yann Samuell, Love Me If You Dare never had the chance to compare to the pure cinematic bliss of Heavenly Creatures. No matter what it may lack in craft, however, it’s still impressive how the film manages to match the maniacal energy & deadly stakes of Jackson’s superior work while still mimicking the basic tones & tropes of the early-aughts twee romcom: the most sinister of cinematic balancing acts.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinster twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dressmaker (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

I don’t enjoy Westerns. They do nothing for me. It’s a frequent complaint I have, a well-respected genre that just completely shuts off my brain, and I have a difficult time falling in love with even the most modern updates to the format like Bone Tomahawk & Hell or High Water that are reported to be reinvigorating examples of the genre’s merits. To play directly into the “Actually, it’s really a Western if you think about it” critical cliché, The Dressmaker felt tailor made to shut my stupid mouth on the subject. The film, which is at once a violent camp comedy and a heartfelt melodrama, plays like 90s-era John Waters remaking Strictly Ballroom as a revenge tale Western where lives are destroyed by pretty dresses instead of bullets. If I were ever going to fall in love with a movie that could even vaguely be considered a Western, this formula would be my personal ideal. It’s violent, it’s campy, it’s unpredictable, it’s commanded by the female gaze; The Dressmaker is everything I love about cinema at large crammed into the mold of a genre that usually puts me to sleep.

Trading in the dusty roads of the American West for the dustier & more desolate landscape of a small Australian town in the 1950s, The Dressmaker may not have the authenticity in setting required to automatically qualify as a Western, but its intent within the genre is unmistakable. Kate Winslet, as fiercely talented & beautiful as ever, rides into town (on a bus instead of the traditional horse) to blaze a path of earth-scorching revenge for a past betrayal. A mother who doesn’t remember her and a community who has shunned her as an alleged murderess distort the facts of a childhood trauma she can’t quite piece together until the dust fully settles. Instead of establishing her dominance with a six-shooter, she fires off her sewing machine, crafting fashion so eye-meltingly gorgeous that the town that once conspired against her is powerless under the influence of her needle. They attempt to put an end to her coup by bringing in a hired gun seamstress as competition, but Winslet’s needle-slinging protagonist consistently proves to be the best dressmaker the town has ever seen. She will not rest until she knows the truth about her own past and everyone in her path is draped in her finery – dead, or alive & ruined.

There’s so much to love about The Dressmaker, but its most cherishable quality is its minute-to-minute unpredictability. The film has obvious fun with the general structure of a Western & plays with camp tones of an absurdist comedy, but it zigs where you expect those genres’ tropes to zag and much of its third act is an anything-goes free-for-all where the only thing that’s certain is that Kate Winslet is a badass and you’d be a fool to vex her. In the same film where Hugo Weaving plays a crossdressing sheriff with a John Waters mustache and enough room is set aside for a shameless drunk to heckle Sunset Boulevard, there’s also a romantic throughline that makes a boy toy out of Liam Not-Thor Hemsworth, pitch black revelations of rape & domestic abuse, accusations of witchcraft, jaw-to-the-floor wardrobe gazing (duh) and just about any other tonal left turn you can conjure. It has the small town melancholy of a The Last Picture Show, the over-the-top cartoon pomp & costuming of Death Becomes Her, and the in-cold-blood retribution of Westerns I can’t name because I usually sleep through them, sometimes before the title card. The Dressmaker is more than everything I wanted it to be. In a way it was also just everything, full stop.

Please don’t let all of this talk of violent Westerns & high camp cartoons steer you from watching this film, because it has so much more to offer outside those contexts. Regardless of genre, it’s a fascinating work in its rarity as an aggressively feminine revenge tale, one that feels so foreign in its isolated Australian Mortville setting & its worlds away from Hollywood tone that it’s almost operating in a realm of magic. The only other film from 2016 I could compare its general vibe to is the modernist Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, but even that breath of fresh air can’t match the excitement & satisfaction of The Dressmaker’s consistent novelty. It’s a wholly unique experience, the kind of cinematic idiosyncrasy we’re all hoping to find when we go to the movies. The more I reflect back on it, the more I feel lucky to have seen it at all.

-Brandon Ledet