Friday, October 23, 2015

Out of the Labyrinth: Some Thoughts on Crimson Peak and Guillermo Del Toro

(This post discusses the plot of "Crimson Peak". If you haven't seen it, do! It's great! And then come back and read this.)

I was in my mid twenties and things had fallen apart. I was floating from one crappy job to another, still living at home in the small town I'd wanted so badly to escape since I was eighteen. I had grown to hate my imagination, and my habit of day dreaming. It was a part of the rickety, prone to burning out lemon that was my brain. That my brain had betrayed me was a slight I would not forgive. I had prided myself on how much more intelligent I was than my classmates. And now mood swings and anxiety had eaten me and my future alive. I had tried so hard to make myself be the girl I kept seeing in my mind's eye and failing spectacularly. And my attention span was dissolving, I'd rent movies, the great important ones, from Netflix and return them three weeks later unwatched. The world had turned into a gray wall of indifference and a buzzing that felt like a swarm of angry hornets filling my chest every morning when I woke up. And it's in that state I went to the movies in early January of 2007.

It seems ridiculous to say a movie saved your life but Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" did. I watched it and felt seen. In Ofelia and her beautiful, tragic end I heard the message, "you are not alone." That terrible things could visit you and you could overcome them. It didn't mean the happily ever after you might have expected but you were author of your own life. You shaped the pieces into the tale they needed to be. It was if my mind was a creaky house being opened for spring. The windows thrown open and the heavy drapes replaced with gauzy curtains. It had reminded me, as so many of my favorite stories do, that all winters end.

And it's fitting that a creaky house is the center of the latest Del Toro film to take me in. "Crimson Peak" is a beautiful Gothic horror film, were the love story, stories really, at its heart are the true wellspring of the terrors inside. And there's that same shudder of recognition and relief in a seemingly purely fantastical tale in laying out a way to live. Because Mia Wasikowska's Edith Cushing is someone beautiful for abuse survivors like me.

One of the most radical and interesting touches in "Crimson Peak" is the presentation of basic decency and goodness as heroic. Edith is very much a woman of her time, in her struggles against the Victorian era's limitations on women to her own ignoring of her own misgivings when the mysterious Thomas sweeps her off her feet and takes her live across the Atlantic. She is smart and kind, and it's those very qualities that drive her to try to make her marriage work and attempt a cordial relationship with Thomas' visibly hostile sister Lucille. And it's those qualities that nearly end her life. And yet she isn't punished for trusting people. For believing that things could work out. The film firmly understands that abuse is never the fault of the victim. Nor does the film suggest that she deserves what happens to her because she should have seen the plot against her life coming.

The film even extends a measure of sympathy to her would be murderers, Thomas and Lucille. They are the sorrowful result of the abuse they suffered at the hands of their monstrous mother. Turning to incest to comfort each other and then murder to save their failing family business they are all too recognizable human monsters. They are trapped by fate and circumstance but still responsible for the choices they make when they decide to harm others. Ultimately Thomas is able to free himself from the cycle at the cost of his life. The film's most touching moment is when his spirit looks at Edith with all the love and regret for a life that could have been with her. Edith reaches out to tenderly stroke his face and he disappears into the air, free from Allerdale Hall at last. Lucille damns herself by refusing to abandon violence and we last see her black ice apparition sitting in front of the piano in the great hall , stiff backed and unforgiving for eternity.

Allerdale Hall is a terrific metaphor in itself for how keeping terrible secrets rots the self out from the inside. A hole in the mansion's roof lets in snow and dead leaves. The walls leech blood red clay from the mines underneath the house. Currents running through the vast space feel like the house itself crying out. There's a terrible knowing in that feeling. The trauma that leaves its filthy footprints over your body and psyche. Where you begin to feel a stranger to yourself. But it's only by returning to the body can taking inventory of the scars and survival begin. And you can survive with scars. Scars show you were stronger than whatever tried to harm you. Edith limps out of Allerdale Hall with a broken leg and a gash across her cheek. But she is alive. And she is the author of her story.

In the film's closing conceit we see that the novel, called Crimson Peak,  that opened the film was written by one "Edith M. Cushing."  Edith reclaims her life by writing her story down. And there is untold power in that. I own what happened to me. It is an awful belonging but it's mine. And when I write, the events become less drenched in existential dread but part of my story. Good and bad are uncomfortably close traveling companions. But it's only because winters are so terrible I notice how beautiful the flowers are in spring. I think that's a fact of life Del Toro is well versed in. And why his films, with their often terrible acts of violence and skinned wraiths, are so strangely therapeutic for me. I know the evil that can lurk behind a smile that never reaches the eyes. I need to be reminded and often that the story doesn't end there.

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