not in our stars, but in ourselves
39/52: A movie about a historical figure*
On 22 June 1954, 16-year-old Pauline Parker (known previously as Pauline Rieper) and 15-year-old Juliet Hulme murdered Pauline’s mother with half a brick in a stocking. The murder shook Christchurch, and New Zealand, to its core. Police found Pauline’s diary when they searched her home, and the diary contained detailed entries about her plans to kill her mother so that she and Juliet would be able to stay together: Juliet’s parents were divorcing, and they were planning to send her to South Africa to live with an aunt; Pauline believed that the sole obstacle to her joining Juliet was her mother.
Heavenly Creatures uses Pauline’s diary – which she kept from January 1953 until the day of the murder – as a framing device. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) reads the entries in voiceover while she and Juliet (Kate Winslet) create elaborate fantasy worlds and plot Honora Rieper’s (Sarah Peirse) murder. These diary entries are all in Pauline’s own words, so whatever cinematic tricks Peter Jackson employs, however wildly he recreates Pauline and Juliet’s story, the diary is real, and provides roots for the insane flowers blooming on the screen.
The film opens with Pauline arriving at high school, where she seems to have few friends. Juliet has just arrived in Christchurch, and makes an impression on Pauline when she corrects the French teacher’s grammar; and again in art class, when she’s supposed to be drawing Pauline, but instead draws an elaborate depiction of St. George slaying the dragon. Their friendship is sealed when the two girls, each excused from participating in gym class, bond over their respective maladies: Pauline’s bad legs and Juliet’s bad lungs. Pauline’s mother runs a boarding house, and her father runs a fishing supply shop. Juliet’s father is a newly appointed rector at Canterbury College, and her mother is a relationship counselor. Pauline is fairly dazzled by Ilam, the estate where the Hulmes live, and clearly embarrassed by her own home and family. During one of many sleepovers, Juliet tells Pauline about the “Fourth World”: a paradise of art, music, and “pure enjoyment,” where all their favorite crushes are honored as saints, and where they themselves are known as Deborah, the Queen, and Gina, the beautiful gypsy girl. The two begin referring to each other as their alter-egos – and when Juliet is forced to stay in a sanitarium after her tuberculosis flares up again, write letters to each other in the guise of Deborah (Juliet) and Gina (Pauline). The girls’ parents are concerned about the intensity of their relationship – especially because, in 1950s New Zealand, homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness – but the most outspoken is Mrs. Rieper. She loves her daughter, and she’s direct enough to tell her when she thinks Pauline is doing the wrong thing. Even though Juliet’s parents – who sent her to the Bahamas for five years when she was a child, and who are breaking their promise never to leave her again by forcing her to move to South Africa – are far worse, objectively speaking, than Mrs. Rieper, Pauline decides that it’s her own mother who’s in the way of her and Juliet’s happiness.
It struck me, on re-watching, how much inspiration Jackson seems to have drawn from Douglas Sirk. Of course, Heavenly Creatures takes place in the 1950s, as did most of Sirk’s greatest films; but it’s not just a question of the period. Sirk used music as well as mise en scène – the framing, lighting, staging, and shot composition of each sequence in a film – to stand in for the story’s “excesses”: of emotion, of sexuality, of eroticism. His films may seem on the surface to be sudsy stories of pretty people with silly problems, but he always gave those problems incredible depth and gravity through the very aesthetics in each movie. Similarly, Jackson takes a sensational story – teenage girls with an obsessive, possibly lesbian relationship who committed a horrific murder together – and employs every cinematic trick up his sleeve to turn that story from a tabloid headline to a tragedy. Sirk’s melodramas were made for and marketed towards women: they were a way for women to experience emotional catharsis without actually upsetting anyone in their daily lives. Female emotion is and has always been considered excessive – and no one’s emotions are considered more excessive than a teenage girl’s. Lynskey and Winslet enact that excess perfectly, of course, with Lynskey providing the dark and moody variety, and Winslet the hysterical and breathless sort; but Jackson brings us into their world. We see the Fourth World, all lush flora and life-size versions of the Plasticine figures they’ve made of the saints. In their daily lives, we see them lit with brightly colored, Technicolor lights. Their world is swooning with syrupy, pop versions of opera arias as performed by Mario Lanza. It’s all excess, all sensation, all the wild and uncontrollable emotion of two imaginative teenage girls.
Sirk also tended to interrogate the 1950s’ social mores, particularly as they related to race and class, and I wonder if that’s not happening here as well. The Rieper family is blue collar and somewhat crass, but warm and loving; the Hulme family is terribly upper-class and “refined,” even though Mrs. Hulme carries on an extramarital affair with one of her own patients in the Hulme home, right under her husband’s nose. Juliet loves her parents in a juvenile, desperate way – but she hasn’t forgotten or forgiven them for leaving her when she was a child. Nevertheless, she never seems to want to harm them; just for them to appreciate and notice her. Pauline, however, sees their beautiful home, their civilized tone and discourse (they are from England, after all, unlike her and her Kiwi family), and feels sick with envy. She wants all the prestige and power of the Hulmes’ life, and all the romance and excitement of her mystery world with Juliet. She does not want the dull, working-class values that her own family prizes: a comfortable home, affection, hard work, and real love. Heavenly Creatures isn’t some sort of socialist call to arms – but I do think Jackson honors Sirk by refusing to shy away from the classist angles of the story.
And I think he honors the girls, too, who are alive to this day. They were released after a few years in prison, on the condition that they never meet again; somehow or other, they’ve each managed to build new lives for themselves. I won’t engage in any sort of search engine algorithm-enhancing by listing their pseudonyms here; I believe that they regret what they did, and want to be left alone now. The excesses of youth usually boil over, or get knocked out of us, by the time we reach adulthood. When those excesses lead us to do bad things – as most bad things do stem from excessive emotion – we wear the stain forever. That, and whatever official legal recourse, is punishment enough.
*Yeah, it’s sort of a stretch to label either of these two “historical” – but hush. They’re real people, and these things happened at a point in the past (i.e., history), so they count according to me. Deal with it.