not in our stars, but in ourselves
It is perhaps a sign of my mental state that the first movie I’ve been able to bring myself to watch in weeks is Mama (2013), a horror film; or, perhaps, it’s a coincidence. I’m not sure myself. But before I delve too deeply into my own thoughts on it, I must direct you all to read this article from Bitch by Andi Zeisler, “The Feminist Power of Female Ghosts“. While I am often too much of a scaredy-cat to watch horror, I do find it to be one of the few genres that’s interesting to explore from a film theory perspective (more on that in a minute). That article is an excellent look at a particular horror trope, and its feminist implications, so go read that before you trudge through this.
All set? Good.
Mama opens with a family imploding: Jeffrey Desange (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) goes on a shooting spree after the financial collapse of 2008, killing his wife and several coworkers. He races home to gather up his two little girls, and careens down a winding, snowy road. They crash in the woods, and find an old cabin. The older sister, Victoria, says she sees a lady in the house – but Jeff is too consumed by his own misery to listen. He is about to shoot her, while her younger sister Lilly looks on, when a pair of black spindly hands grabs him (and, presumably, dispatches of him). Five years pass. Jeff’s twin brother, Luke (also Coster-Waldau), has been searching for the girls all along – and finally, finds them. They are feral, snarling creatures rather than the soft little girls he used to know, but they are family. He insists on taking them in, to the chagrin of his rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) refer often to “Mama,” an entity that the psychologist dismisses as Victoria’s dissociative identity disorder: she was the older, and the caretaker, so she became Mama.
Not so. Someone, something, raised the girls when they were in the woods. Someone, something, regards them as its own. Someone, and something, is extremely jealous of the girls’ new mother figure – reluctant as she is.
I’ll start my actual critique with this: I don’t like Chastain. I don’t understand her appeal. In interviews, she always strikes me as insipid. When discussing how and why she chooses the roles that she does, she gave an answer that could not have been more jejune if she’d planned it: “I always try to play characters who are very different from what I am. If the character was a good swimmer or a diver, I’d be interested because in my real life, I am totally scared of water. I would immediately feel compelled to do it because I’m always trying to tackle any fear I have. I don’t want my life to be controlled by fear, whether it’s the fear of being rejected, fear of being loved; I want to run my life with open arms. Also, I never want to play the same character twice. To me, that’s soul crushing.” Okay, Jess. Nevertheless, I found that her inherent insipidity worked well here, for the most part: Annabel is meant to be a selfish, heedless young person who’s utterly unfit for motherhood – particularly of two such special girls. Good casting, then.
The film fails to address many of the interesting questions about motherhood, horror, the monstrous feminine, in any real way. And it fails to examine what could have been an interesting topic to muse about: that of a man wanting more than a woman to be a parent. I have known a couple of guys who were much more vested in the concept of having children than, say, I ever would be; and Luke seems to be one of those guys, for reasons deeper than his loyalty to his brother. And he insists on it, and brings the girls into his relationship with Annabel – and then, not intentionally, abandons her with them. She didn’t ask for it, and she didn’t really agree to it, but she’s stuck with the consequences of his will. Men. Puh.
But to return to what’s usually most interesting about horror films, and what this film falls short in addressing: the woman. The unhinged, demented, voracious woman. One of the minor characters, a clerk in a records office, sums up part of Zeisler’s article: “A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself time and time again.” And isn’t that what we’re all afraid of? Mama’s maternal instincts are grotesque, ferocious, jealous, consuming: everything the patriarchy has warned against in women. And yet, Mama doesn’t terrorize the men who are seeking to take her adopted babies away from her. She tosses them around, sure, but she saves the brunt of her fury for hapless Annabel. Why? As far as Mama is concerned, that’s just the way Mama the ghost operates. It would have been a better film, probably, if it had at least looked at why Mama was most interested in attacking someone who didn’t want what Mama thought she owned – as opposed to attacking the men and the institutions that took from her what she’d owned in the first place.
Still, it is an entertaining way to spend 100 minutes. And the fact that it’s possible to examine even a flawed horror film in this light, with this framework, illustrates that body genres (the other two are melodrama and pornography, in case you’d forgotten, ahem ahem) are some of the most useful for discussing feminist issues in film – and, if you overvalue film as I do, in humdrum life itself.