Saturday 18 March 2023

Magnificent obsession: "Pearl"

Last year's Seventies-set shocker
X rose above the horror pack by demonstrating a fascination with characters on both sides of its murderous divide - such that, for a surprisingly long time, we couldn't be certain who the film's monsters really were. Writer-director Ti West and snub-nosed star Mia Goth evidently had such fun making it that they stayed behind on location and devised Pearl, a prequel that plays out as an extended character study, complete with credits and score that recall golden-age Hollywood melodramas. The presiding idea is that, back in 1918, with WW1 nearing its conclusion and the Spanish flu starting to do the rounds, Pearl (the character Goth played under latex as an octogenarian in X) was but a corn-fed farmgirl, with a husband away at the front and residual hopes of making it big in her beloved movies. Being in the middle of an American nowhere seems unlikely to stop her; however, those hopes aren't shared by her frowningly Teutonic mother (Tandi Wright) and mute, motionless father (Matthew Sutherland), whose filthy bathwater our gal unabashedly shares. We, of course, already know Pearl's dreams aren't going to pan out, and that her need for acclaim, affection and even just plain attention can never be met, so what follows shapes up into a kind of A Star Isn't Born, a lavishly appointed and lushly framed picture of murderously arrested creative development.

That's just one source of tension and fascination: given that the opening credits are barely through before we see Pearl kebabbing an innocent goose with a pitchfork, we immediately wonder who, beyond the heroine, is going to get out of these 100 minutes alive. But West and Goth (a co-writer here) have also found a whole new route through the careworn rags-to-riches showbiz narrative by centring a character who is at most turns more Wednesday Addams than Judy Garland, prepared to do extremes of anything to seize her chance in the spotlight. (Essentially Pearl makes good on all those waspish-to-murderous threats issued by more conventionally ambitious ingenues in stage-door programmers.) The irony is that, even as the character gets mired in her own carnage and finds her dancing feet stuck fast to bloodsoaked floors, a star is being born here. Goth took a big step forward in X, where she appeared more present than she'd been in her previous, airy-arty endeavours. In Pearl, she is every bit as committed as anyone in the recent Best Actress race - it's just she has to be committed while, say, dryhumping a scarecrow, or reeling off a long stream-of-consciousness monologue that recalls Cassavetes filming Gena Rowlands in her 70s pomp, or facing down the viewer in the film's truly deranged closing shot. (Pearl is finally ready for her close-up; the cost, however, has been all too much.) 

Make no mistake: Pearl's a weirdo, all right. But she's a fully rounded weirdo, and West's achievement in storytelling here - arguably the crowning achievement of his career so far - is to help us understand this mixed-up kid's desire for a better life, while ensuring we regret the way she pursues it, and actively cower whenever anybody rejects her. That really is prizeworthy writing and direction, but then the entire production is shot through with a rare blend of art, craft and midnight-movie savvy. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett opens up a wide frame, and finds within the film's rural setting the uncanny beauty of certain Andrew Wyatt paintings; the design teams, headed by Tom Hammock, Ben Milsom and Thomas Salpietro, play subtle riffs on the look and feel of a farmhouse location we've already explored once over; and there's a great (if agonised) supporting performance from Sutherland, who - though mute and motionless - suggests Pearl's father has long sensed that he and his wife have collectively created a monster. Even faced with a work couched as a Douglas Sirk film, the Academy weren't likely to go to bat for a full-throttle horror movie - not in the year of the peppy Everything Everywhere All At Once - and Goth is so convincing in her homicidal narcissism it's just possible folks were worried what might happen should the actress fail to convert any nomination into a win. Slaps are nothing; try getting blood stains out of a champagne red carpet. Fangoria Awards: it's over to you.

Pearl is now playing in selected cinemas.

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