Heavenly Creatures September 27, 2016
Most have been involved in at least one unhealthy friendship in their lifetime, but I’m fairly certain that the vast majority of persons who experienced psychological drainage due to a so-called friendship fell victim to a parasitic sort of camaraderie, not a symbiotic one. The proliferation of damaging affinities is arguably most raging during the earliest years of high school, where fitting in is of higher importance than finding a person or group capable of doing more good than harm.
But in the case of Heavenly Creatures’s demented non-fictional heroines Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), friendship is a poisonous cocktail of parasitism and symbiosis. Symbiotic is the way they are, like a pair of complementary puzzle pieces, able to relieve the stresses of the other’s fundamental loneliness — both are outcasts, emotionally needy, and take to their imaginations as places of comfort — but parasitic is the way they feed off one another’s vulnerabilities and ineptitudes as a way to nourish their separate delusions.
Of course, the story revolving around Juliet and Pauline’s unconventional relationship would not have been translated into film without the horror of its infamous center, which was the murder of Pauline’s mother, Honora Parker (played in the movie by Sarah Peirse). Years have passed since the incident — both women are now in their seventies (with the real Juliet now standing as a relatively successful novelist), served light sentences of five years, and are legally obligated to never come in contact with each other — but still baffling to the public, and even to Juliet and Pauline themselves (who have since looked back at their actions with stably minded disbelief), is how the relationship became so obsessive that things eventually devolved into murderous territory.
Co-written (with Fran Walsh) and directed by Peter Jackson in his first attempt at serious filmmaking following flirtations with the splatter subgenre (Bad Taste, Braindead), Heavenly Creatures, utilizing an atmosphere that reflects the flamboyant lunacy of its leading characters, determine that the girls’ co-dependency is the result of long-term inabilities to fit in and overall mental instability.
Like Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices, the movie aesthetically mirrors the cartoonishly bloodthirsty dispositions of the characters, ambitiously attempting to see the events through their eyes. Brief flourishes revealing the true tonality of the situation, paralleling the terrifying trappings of a child’s night terrors, arise occasionally, but Heavenly Creatures’s preference for near first person fanaticism is far more chilling than its stabs at reality could ever be.
We first meet Juliet and Pauline shortly before they meet each other for the first time. The middle-class, fifteen-year-old Pauline is a passive wallflower who wears melodramatic fury on her face at all times, but is, in fact, an impressionable outsider. The older, more affluent Juliet is a wicked snoot with an unquenchable thirst for gaining the upper hand that transfers to Pauline’s school. Because both are inept at making friends — Pauline constantly throws around a stink eye that could rival a piggish eight-year-old that desperately wants their way but isn’t getting it, and Juliet is an insufferable know-it-all — they fulfill one another’s needs almost instantaneously, becoming inseparable scarily shortly after they’re introduced. (And in the 1950s in which they grow up, the suspected homosexuality is scandalous.)
The rest of Heavenly Creatures forlornly watches them as their friendship rapidly metamorphoses into something rabid, as they increasingly decide that everyone is out to get them, and as they increasingly spend time in the mirages of their imaginations. Though we’d prefer to detest a pair of girls so malevolent in their intentions, it becomes clear that it doesn’t matter if we like them — we’re intent on figuring out what goes on inside their respective heads. Jackson sagely sees the world from Juliet and Pauline’s perspectives but never forgets to put us in the shoes of the sane (if dysfunctional) households that try to support them, and the tonal switches, so balanced despite their mostly oppositional natures, protect Heavenly Creatures’s interest in being thoughtful entertainment unwilling to exploit the easily exploitable story of its focal characters.
And yet for how much we spend in the gnarled minds of its protagonists, the film maintains an odd sort of reality. Perhaps Pauline is a victim of her family’s overreaching optimism and high hopes, whereas Juliet is the outcome of her parents’ inability to say no when they aren’t busy neglecting her. There’s a sadness to that, watching as young women with obvious intelligence are destroyed by their self-doubts, by their disappointments. Matricide should not have been the action performed to opt out of separation. But would these girls have resorted to such extremes had any of their loved ones ever acted as a dependable shoulder to cry on in their times of trouble? B+