Category Archives: Films

What’s underneath?

I’m a sucker for horror films and their standard tropes – the car that won’t start; the killer in the back seat; the group of friends who decide it’s a good plan to split up in the haunted wood. For me, though, the most successful examples of the genre involve an element of psychological terror, preying on our darkest fears and revealing the madness and violence that lie beneath an apparently ordinary suburban existence.

One of my favourite horror films of recent years is The Babadook. A widowed mother, Amelia, is raising her troubled six-year-old son, Samuel, whose behavioural problems lead to his being pulled out of school and breaking his cousin’s nose when he pushes her from a tree-house. At first his brattish whingeing grates, while Amelia’s drippyness irritates. For God’s sake, why doesn’t she just take the home-made crossbow away instead of trying to reason with him?

Then Sam comes across a mysterious rhyming pop-up book, Mister Babadook, in which a grotesque figure in a cloak and top hat – a cross between Struwwelpeter and Freddy Krueger – terrorises its victims. The Babadook is crudely drawn in charcoal, with a white face, dark silhouette and claw-like fingers. ‘If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look/You can’t get rid of the Babadook.’ Soon enough, the mythical figure comes to life and begins to stalk mother and son: ‘A rumbling sound then three sharp knocks/Ba BA-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!’ as the demon announces its presence.

Sam’s tantrums and night terrors escalate, while Amelia’s growing sense of desperation is compounded by the immaculate friends who close ranks and distance themselves from the problem child and his dysfunctional mother. Amelia’s sister tells her to get back into writing but, significantly, makes no offer of childcare, while the others talk about their charity work and complain that they no longer have time to go to the gym.

As Amelia’s mental state deteriorates, strange noises fill the house and imaginary bugs crawl out of a crack behind the fridge. (I’m reminded of my own post-partum hallucinations brought on by pethidine and sleep deprivation, when the wallpaper seethed and pulsed like a bad acid trip and the hum of the hospital air-conditioning system became a disembodied lament.) What follows is a terrifying portrayal of a mother’s psychosis and descent into insanity, reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or Elena Ferrante’s novel The Days of Abandonment, as the Babadook possesses Amelia and places Sam’s life in grave danger.

The Babadook is more than a demon conjured up by the febrile imagination of a small child, or a symbol of the grief that stalks a bereaved family. It’s also a representation of the terrible power that a parent wields and must never misuse. Here lie our deepest, unspoken impulses; the darkness at the heart of the family. One of the most chilling scenes is when Sam wanders into his mother’s bedroom complaining of hunger and Amelia, half-crazed, lifts her head from the pillow and snarls, ‘If you’re that hungry why don’t you go and eat shit.’ On a really bad day, faced with a small child’s relentless demands, some parents might momentarily relate to this poisonous outburst. In the words of Mister Babadook: ‘Once you see what’s underneath/You’re going to wish you were dead.’

Perhaps the truth is that we need there to be mothers like Amelia. Anyone who has ever bellowed at a child, or delivered a slap in the heat of the moment, needs to feel that there are worse parents and more heinous acts. Like Amelia’s circle of supposed friends, we love to judge others from a distance: the mother in the stained shirt who rages ineffectually at her children in the playground and seems always to be on the verge of tears; the woman with the orange spray-tan who parks on the zigzags and dispatches her grubby five-year-old for a hastily-arranged sleepover on a school night. Of course, this isn’t transgression on the same scale as Amelia’s, but these characters still fascinate us and attract our censure. We use them to preserve and bolster our self-image; we rarely acquaint ourselves with the facts or offer practical assistance. To do so would involve recognising that we aren’t so dissimilar.

By the end of the film, the Babadook has mutated from an evil force possessing the mother to an external reality, acknowledged by her but placated and confined to the cellar (that other classic horror-film trope). Like Amelia, most of us succeed in taming our Babadook and keeping it safely under lock and key. The real horror of the film, and the reason why it disturbs and resonates, is the realisation that it might take only a few small tweaks to our circumstances – bereavement, a difficult child, an absence of social networks – to unleash the demon.

There was an old lady…

Earlier this month, I finally caught up with Luca Guadagnino’s highly stylised film I Am Love on DVD. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the elegant, ethereal matriarch of a privileged Milanese family, so it was unfortunate that I spent much of the film pondering the implausibility of her alabaster forehead and flawless complexion. Although entirely appropriate to the role, her striking looks were a distraction, mainly because she appeared to be twenty years younger than she is.

If youthful good looks seem incongruous in a middle-aged woman, consider the alternative. Those of us not blessed with Swinton’s natural, ageless beauty seem to disappear as we grow older. Like many women, I’m far more assertive and outgoing in my forties than I was as a solipsistic twenty-year-old. I also feel I have a lot of hard-earned wisdom to impart, especially after a few glasses of red wine. So why does there appear to be an inverse relationship between my increased confidence and my ability to get served in pubs? Why do strangers fail to grasp that a muttered, ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you,’ only adds insult to injury when (as happens with increasing frequency) they elbow me aside at the checkout or veer into me on the pavement?

Some women of a certain age try to shrug off this cloak of invisibility by making an effort with their appearance. But all those visits to the gym, beautician and cosmetic surgeon seem like an enormous waste of energy when time is running out and there are many more important and interesting things to be getting on with. And it’s always a delicate balancing act: the ageing woman who strives to be noticed risks ridicule for trying too hard. As a man, the fifty-something artist Grayson Perry looks attractively rumpled; as a woman, with his frou-frou frocks and stencilled eyebrows, he resembles a pantomime dame.

The sidelining of older women is particularly obnoxious in professions where maturity might have been thought to be an asset. Where are all the female Jeremy Paxmans and Jon Snows? I recently came across an illustrated magazine article in which a number of eminent fifty-plus television presenters – among them, Joan Bakewell and Miriam O’Reilly – debated whether the BBC was guilty of discriminating against its older female staff. Depressingly, their photographs were styled like a fashion shoot, their heavily made-up faces and dyed hair serving only to perpetuate the ageist, sexist culture that they denounced.

Are we to understand that grey hair and gravitas are acceptable only for men? Do women bear some degree of responsibility for reinforcing this attitude, or is it excusable if they doctor their appearance in whatever way seems necessary to preserve their livelihoods and social standing? I have no answers and can’t help but bring my own prejudices and skewed perceptions to the debate. One thing, however, seems increasingly clear: while my male friends mature into elder statesmen or silver foxes, my own ageing process is likely to involve a steady loss of status, recognition and perceived attractiveness. This is no country for old women.

Dressed to impress – or frozen out?

The runaway success of Frozen, the Oscar-winning Disney cartoon, is hard to deny. On dressing-up day, the school playground teems with wannabe Elsas and Annas, primping and preening as they parrot their favourite songs from the movie soundtrack. Meanwhile, The Observer reports that spin-off merchandise is flying off the shelves, leaving parents desperately trawling shops and websites for overpriced dresses and dolls.

I saw the film with my children several months ago and found much to admire. Early on, there’s a cheesy solo by Anna about finding ‘the one’, provoking much eye-rolling from cynics like me who think they know what’s about to unfold. Then comes the clever subversion: the prince turns out to be a villain and the women are saved, not by a knight in shining armour, but by self-empowerment and their sisterly love.

But let’s not get too excited here. This is Disney, after all, and the film wouldn’t be the highest-grossing animation of all time without the presence of at least some familiar fairytale elements. So, inevitably, the two lead characters are bug-eyed beauties with impossibly cinched waists and hourglass figures, and there’s a handsome suitor waiting in the wings in the shape of the muscle-bound Kristoff. The message is clear: a woman can triumph in the face of adversity but she still has to look attractive to men.

Others have written much more knowledgeably than I could about the unrealistic physical proportions of Elsa and Anna and the message that sends out to the film’s young female audience. But what also struck me about Frozen was the sheer impracticality of the sisters’ clothing. Seriously – you’d pirouette across a frozen landscape in princess pumps and a full-length cape? Sashay up the steps of your ice palace in killer heels and a diaphanous off-the-shoulder number with a skirt split to the thigh? Personally, I’d have donned my Merrell snow boots and several snug layers, topped by one of those shiny padded jackets that make any woman over a size eight look like the Michelin Man’s obese brother.

But is Elsa and Anna’s preference for the stylish over the practical so very different from the attitude of real-life women? Let’s not even talk about our party outfits: what we wear to work is far more telling. Over two decades ago, I attended my first job interview in a fitted jacket, a tiny pencil skirt and pantomime heels. I could barely walk from the tube station and had to sit through the interview with my legs awkwardly crossed so as not to reveal my nether regions. It was a toss-up between embarrassment and relief when the dress code turned out to be jeans.

This heels-and-tight-skirt combo – which, frankly, looks a bit dated these days – is still favoured by many high-powered women: think Theresa May or Rachida Dati. But how easy is it to stride briskly along a corridor with a pair of four-inch spikes attached to your feet? Or to chair a meeting when the mere act of sitting causes your skirt to ride up around your armpits? Give it a moment’s thought and it’s hard to imagine a less professional get-up.

Let’s be clear: high heels and tight skirts are designed to exaggerate the shape and length of our legs, and thus to enhance our sexual attractiveness. There’s nothing wrong with that – indeed, women should have the right to wear what they want, when they want. It just seems an odd choice in the workplace, to the extent that you have to question whether there’s some external pressure at play here. We’re increasingly expected to shimmy up corporate ladders and smash through glass ceilings, yet many of us still feel we have to truss ourselves up like a fairytale princess ascending an ice-sculpted staircase. Are we doing it for ourselves, or in order to conform to a male fantasy that should have no place in the professional sphere? To quote from another Disney classic, ‘go figure’.