Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Eighteen

The Curse of the Cat People - Part Three

A somewhat specious poster

Safely back home, Amy is tucked up in bed. The camera slowly prowls around the dark bedroom, and we hear the echoing sound of horses hooves getting louder as they come closer whilst Julia’s voice once more recounts the approach of the headless horseman. We are inside Amy’s head, which has been infected by the power of Julia’s storytelling performance. Her imaginative landscape has been invaded. There is a blaze of light outside as the sound of hooves reaches a crescendo and a swiftly moving shadow is cast from outside the window and engulfs Amy’s terrified form. She cries out in fear. The wind blows with an expressionistic howl outside, amplifying the resonant frequencies of Amy’s fear. The inappropriateness of Julia’s tale is now all too clear. The scene invites us, the viewers of this film which is nominally placed within the horror genre, to share in her terror. It is a complex form of identification, for we know full well that the horseman is a figment of her imagination, but we are afraid of what that imagination might reveal to her, and by extension us, and of the way in which that will effect her. It is also a scene which argues against the exposure of children’s impressionable minds to material which might disturb them. Miss Callahan has deliberately refrained from telling her class the nature of the legend of Sleepy Hollow to which she alludes at the start of the film, but Julia, for whom Amy is merely a convenient audience, has shown no such consideration and has gone for the full theatrical effect in her performance. Amy’s waking nightmare is the direct result.

Alice and Ollie are playing bridge downstairs, and Alice chooses to remain in this adult world rather than investigate the cry which she thinks she may have heard from upstairs. Once more, she seems disengaged from the needs of her daughter. As a result, Amy turns elsewhere, and uses the device of her ring, another element of her imaginative landscape which has been introduced from an outside source (Edward). As she turns the ring, she implores ‘my friend, I’m frightened, my friend’. The repetition of ‘my friend’ is like an invocation, a statement which will become true through reiteration. A light shines through the window, but it is softer and less threatening than that which accompanied the horseman’s approach. Irena’s appearance is generally preceded by a change in the nature of the light, which suggests that we are entering a fairytale world which is at a slight remove, though not wholly detached from, the everyday.

As this light shines, the curtains gently billow inwards on a gentle breeze, which is at the other end of the scale to the swirling ghost wind from which she has previously cowered. This is reminiscent of the scene in Jean Cocteau’s fairy-tale adaptation La Belle et La Bete when Beauty drifts down a corridor in the Beast’s castle, with the curtains fluttering inwards like wisps of cloud. A similar dreamlike quality is evoked in both cases. With the camera now focussed on the contented figure of Amy, we see the shadow of a human figure cast on the wall behind her as it approaches the foot of the bed. We have yet to see Irena take substantial form, but she is evidently real to Amy. ‘I’m glad you came, my friend’, she says, and ‘sing me that song again, my friend’. We hear Irena’s song, softly sung with French lyrics. We may not have seen her in the flesh, but this is definitely Irena, although she seems to have shed her Serbian identity and reverted to actress Simone Simon’s native tongue. So maybe she’s not quite the same Irena. Downstairs, Ollie has come over all wistful and dreamy, and when his attention is drawn back to the game, he admits ‘I was somewhere else’. The alertness to the re-awakening of a ghost from his past further suggests that this is a real visitation, not a mere projection of Amy’s need. Upstairs, Irena’s shadow stands guard over the peacefully sleeping girl, singing its bewitching lullaby. It is not dispelled once Amy is asleep. Its presence seems independent of her waking consciousness.

In the morning, Amy is bright and cheerful. She finds some photos and picks out one of Irena, asking Alice ‘mummy, who’s this?’ At this point, she doesn’t identify her as her friend. Whether that’s because she has yet to take a particular form, or because Amy has learned to be more circumspect about revealing the details of her private world is left unspoken. If it is the latter, then it is a new form of behaviour which she has learned, a break from her previously scrupulous honesty through omission rather than direct untruth. The power of the photograph as a fragment of concretised memory is manifested here. A person can be effectively excised from the past, their name never mentioned and stories in which they are involved never told (or retold to cast them in a negative light which justifies their erasure). But a photograph can make an immediate connection which belies such rewriting of the past, perhaps even providing a moment of epiphany which can illuminate the fog of self-deception. Amy repeats the name Irena, which her mother reveals to her, to herself, a re-iteration of the previous night’s repetition of the more abstract ‘my friend’. It is as if she is testing the name out, exploring its contours and flavour. Alice clearly didn’t know about these photos, and Amy is once more exiled to the garden so that she can confront Ollie on the matter. She tells him to look through for any more of Irena that may be there. She is editing, or to put it more strongly, censoring their past. There is a direct parallel with Julia Farren, who has edited her past, whether consciously or as the result of mental breakdown, to excise her daughter Barbara from her life.

In the garden, Amy repeats Irena’s name several times. This is an invocation, summoning the powers inherent in a name in fairy tales (think of Rumpelstiltskin or even Peter Pan). The summoning of magical beings is a commonplace in fairy tales, as it is in their dark inversions, tales of horror and the supernatural. The garden darkens and is then suffused with that quality of light which we have already noted as betokening a step sideways into a world of enchantment. The garden becomes luminous, with clearly delineated shadows. Everything takes on air of heightened reality, as if the ideal forms (the platonic forms behind the shadows of the real) of the surroundings have been brought forth. Amy’s face is filled with joy and she throws her ball into the shadows cast by the tree, from which Irena emerges to return it. It is as if she has emerged from the tree herself, like a classical dryad.

Tree spirit

Both cats we have seen in the film thus far (alive and stuffed) have been perched on tree branches, and so Irena’s association with Amy’s magic tree subliminally links her with these, and with the ancestral curse with which she was afflicted in Cat People. She is certainly associated with the garden and with nature and her later manipulations of its appearance suggest that she has become something of a pantheistic spirit, retreating into a deep pagan past to become rooted in natural forms. This would have been the ancient history, shading into myth, which was represented on the lower floors of the museum in Cat People, below the gallery of boats in which Alice and Ollie elected to linger. It is the history which lies in the lower levels of the subconscious, and in the coded symbols of folklore and fairy tales. Irena is in full long-sleeved fairy tale dress, white having replaced the black which she favoured in Cat People. This indicates that she is now a spirit of the daytime and the light, rather than a creature of darkness and night as she had been in Cat People. With the lullaby theme playing in the background, we hear Irena speak for the first time. ‘You called be my name’, she says, acknowledging the power to be found therein. This seems to have been the final step in her conjuration into substantive form. The fact that we only see her thus after Amy has seen the photograph creates an air of ambiguity. Is this just the new shape in which she has cast her imaginary friend. That ambiguity is never wholly dispelled, but Irena is given enough of an identity of her own to make us share Amy’s belief in her reality.

Irena tells Amy that ‘I’ve wanted a friend too…I’ve been lonely’. This sense of two lonely souls coming together out of mutual need furthers the impression that this is an Irena who is more than merely a product of Amy’s imaginary worldbuilding. It is as if she has been waiting for this summons, the calling of her name. When asked, she says ‘I come from great darkness…and deep peace’, a description which sounds like non-being, a state of limbo into which are consigned those souls who lives were left unresolved. When Amy asks her ‘will you be my friend for always’, Irena replies ‘for as long as you want me’. And it is this need which has called her forth, meeting her corollary need to be needed. ‘I shall want you for always’, Amy says with the solemn certainty of childhood, to which Irena replies ‘for always then’. This formal oath is sealed with a kiss upon the forehead. But there is a sub-clause. Irena tells Amy that ‘you must promise never to tell anyone about me. This must be a friendship only we shall have. Amy and her friend.’ This is an oath of secrecy which seems designed to protect Amy from the aggressive rationality of her father. Irena has learned from her own bitter experience that Ollie’s worldview is intransigent and not to be challenged. He creates the need to evade the truth, which he defines too narrowly. Inside, he edits memory, throwing pictures on the fire, but is unable to bring himself to entirely erase her from his past, and keeps one photograph back.

The other mother

The following scenes are interspersed with the watercolour illustrations which we saw at the start of the film, which suggests that Amy has now entered the kind of story which they would have been used to accompany. We see Amy and Irena playing in the garden, and Irena teaching Amy about numbers in terms of fairytale characters. Perhaps this is a way of showing that such stories are not mere escapism, but meaningful escapism, which serves to teach us something about the ways of the world. The fact that Amy has such an active relationship with her ‘imaginary’ friend, learning new things from her, again suggests a substantiality to her presence. Another fade reveals leaves covering the garden, the seasons turning. The film observes the cycles of the seasons, from the summery scenes of the opening to the wintry snow of the conclusion, in a poetic way, which again touches on a pagan sense of the processes of death and rebirth in the natural world. Irena has been through her place of great darkness and peace (the soil?) and has returned for another season. But the falling leaves acknowledge the impermanence of all things and the inevitability of death.

Leading Irena from witchery

Irena and Amy have lit a bonfire in the centre of the garden (could a figment of a child’s imagination have done this? What are Amy’s parents doing letting her create fires?) and Irena stands over it, looking very witchy. She casts in leaves and utters what sounds like a spell which will turn the flames blue. But Amy is not interested in such eldritch mummery and leads her off to her playhouse instead. ‘You be the friend who comes to see me…I’ll show you my children’, she orders. ‘Your children?’ Irena asks, drawn away from her chants. ‘My dolls’, Amy says, making it clear that she knows exactly where the dividing line between the imaginary and the real lies. ‘We can pretend’. Thus Amy, with great self-awareness of the artificiality of play and the way in which it can be directed, leads Irena away from her world of haunted isolation, of the dark superstitions under which she has been occluded.

Doll's dinner

Amy, having entered this fairytale world, has also begun to shed some of the otherworldliness which had led to her becoming so isolated. Her play has now become a lot less dreamy, the certitude with which she recreates the routines of a ‘normal’ family with her dolls indicating the newfound sense of security her relationship with Irena has provided. Irena herself has began to achieve the sense of belonging, of being needed, which she longed for in her previous incarnation (for this does feel like a re-incarnation). ‘Button your sweater, darling, it’s getting cold’, she tells Amy. It is the kind of offhand, casual remark which betokens a mother’s care and affection. Irena is now helping Amy in her education and looking after her wellbeing. Alice’s earlier denial of there being any part of Irena in Amy, and her assertion that she is ‘my child’ now begins to appear a little uncertain. But the negative connotations of Ollie’s suggestion that Irena’s influence might be exerting itself on Amy have been wholly inverted. Her influence is nothing but benevolent.

Recognising winter's beauty

Amy acknowledges the approach of winter with little enthusiasm. But Irena offers her a divergent viewpoint, one which accepts the possibility that beauty may be found in all things. ‘Winter’s fun,’ she says. ‘There’s the wind and the snow. You will like the warm fire upon the hearth and the long, long nights’. She is subtly inculcating the idea of the acceptance of the changing patterns of the seasons, of death and rebirth, of the progress of time; In the end, of her own disappearance. She herself embodies this pantheistic sense of a divine presence in all seasons, her dress sparkling like morning frost. Amy introduces her dolls. Irena looks on. She is happy. Irena and Amy fade away, leaving only the shadowed garden, another indication of impermanence. The falling leaves turn into falling snow and finally the twisted tree trunk, bare now of foliage, is darkly outlined against the wintry white background, a steady and permanent presence.

Mystery present

From the tree outside, we fade to the putting up of the tree inside, a domesticated paganism (just as the tree in the garden is a tamed memory of the wild wood). Amy is very serious about the importance of ritual, as if aware of a forgotten meaning underlying the rote tradition. She says of the presents ‘you can’t open them yet. You have to put all of them under the tree until morning’. Ollie displays his essential childishness once more, shaking his in his eagerness to discover what might be inside. Amy keeps one present aside and won’t tell them who it’s for, keeping to her oath. The arrival of a group of carol singers spares her further evasion. They all go to the half-open door to listen. They are posed as if in a smiling portrait, a picture of the perfect family Christmas. It is, as we know, an ironic portrait, a representation of the false unity insisted upon by a sentimentalised view of the spirit of Christmas, which is endured in the knowledge that it will soon be over.

Playing happy families

The carol singers are invited in and the local gossip, given the Dickensian name Miss Plummett, proceeds to spread her insinuations. These are the petty dynamics which underly the surface piety. Amy shrugs off the comments of one snooty girl who suggests that they are not doing things like a ‘proper family’ by retorting with genuine indifference ‘I guess we’re not a proper family’. Starting up another carol around the piano, the choir choose ‘Shepherd, shake off your drowsy sleep’, a call to wake up which could be addressed to the whole room. Amy, in the corridor, hears Irena’s voice from the garden singing a carol in French. There is a sort of duel of carols, both being heard in counterpoint to each other. Irena stands beneath the tree in the garden in a long white cape. With her lyrics sung in French in this American small town Christmas scene serving to emphasise her defiant difference, she resembles the angel who has come to tell the shepherds to wake up, and her carol thus becomes a response to the choir’s.

Irena's carol

Amy goes out into the garden, showing where her loyalties lie. The pagan over the status-conscious Christian. There is now a long icicle hanging from the bough of the tree, a decoration of natural beauty to which those on the tree inside can only attempt a pale emulation. Amy gives Irena her present, a brooch of shooting stars. This is a symbol of glorious impermanence which perhaps indicates that she has absorbed the lessons which Irena has been indirectly teaching her. As they sparkle as if with their own light, Amy reverts to her strangely formal, poetic mode of speech, declaiming ‘O, that is more beautiful than I ever imagined’. Irena now asks Amy ‘shall I show you my Christmas gift to you?’ and when she receives her assent, produces a magic show of winter illumination. A shadow passes across the garden and a different luminosity is revealed, in which everything in the garden seems to unveil its own core of light. Irena once more appears as the presiding spirit of the garden, able to show Amy the essential nature of all the forms within it. There is a look of wonder, almost of ecstasy, on Amy’s face. Then she is called in by Alice, and the light shifts back into its normal shade. As Amy goes in, the camera focuses on Irena’s radiant face, glowing with happiness and contentment.

The rejected present

In the Farren house, the focus is on an unopened present, lying by the stuffed cat. The juxtaposition of the neglected present with those which have just been exchanged with such joy provides an obvious symbolic counterpoint, redolent with suppressed feelings and emotions. The offering which remains wrapped up, rejected. Julia is biting on a biscuit, which she casts aside with a sour look, as if she is casting aside the whole idea of Christmas as a time of familial unity. Barbara, in her usual position behind the curtain, waiting silently in the wings, moves aside to let Amy and Edward into Julia’s domain. Amy gives her a present, but points out the unopened one. ‘Oh, that’s from her; that woman’, she snarls, once more denying Barbara, who watches from behind the curtain, a name. She accepts Amy’s gift of a ring with great theatricality, once more delighting in her audience, which gives her full reign to indulge her world of dreams. Perhaps her rejection of Barbara is partly motivated by fear of being called away from the self-indulgent world of fantasy into which she has retreated so comfortably. She represents a threatening connection to the real world of emotional attachments and responsibilities. Barbara, in that sense, is the opposite of Irena, her dark twin. Whereas Amy draws Irena out of the shadows, makes her more real, Julia forces Barbara in the opposite direction. Amy recognises Irena as a real person and calls her by her name. She invites her into her imaginative world, away from the haunted one which she has been inhabiting. Julia repels Barbara with cruel words and a refusal to even grant her a name. She is driven down into the shadow world below (the basement, in this case) from which Irena has been lifted, unable to release herself from the bonds of obligation she still feels to her mother. This parallel between Irena and Barbara is made manifest at the end of the film, as we shall see.

The accepted present

Amy, however, is an occasional guest, and easily impressed with gaudy flummery, although, as we have seen, she is able to draw the distinction between the real and the imaginary, perhaps more clearly than Julia. The ring given to her by the ‘King of Spain’ is tossed aside in favour of Amy’s cheap offering, ‘a ring given me out of friendship and love’. This is a friendship and love which is more perceived than real. There is none of the care and consideration displayed by Irena here. Amy is someone who Julia uses for her own self-gratification, an impressionable audience. She has no compunction in creating that impression by scaring the little girl out of her wits. There is no sense, as there is with Irena, that Julia would ever become involved in Amy’s world of imaginative play. She is far too firmly entrenched in her own unassailable fantasies to bother with anyone else’s concerns. As Edward ushers Amy out, Julia says ‘you’ve made my Christmas a very happy one’, enabling her to come to life through performance. Barbara points out that ‘you didn’t even open my present, and I’m your daughter’. ‘My daughter died, long ago’, Julia re-iterates, dull and lifeless once more now her audience has gone. The house has become a mausoleum again. Barbara slowly descends the stairs to the darkness of the basement, and the screen fades to black.

Watching from the wings

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