Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Dir. Peter Jackson. Starring Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Clive Merrison

Heavenly Creatures is Jackson’s breakout movie. In many ways, it’s like watching his own home movies, back when he relied not on New Line but the government of New Zealand to fund his work. In terms of chronology, at least, Jackson was closing in on being the man behind Lord of the Rings and King Kong (though there are certainly moments in Heavenly Creatures, such as a moving helicopter shot over sparsely populated hills, or the cutting edge special effects, where one can see the 21st Century Jackson coming through).

It’s based on what is probably the most famous murder of a civilian in the history of New Zealand. In the 1950s, two teenage girls named Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme murdered Pauline’s mother by beating her to death with a brick in a stocking. The girls had become obsessively and compulsively drawn to one another over some time until they were all but inseparable. The roots of their friendship (loneliness, whimsy, and mediocre home lives) led them to become totally lost in a fantasy world of their own creation. Their parents, concerned about the potentiality of a lesbian relationship between the two girls, decided to break them up for good by using Juliet’s poor health as an excuse to send her to South Africa to live with a relative.

It’s the last five minutes or so of the movie which strike me hardest; the fact that I’m going to concentrate almost solely on those scenes is almost a disservice to the film, which is immensely imaginative and completely haunting. I feel fortunate to have seen it at all, really, as I ran across it in the one film class which I managed to squeeze into my undergraduate career. It was one of those rare classes outside of the sciences where the entire class starts to bond over the course of the term because of that feeling that we’re all surviving some incredible challenge together. It’s what I call an “airplane crash” class: it’s as if everyone enrolled made it through an airplane crash as a group, and having been thus traumatized must work together and bond tightly to ensure continued survival. Everyone huddles together, shares notes, tries to pump up each other’s grades, talks to each other after class even if they don’t speak at all before, after, or since. That was what this class was like. There were a few movies that we all sort of talked about after we viewed them Wednesday afternoon, leaving our dark little room and walking out into that early evening sunshine that’s halcyonic and hazy and squinty, and we’re walking in little groups of three or four, stopping in the hall by the water fountain for drinking, stopping out by the water fountain for gawking, discussing what we’ve just seen and will we have a quiz on the movie and what kind of observations did  you make and what on earth is Christian Metz even saying. One of those movies was Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts, a movie so convoluted, difficult, and avant-garde that we all walked out a little bit confused and then realized how incredibly confused we were when we realized that we couldn’t explain it to each other.

“Did you get it?”

“What was that?”

“I seriously couldn’t tell any of those people apart.”

And so on.

Then there was Magnificent Obsession, a Douglas Sirk melodrama that was unintentionally hilarious in little pieces. One of the personal highlights of our term was watching our professor, who we alternately revered and feared in similarly sized doses, shake with laughter at the action.

And then there was Heavenly Creatures, a movie that left us mostly silent as we walked down the hallway. What were we supposed to do with a movie that effectively ends with a daughter clubbing her mother to death? Speaking Parts only had odd sexual tones and Magnificent Obsession couldn’t hide Rock Hudson’s homosexuality; Dancing Lady was corny and superficially simple, while Public Enemies was just long. Heavenly Creatures had strongly hinted at the beginning at Honora Rieper’s murder and ended brutally with it. I can remember snatches of conversation after other films, but this one left us with little more to say than “What the hell.” We were none of us Kiwis, and thus most of us could honestly hold out hope that Honora would survive the plot that her daughter and her daughter’s best friend cooked up. If we had hailed from New Zealand, that wouldn’t have been the case at all; the crime is famous in New Zealand the way that the murder of Sharon Tate is famous in the United States. It was simply chilling. Ironically, the rest of the movie itself had moments of real charm.

Melanie Lynskey never broke out to become a superstar (you probably know her as Rose from Two and a Half Men, though she’s popped up in Up in the Air and The Perks of Being a Wallflower since), but Kate Winslet, in her first major role, clearly has the star quality that’s made her one of the three or four best film actresses in English. There’s humor in the film, and there are quirks along the way, as well as state-of-the-art special effects, which make it visually and emotionally pleasing. Of course, there are many moments in the movie that are strongly distasteful well before we hit Honora’s murder; the gross scene where Pauline loses her virginity to a grown man makes me wince just thinking about it. We worry, too, as the movie goes along as the girls plot to stay together at whatever cost, scheming to murder Honora in a very palpable way after having been completely out of the constraints of reality for much of the film. Imagine, two sixteen-year-olds taking turns with the brick in a stretch of hose bringing it down almost unhesitatingly on the skull of another human being.  One of them was intimately familiar with the victim, having spent a significant amount of time in her home. The other murderer was the victim’s daughter.

I suppose I mis-spoke earlier, because it’s not just the last five minutes that are chilling. It’s the last fifteen, where Pauline, Juliet, and Honora are out for the afternoon, hiking a little bit and eating pastry in a tea shop.

Stonewall Jackson died on May 10, 1863. (Yes, that’s there on purpose. Stick with me a minute.) On May 10, 1862, Jackson had just won the Battle of McDowell (VA). He had a year left to live. Or how about Albert Sidney Johnston, who died on April 6, 1862? On April 1, 1861, Johnston was still in California, a brevet brigadier general in the U.S. Regular Army, commanding the Department of the Pacific. They had a year to live on those dates, and they couldn’t know that a year later both of them would be mortally wounded on two of the great battlefields of the American Civil War. Johnston was the highest ranking officer to be killed in the Civil War; Jackson was only the third highest. Their fates should seem secure, a full general and a lieutenant general. Who would have thought that they would have died because of their position on the battlefield?

Jackson was in and out of delusional consciousness for most of May 10, when he woke for his last day on earth. Johnston woke on April 6 confident of a victory against U.S. Grant’s unready and spread out forces near a country church in western Tennessee. Neither one of them survived those days. What must it be like to realize that it’s your last day alive, as both of them did at some point. Your last breath coming, knowing that you may have already eaten for the last time, all the people you saw for the last time, all the sights you are seeing for the last time, the home you will never walk in again. You can enumerate the lasts in your life from an inexorably more distant vantage point until you aren’t allowed to enumerate a final thought.

W.H. Auden (but seriously, this is still about Heavenly Creatures), in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” famously begins by saying, “About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters; how well, they understood/Its human position, how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…” In other words, suffering goes by virtually unnoticed. Life is continuing for others, but while Icarus drowns, some farmer is plowing his field, and “dogs go on with their doggy life.”

Heavenly Creatures is brilliant, in part, because it seems to realize what Auden realized a long time ago. The reason why the last fifteen minutes all count is because you realize as you watch, or, if you’re as unobservant as I am, you realize after the movie is over that Honora Rieper is taking her last bites of food. There’s an especially poignant—devastating is a better word—moment towards the end where Pauline, Juliet, and Honora are in that tea shop eating a little cake. There’s one slice left. And Pauline offers it to her mother in what is the last kind and brutal gesture she will ever make to her. Her mother demurs because she’s “watching her figure.” And your brain is going off (mine wasn’t…I mean, it was, but not the way yours is) and Pauline is insisting that Honora treat herself and eventually Honora smiles and chuckles a little bit nervously a little bit guiltily and she allows herself this last treat. It’s her last Communion, except she hasn’t got the foresight to realize that she hasn’t even cast Judas Iscariot out of the attic just yet. Meanwhile, the audience is sitting there thinking that she could eat a banana split and not gain an ounce.

So you’re counting Honora’s steps at the end. You’re saying, “Is this the last time that she’s going to speak? Slip? Scold? Can Pauline and Juliet possibly go through with this?” And the answer is a resounding and horrifying yes. It’s one of the most difficult on-screen murders I’ve ever seen. And it’s stuck with that class. This one is a true jawdropper.

We all remember this one. I shared another class in the English major with a couple of the kids who were in the film class, and before class one day one girl was saying to the other (paraphrased):

“So I met this little girl who was saying that she and her best friend like to go to a fantasy world that only they can go into and all I could think was, ‘No, I know how this ends! Don’t do it!’”

It’s one of the most difficult movies to watch that I’ve ever finished watching. It’s an immensely rewarding one as well, from several theoretical viewpoints. I remember my budding post-structuralist making a list of all of the names that Pauline and Juliet go by over the course of the film and seeing it as evidence for the folly of trying to pin down one identity as definitive or trying to privilege that identity, substantial proof for the fractal fractured human. And from a feminist standpoint, it provides a fascinating and productive text to put alongside Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Yet from the perspective of a pedestrian moviegoer, a perspective I’ve tried not to lose in my own cold-blooded descent into pretentious dissociation, I can’t help but feel how haunting this film is. How watching it the second time, knowing everything that’s coming, knowing how everything turns out doesn’t seem to keep the horror from bubbling.

It’s not the quintessential jawdropper, really. I think the first viewing of Inception or Avatar or Vertigo probably fits that word better. But I can’t forget that feeling of clawing defeatedness that stuck on me after seeing that movie for the first time. And from what I can tell, none of the other people I watched it with could themselves.

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