Magill's Survey of Cinema, 06-15-1995

Heavenly Creatures
Reviewed By Paul Mittelbach

Magill's Survey of Cinema, 06-15-1995

New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson's HEAVENLY CREATURES is a film hampered by its own audacious imagination. Based on a well-known New Zealand murder case, HEAVENLY CREATURES tells the story of two Christchurch teenagers, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), who became lovers and clubbed Pauline's mother, Honora (Sarah Peirse), to death in 1954. The case gained renewed notoriety in 1994 when the mystery writer, Anne Perry, revealed that she was, in fact, Juliet Hulme.

Jackson attempts to depict the inner workings of these girls' disturbed minds by using both voice-over narration from Pauline's actual diary and elaborate morphing and animation effects that show the girls' shared fantasy world. This world consists of an imaginary kingdom of living statues and gorgeous landscapes they call the Fourth World, or Borovnia, in which they reign as supreme beings--"heavenly creatures." In attempting to visualize this world, Jackson goes further than any film to date--save, perhaps, the televison drama SYBIL (1976)- -in trying to capture the inner experience of profoundly damaged human beings undergoing a psychotic break.

Yet Jackson's focus on imagining this inner life comes at the expense of making the girls comprehensible. By relying almost entirely on Pauline's point of view, Jackson, unlike the makers of SYBIL, neglects to show the family dynamics that made the girls needy and lonely enough to turn to obsessive fantasy and violence. Although Jackson hints at an atmosphere of repression and hypocrisy in both families, what he shows hardly adds up to psychosis and murder. In the end, the girls' madness is brilliantly visualized, but remains woefully underexplained.

The film begins with newsreel footage of a seemingly serene 1950's Christchurch, then cuts jarringly to a violent forward tracking shot of the two blood-spattered girls screaming that "Mummy's been terribly hurt." What makes this opening sequence visually unique is that Jackson intercuts the posthomicidal horror with slow-motion black-and-white images of what appear to be memories of happier times for Pauline and Juliet. In fact, these images turn out to be pure fantasy--the dying throes of their dreams of an idyllic future together.

The film then proceeds in flashback from the girls' first encounter at school two years earlier. Jackson's cameraman, Alun Bollinger, uses drifting pans and slow zooms in these opening sequences to reflect Pauline's aimless yearning for something out of the ordinary; when she finally discovers Winslet's Juliet brilliantly talking back to a teacher, the camera settles on Juliet and her milky white skin as something virtually miraculous.

Juliet, as portrayed by Winslet and lit by the filmmakers, possesses an icy, budding, almost contemptuous eroticism, and one of the visual themes of the film is how Pauline comes to draw her only sustenance and warmth from the forbiddingly beautiful Juliet. For Pauline, the only time she feels truly alive is when she is with Juliet; Juliet, pale and prone to illness, is shown as more and more flushed and excited when in Pauline's presence. Jackson uses extreme close-ups to punctuate their first meeting and to emphasize their fascination with each other, and these obsessive, fetishistic close-ups recur throughout the film.

What follows is the kind of intense adolescent bonding common to lonely, creative children who have no one else to whom to turn. Juliet shares with Pauline her idolatry of Mario Lanza and her legs, with their symptoms of osteomyelitis, and from these beginnings the girls create their shared, hermetically sealed fantasy world: Juliet's illness and Pauline's alienation are romanticized; their cult-like worship of celebrities (Lanza, Orson Welles) is elevated to quasi-religious status; and all others are excluded with contempt.

Feeling omnipotent, yet sad that no one can appreciate their "genius", the girls romp through the countryside in their knickers, perform candlelit rituals with offerings to "St. Mario" and to Welles, and make vows to enter the Fourth World. "It's better than Heaven," says Juliet. Here, too, the camera settles on Juliet as the object of Pauline' s desire: Her complexion grows ruddier in the glow from their private altar.

The film's narrative spine is the series of emotional events that force the girls even further into their isolated psychotic universe. Juliet's therapist mother, Hilda (Diana Kent), beautiful, icy, and distant, is having a barely concealed affair in which Juliet's father, Henry (Clive Merrison), an aloof college dean, seems to acquiesce, perhaps even participate. Until now, Juliet has adopted her mother' s cool selfishness and contemptuous attitude as a veneer for her longings for affection. When her parents tell her she will not be accompanying them on a trip out of the country and imply that their marriage is crumbling, Juliet's barely contained neediness and the fiction that her family is normal explode. Juliet runs out of the house in operatic hysterics with Pauline in hot pursuit, visions of Borovnia dancing in their heads.

As for the Parkers, Pauline becomes painfully aware that Honora Parker became pregnant with her at seventeen out of wedlock, and her parents' hateful reaction when they discover she is sleeping with their boarder reinforces her unspoken suspicion that she was an unwanted child. Soon, the girls' emotions are sublimated entirely into their private cult, and it becomes inevitable that they will lash out at anyone who tries to break them up.

Visually, Jackson makes vivid the girls' descent into this delusional, dependent world. When Pauline follows the hysterical Juliet over the hills, Jackson morphs the real landscape into a Borovnia of giant butterflies, snow-white horses, and flower-carpeted gardens. The effect is that of a self-induced acid hallucination, and Jackson shows how it soothes them, allows them to believe in something. At each step toward their private cul-de-sac, Jackson demonstrates how the fantasies they use as balm for their psychic wounds are leading them irrevocably to a break with reality.

At the visual center of each grandiose fantasy is Juliet: Her blood spatters the pure white paper on her school desk as she shows the first signs of tuberculosis, another "romantic" disease; her face reddens with strain as she playacts her Borovnian character Deborah giving birth; and she lies in almost erotic stillness in the tuberculosis sanitarium as Pauline rushes to her with violent urgency. Even when seduced by John, the family boarder, Pauline fantasizes about Juliet.

In a complex sequence, Jackson intercuts John panting over Pauline with Pauline's fantasy of finding Juliet in an idyllic Borovnia and then hacking one of the golem-like male stone figures in two. This act reflects her feelings of being literally split in two by having sex with John, as well as her hatred of anything that is not Juliet. Jackson then cuts back to Pauline's look of horror as John asks if he has hurt her. For Pauline, John, who says he loves her, is no longer real; her fantasy of bringing Juliet from iciness to warmth is.

Jackson reinforces this visual motif in a scene in which Pauline and Juliet bathe together in the warm orange glow of candlelight. Previously, Jackson had used similar lighting to show Pauline's unwrapping the cellophane around her new diary on Christmas Day. Here, Juliet's porcelain skin is now infused with Christmas Day warmth, and, in the visual scheme of things, Juliet takes the place of Christmas, of love, of the diary. Jackson also begins to accentuate the ugly brackish green hues of Pauline's household, which seem to contrast more and more vividly with the colors of the fantasy world. As the "reality" of these drab colors sinks in, Pauline's hatred of her mother grows commensurately: "How I loathed mother," she writes.

Honora Parker's threat to prohibit Pauline from seeing Juliet and Dr. Hulme's decision to send Juliet to school in South Africa drive the girls further into their delusions and seal Pauline's mother's fate. As Pauline and Juliet plan an imaginary departure for Hollywood, Pauline writes that she must get rid of her mother as an "obstacle."

The story reaches a visual crescendo in a brilliantly choreographed sequence in which Pauline envisions her drab living room expanding to accommodate the thunderous waltzing of the Borovnian stone figures and the swooning cadences of Mario Lanza, singing live. When Pauline and Juliet return to the house and consummate their relationship sexually, their union is complete, and their dream must be preserved at all costs--including the death of Pauline's mother. Jackson continues the visual theme of Juliet representing warmth for Pauline right through to the end: As Pauline chillingly writes of being "excited" on the morning of the murder, Mrs. Hulme remarks on Juliet's rare rosy cheeks.

In the final scenes, Jackson ties all his visual motifs together. The sickening bluish-green of Pauline's family kitchen as they all prepare breakfast is at its most pronounced, and Jackson lingers on each detail of the morning to reflect the girls' obsessive tunnel vision, the dreamlike aspect of their madness. In the final murder sequence, in which the girls take Honora Parker out to tea, Honora' s drab blue and green outfit evokes pity from them as tearoom clocks tick in the mortal world.

The final, almost soundless walk in the woods before the girls beat Honora's head in with rocks has a rapt, churchlike quality to it, as if the girls were making their final, blissful descent into Borovnia. When the bloody mess of the murder is once again intercut with the black-and-white footage of the imaginary boat departing for "Hollywood, " it becomes clear how far into their secret world the girls have gone.

In spite of Jackson's visual prowess, the girls' psyches remain a mystery. Had Jackson chosen to use either Juliet's or a third-person omniscient point of view for even small portions of the film, HEAVENLY CREATURES might have provided enough information on the neuroses in each family to explain the girls' ghastly pain. As it is, with only Pauline's purple prose about Borovnia and her clinically distant descriptions of her family to go on, the film simply becomes a visual poem to their psychosis. Many neglected creative children form this type of bond with a friend, but not all of them kill their parents. How were these girls different? Jackson gives only the barest hints.

The depiction of the girls' fantasy world does, indeed, break new ground. For once, the new morphing technology--the computer-generated transformation of one face or landscape into another--is used to a psychological end rather than purely for fantasy effects, and Jackson tries to harness it to the fullest to express the inner workings of their minds. To admit that HEAVENLY CREATURES represents an advance over the average television docudrama, however, is not to say that it is entirely successful. Without showing the wellsprings of Pauline and Juliet's shadow world, the director does HEAVENLY CREATURES, and the case it is based on, a disservice. Jackson reveals himself as a magisterial visual stylist, and a mediocre psychologist.