The Key to the Fourth World

This week’s pick for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is a film that’s rapidly creeping up on my list of all-time favorites. It’s a keenly observed tale of adolescent love, loss, and resentment that doubles as a sensationalistic true-crime drama and is dripping with bizarre fantasy elements. It’s Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, which for my money is better than Dead Alive or any individual piece of the Lord of the Rings saga. Like Jackson’s zombie movies, it’s got a charmingly disturbed sense of humor, and like LOTR, it’s visually powerful, exploiting everything his native New Zealand has to offer.

Best of all, though, these skills are put in the service of a small, human, well-written story. Jackson and co-writer/wife Fran Walsh took the real-life tragedy of the Parker-Hulme murder in unexpected directions, letting us see the world through the wide eyes of Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet)—two romantic, volatile girls with an unquenchable passion for Mario Lanza, James Mason, and each other. Heavenly Creatures is overflowing with memorable images, but one shot captures this descent into the girls’ shared universe especially well. This is my best shot:

This arrives at the end of a delirious, gorgeous sequence in which the landscape morphs around the two girls to suit their narcissistic fantasies. It’s when, as Pauline explains, they realize that they’re not just “genii,” but also princesses of the Fourth World (a land which is, naturally, imperceptible to the commoners around them). In this image, Jackson draws the viewer into their folie à deux and we see the sheer, naïve beauty of their fantasy. We see them as they see themselves: symmetrically positioned at the center of rich, private world, one which encompasses all the natural grandeur of the New Zealand coast and then piles on a Weta-animated majesty of its own.

It’s garish and even tacky, yes, but that befits a pair of swooning teenage girls in the 1950s. It looks like a book cover, and in a perverse way it’s the dark counterpart to, say, Dorothy’s first entrance into Oz, or the Pevensies’ first glance at Narnia. But for Pauline and Juliet, it’s their first step on the road to mental illness and murder. (Oddly enough, this “best shot” is more or less the teenage equivalent of my favorite from A Streetcar Named Desire.) My second-favorite shot from Heavenly Creatures also showcases Jackson and D.P. Alun Bollinger’s extremely stylized cinematography, along with that gleefully disturbed sense of humor:

This is probably the most indelible shot in the whole movie. Who could forget the distorted, unflattering extreme close-up on the psychiatrist’s mouth as he ominously utters the word “HOMOSEXUALITY”? It feels like Jackson’s playing a cinematic prank on this quintessential Old White Guy, a man who pretty effectively embodies the widespread bigotry and intolerance of the 1950s. In a lightly satirical way, this puts a fear-mongering representative of the medical establishment in an ugly light, and makes his professional opinion look similarly grotesque.

However much Jackson may mock this psychiatrist, though, Heavenly Creatures doesn’t totally side with the girls, and that’s what makes it so great. It empathetically details their dreams and desires, but never loses sight of their immaturity and selfishness. Juliet’s family may be dysfunctional, and Pauline’s parents may be simple, unambitious folks, but they always have the girls’ best interests at heart. Honora Parker is, above all, a good, loving woman who doesn’t deserve to die. By juxtaposing fantasy and reality, Heavenly Creatures seeks to understand the girls without absolving them, and it gets that much closer to the truth.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Key to the Fourth World

  1. Ah, Heavenly Creatures. The Romeo and Juliet of my generation, in my opinion. At least it seemed that way to me at the time. Both gruesome and beautiful. I love the images you chose to use. The second shot (of the psychiatrist) suddenly reminded me of a character from another doomed lovers story..the priest from Harold and Maude.

    • Oooh, yes, that’s a fantastic comparison! I think Ashby has a very similar sensibility toward some of his characters as Jackson does here, and the priest scene has the same comic value. Really, it’s just funny to see these grotesque hypocrites calling other people’s behavior grotesque.

      The Romeo & Juliet comparison is also apt, since in both cases, the lovers rush forward without thinking about the consequences of their actions, on themselves or their families. And naturally, people die.

  2. I always look forward to your contributions. This is a beautiful write up and I’m astonished to notice what you point as the inversion of your choice from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. I wonder if you’ve also noticed that the other shot shares a similarly grotesque open mouth.

    I sometimes feel this series teaches us as much about our response to cinema as the movies themselves.

    • Oh, wow, I didn’t look at the other shot at all! I guess this really does teach me, at least, what kind of images really stick with me: histrionic self-absorption and horrifyingly distorted facial features!

      Sounds about right.

  3. The transition between the barren hills/fields into the garden feels tactile. I feel as if it wouldn’t have felt real if he or anyone else filmed that scene today.

    And I actually thought the garden had tastefully classical influences unlike What Dreams May Come, which is more colourful although not as good than this film.

  4. @paolocase: The garden itself is definitely tasteful, especially compared to the kitschy wonderlands in some other movies, WDMC’s heaven included. But I just feel like changing the preexisting beauty of New Zealand into a DIFFERENT, even more colorful beauty smacks of gilding a lily. Which I think might be part of Jackson’s point in this scene.

    @NoahB: Thanks a lot for reading!

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