not in our stars, but in ourselves
My film-viewing habits have become pretty sporadic of late, but the television programming gods occasionally give me something that gets all the old pistons firing again; and sometimes it’s an edited version of Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) with Samuel L. Jackson calling Bruce Willis a “racist melon-farmer” (still laughing about that one); but sometimes it’s the English-language directorial debut of Park Chan-wook, he of the original version of Oldboy (2003). In the latter case, I think it’s worth dusting off this blog again.
Stoker (2013) is a happy little story about a family eating itself. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a bright and gifted eighteen-year-old whose beloved father has just died in a freak accident. He was her only friend, and now she is left with her psychologically fragile, mostly drunk mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). At her father’s funeral, India is introduced to her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). She had never heard of him before the funeral. Evelyn, perhaps mourning in some strange and inappropriate ways, sets her cap at her husband’s younger brother immediately. India seems disgusted by the whole situation – but Uncle Charlie seems determined to befriend his niece, whether she wants it or not.
If the name “Uncle Charlie” set some bells ringing in your memory, especially in the context of a creepy uncle-niece relationship, you are correct. Screenwriter Wentworth Miller used Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) as a “jumping-off point,” with some additional influences from Dracula and other sources. In short, it presents the nightmare scenario of being visited by the devil, the devil whose blood you realize you share. Stoker emphasizes the eroticism of such a scenario, much more than Hitchcock or Stoker (the author) would have been permitted to dare.
And the eroticism is, I think, the thing about Stoker that sets it apart from most other thrillers, most other horror films, most other films in general. Of course it’s unnerving and disturbing. Case in point: the piano duet between India and Uncle Charlie. It begins with her practicing alone. Uncle Charlie perches on the bench next to her, and begins to add thundering lower notes to her trilling melody. They begin to improvise together. He moves closer, and puts his right arm around her to reach the higher notes. She crosses her legs, subtly undulating in time to the music and to her uncle’s movements. He finishes (playing), presumably before she has finished (playing). Breathless India realizes that something has happened to her, something far and beyond the usual four-hand piano piece.
Stoker is full of such scenes, to its credit. There is something especially heady about this blend of sex and death, a blend in which writers like Edgar Allan Poe traded quite heavily. Love is never the question in Stoker, or in much Gothic literature. Control, terror, power, erotics, la petite mort as the French call it – never love. This is not a typical nuclear American family. The Stoker family is something straight out of the mid-19th century.
There are all sorts of theoretical arguments to consider in the film, but lest you feel some shadow of a doubt that the film isn’t worth seeing for its own merits: it is. All the performances are first-rate, and even Kidman’s plastic-surgery-frozen face is an asset rather than a detriment to her characterization of poor drunken Evelyn. The eroticism of Stoker is present in the script itself, no doubt, but Park has succeeded in bringing forth additional dimensions of that eroticism by being a supreme sensualist. At times, Stoker verges on the haptic – that is to say, we viewers experience the film through other senses than merely sight and sound. We feel the dirt and grass caked on India’s body after a misadventure with one of her coevals in the woods one night. We smell the colorless odor of tubs of ice cream (and other things, wrapped in plastic) in a deep freeze in a musty old basement. We taste the red wine Uncle Charlie has recommended for dinner one night – vintage 1994, the year India was born. Experiencing a film like this with our own senses can only bring its horror – and delight – that much closer. Why isn’t Park Chan-wook directing everything?
P.S. Oh, hey! Remember when I was doing the 250 film challenge – with the plan of completing it more or less within 2013? Ha. Silly, overambitious girl that I am. At the rate I’m going, I’ll probably finish sometime in 2017.