In her first review for 10ya, Jen Malone traces the ghostly impressions The Others left on her back in her days as a video store snob and contemplates, two-and-a-half degrees later, why otherness, chiaroscuro and Henry James references still haunt her.
Disclaimer: This is one of those “the twist is all” movies. If you have not yet seen this movie and wish to in future, as much as I enjoy having you here, I’d suggest you turn back now. You know, While. You. Still. Can. Ooooo. (okay, that last bit sounded more ghostly inside my head, but you get the picture). I will spoil this movie for you. And you may hate me just a little bit for that. Now, then…
“Of course we have the others.”
“We have the others—we have indeed the others,” I concurred.
“Yet even though we have them,” he returned, still with his hands in his pockets and planted there in front of me, “they don’t much count, do they?”
(Chapter 23, The Turn of the Screw, Henry James)
Ten years ago, by day, I was an unsurprisingly bookish art history student at the University of Virginia. By night, I was employed as a professional video snob by one of the best video stores on the East Coast (that isn’t located in New York, that is). This unassuming store was, and remains, one of the only buildings in town to thumb its nose at the holy architectural trinity of Charlottesville, VA: red brick, white columns, bust of Thomas Jefferson (even the local Target store displays two out of three). Inside, it is the sort of place where films are organized by country and then by director. The sort of place where you ask for Bottle Rocket and are given complicated directions, a map of the upstairs, and a smile (because I was never so good at the “snobbery” part). The sort of place where, an hour later, you come back downstairs carrying Bottle Rocket, two films from Senegal, and a documentary about fetishes, and then you hang out for twenty minutes watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon and chatting with the clerks about Beat Takeshi before finally going home.
Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others was on my radar well before it actually came out in theatres, partly because the avid perusal of movie magazines (remember those? They were printed on shiny paper and were sold at something called a “newsstand”) was actually, and awesomely, considered a part of my job, and partly because I’d recently seen and enjoyed the Spanish-Chilean director’s earlier films —Tesis/Thesis (a 1996 thriller about the convergence of academic research and snuff films), and 1997’sAbre los ojos/Open Your Eyes (which I remember as about 12,000 times more interesting than its shinily sanitized Hollywood remake, Vanilla Sky, and not simply because Abre los Ojos had the distinct good fortune not to star Tom Cruise). The Others was the sort of film about which “real” (read: not me) movie critics pen Jen-tempting phrases like “atmosphere of dread,” “elegant and stylish Gothic thriller,” and “based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw” (every review I read made strong note of that fact, more about that in a moment), so when the advance copy VHS screener landed on my desk a month or so after its theatrical release date, I was delighted, indeed.
And, after watching it, impressed. I considered it to be restrained and particularly smart (and it was, though perhaps not in the ways that I then thought), particularly for a big-budget film. This opinion may have been influenced by the fact that the most recent cinematic ghost story to have strong popular success was 2000’s What Lies Beneath, a film that is, in the end, neither particularly smart nor particularly restrained. I was truly surprised, if perhaps not precisely shocked, by the twist ending of The Others, which, in 2001, took place long enough after the release of The Sixth Sense (released in 1999) to encourage my mind to consider the possibility of a twist, but well enough before M. Night Shyamalan beat the notion of the twist ending to death that I wasn’t necessarily expecting this movie to have one of those. Oh, and I wanted to have Nicole Kidman’s hair.
Over time, The Others became one of the few “scary” movies I could recommend quite indiscriminately to customers, one of the few I didn’t have to wrestle from the grasp of a doddering 85-year-old who was actually looking to rent Upstairs, Downstairs. It contains no sex, no violence, no blood. It had just enough street cred (“It’s in the Spanish section under Amenábar!” “It’s his first English-language picture!” “It won Goya awards!”), but not too much (“It stars Nicole Kidman!” “It’s sorta British-ish!”). It landed on my shelf of staff picks a number of times, particularly around Halloween, and I always talked it up as elegant, understated, suspenseful. I meant to re-watch it (always a good move when the movie has a twist ending, no?), but never managed to do so. That is, until…
The Here and Now
Ten years, two-and-a-half degrees, and an opposite coast later, I remembered little of the The Others— (only) half of the g-g-g-ghost twist, the wary-eyed vulnerability of Nicole Kidman, and the sense that I both enjoyed and admired the film. While, on this viewing, I found the dialogue to only be so-so and the pacing to be suspenseful but not tight, nor tense, The Others remains a finely crafted film a notch above most Hollywood thrillers, and it has some unusual things to say about ghostliness and otherness (and the intersection of the two). First, the more technical stuff…
This is a remarkably quiet film, particularly for one that begins with the ear-splitting shriek of Nicole Kidman as she awakens from what appears to be a nightmare.
The music is minimal, the dialogue quiet enough that, upon re-viewing, I discovered just how high the volume on my television would go and still found myself perched on the very edge of the corner of the sofa, two feet from the television screen. As in every self-respecting thriller, The Others breaks these quiet moments with sudden, and loud, starts, but these are relatively few and the film carries this aural contrast further than most. Ghosts, it seems, are not terribly noisy.
The cinematography is lovely. Amenábar and his team have chosen to light much of the film in rich, deep tones, rather than the pallid dim so often favored in other “scary” movies. This allows Amenábar to play with chiaroscuro, creating crisp, warm, even particularly fleshly, outlines for his photosensitive ghosts, whilst often leaving their surroundings undefined (and thus, potentially threatening). It also provides excellent contrast to the blue-grey fog of the outdoors. The camera angles are eerily wonderful, frequently Hitchcockian, and continually play with the edges of the framed shot — the very tips of dark furniture, banisters, etc., often jut slightly into frame, then out, reminding us that there are things present which we cannot see at any given moment. This cinematic cleverness is compounded by the film’s treatment of mirrors, which are prominently placed within most scenes. These mirrors, apart from worrying the distinction between seen and unseen and potentially representing the enclosure of space, allow for two of my favorite visual moments in the film: when Kidman’s character swings the mirrored door of the bedroom wardrobe toward, then past, the seated figure of her husband, and the scene essentially shows her character having a conversation with an empty spot on the bed, and the scene in which the children hide from the realization of their servants’ ghostliness by climbing into a completely mirrored wardrobe and vanishing inside.
Amenábar has written, as well as directed, this film, and much has been made (by reviewers and by Amenábar himself) of the film’s debt to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. This 1898 novella is the most famous, and also the most upsetting, of James’s ghost stories (though if you are looking for recs from a lit geek of sorts, “The Jolly Corner” is also particularly good). Reduced to simplicity, The Turn of the Screw is about a governess who is assigned to look after two children, and who slowly begins to realize that these children, and her own self, are being haunted by the ghosts of two of the estate’s former servants. The story is open, and subject, to extensive interpretation: the narrator, as in many of James’s works, may be unreliable, the children may not be good/normal children, and the ghostly servants, in life, may or may not have done something particularly awful to the children — in fact, these ghosts may not exist at all. Apart from several shared ingredients (a manor house, a female protagonist, a housekeeper, two children, some ghosts), and a scene in which the children climb out the window of their bedroom at night, I don’t see The Others as having much to do with James’s tale. As sympathetic as Kidman’s character ultimately is (and she is indeed, otherwise we’d more fully turn on her when we discover she is a child-killer), we never mistake her for a reliable narrator. She is stretched too tightly, and seems to know so little of things relative to, and known by, those around her. And as much as The Others cultivates that “atmosphere of dread” (sometimes slowly enough that one feels it drag), it lacks the truly disturbing undertones of James’s ghostly mystery. That said, the film obviously takes its title from the way in which the characters in The Turn of the Screw refer to the unsavory ghosts within that story (quoted at the beginning of this review), as “other” beings, though of course, in this film, “the others” can refer to both the living and the dead.
There is no real reason this film should be set (just) post-WWII. I keep speculating on stylistic choices and/or the wish to portray huge trauma on a small scale, but the tastes of this movie run to the heavily Victorian, in my mind. Fog. Séances. Posed “death book” photographs of the recently deceased. And yet, intentional or not, the odd temporal in-between-ness works well within the context of a movie which is, after all, about in-between-ness (or, as someone more eloquent would put it, liminality). Ghosts obviously exist in a liminal space, in a liminal state — neither living nor quite dead, neither here nor quite “there.” The house in which these particular ghosts reside appears to be located in the middle of nowhere. Seriously, it is surrounded by choking fog. It is also, we are told at the beginning of the movie, located in Jersey, an island which is not exactly British (nor, despite its proximity, is it French). It is, instead, an “other” place, and a place located between places, a place about which Kidman’s character muses, “I’m beginning to feel cut off from the world.”
It is, perhaps, no surprise that in a movie called The Others, there would exist numerous markers of physical and psychological “otherness,” and, perhaps, disability. The children are allergic to light, and exposure, we are told, will lead to damaged skin and eventual death (yes, yes, the irony and stuff). The young servant is mute. The old (actually alive) lady of the house is blind (and, as is typical in literary/cinematic portrayals of blindness, is thus able to see the unseen in a way that others cannot). Kidman’s character is inarguably crazy. Her husband, during his brief “return” from “the war” is visibly shell-shocked. And one might even make the case that the lilting Irish accent of the housekeeper (Fionnula Flanagan) marks her, too, as “other” within a properly British household (though the name of her character, Bertha Mills, suggests that she is perhaps not actually meant to be Irish).
The Others is a movie supremely concerned with the containment of the uncontainable. Kidman’s character, and the servants within the house, are each forced to close and lock the door of every room behind them before opening another, so that the children cannot accidentally wander into a passage well-lit enough to burn their skin. Heavy drapes block the light. The little boy hushes his sister as she begins to tell the servant about “the other” servants who vanished just before “mummy went mad” and “it” happened. And yet, things are continually at risk of spilling out along the boundaries: locked doors unlock, forbidden music flows from the piano, the drapes vanish, the characters all eventually leave the house (albeit briefly), and the secrets trickle out. Ultimately, we discover that, despite the best attempts of these characters, in the universe of this movie, everything exists together — that is, the ghosts and the living mix and their lives overlap (but apparently only sometimes, and not completely).
It is also a movie concerned with trauma and loss, with a broken family at its heart (underscored by the drawing of the complete, happy, and “proper” living family drawn by the young ghost-girl). Our conception of ghosts, after all, is largely about trauma, partly because we believe the traumatized to be those who can’t find rest — the living are “haunted” by memories, but the dead haunt. And no one is ever haunted by the well-adjusted, it seems; even the ghosts in Harry Potter came to bloody, or at least angsty, ends. The ghosts of The Others, following a common ghostly conceit, exist in a sort of mental fog (one might also say, a confusion that is characteristic of trauma) — they do not know what has happened (Kidman’s character certainly doesn’t remember killing her children, then herself), or even precisely where they are (we are told by the housekeeper that the servant girl became mute after death, as soon as she realized she didn’t know where she was). The children mourn their apparently lost-in-the-war father, only to have him briefly reappear, then vanish again. And, it seems, the members of this ghostly family have even lost the small pleasures of the living — over breakfast, the young girl remarks that it “tasted better before.” Sigh. ‘Tis a sad, sad afterlife in which toast is not delicious.
Our traditional notion of ghosts (“got a white sheet and something to put it over? It’s a ghost!”) is an interplay between concealment and delineation, an attempt to give visual shape to nothingness, to emptiness…and thus, one might suggest, to the idea of loss itself. The ghosts in The Others are themselves subject to these expectations — the characters are both coming to terms with the fact that there are ghosts (well, at least in this movie), and trying to figure out how one is supposed to visually identify these ghosts. The little boy, upon being left alone for a moment, asks anxiously, “But what if I see a ghost?” The little girl repeatedly informs the little boy that ghosts “wear sheets and clanking chains,” and she, several times, imitates the spooky sounds she imagines these ghosts to make, most notably when she is wearing her very-ghostly-indeed First Communion dress and veil. Kidman’s character, upon entering the “junk room” to confront what she believes to be a ghost, finds herself surrounded by white-sheeted forms which, in a frenzy of fear, she reveals to be statues, coat racks, etc. (a nice touch, this scene, which includes a living person that she cannot see and believes to be a ghost, a bunch of objects that look as though they “should” be ghosts, and Kidman’s character herself, an actual ghost who does not “look like” one).
So, then, the twist ending, which works for several reasons, and is notable for several others. Yes, they’re ghosts, I remembered as much, though I didn’t necessarily recall that the servants were, as well, and I certainly didn’t remember (nor did my roommate, who re-watched this film with me) that Kidman’s character had smothered her children and then killed herself. I’m not entirely surprised that I didn’t remember the former, but I was surprised that I didn’t remember the latter, particularly as there are clues provided throughout the film. Apart from the whole “mummy went mad and it happened” thing, in an odd — and telling — choice of words, Kidman’s character is concerned that exposure to light will lead to “suffocation” of the children. Later, Kidman’s character, exasperated with her daughter’s hysterics, commands: “Stop breathing like that…Stop breathing like that…Stop…breathing,” and this line is later precisely echoed by the daughter to her little brother. Talking of clues to the twist ending, there are others: the camera lingering a touch too long on the still, possibly-sleeping face of the little girl, a close-up shot of the faces of the lovers, profiles turned into one another, the wife blissfully asleep, the single visible eye of the husband staring, lifeless.
Why does the twist work? Largely because it is multi-tiered and meted out in several portions. The scene in which Kidman’s character admits to murdering her children is well-acted enough that we are perhaps able to feel some sympathy for her, but understated enough that we are able to forget about it (and, in truth, this event actually matters very little to the film as a whole — what matters is that these characters are dead, and that these deaths are due to traumatic events). Throughout the film, we are thrown off the scent of the ultimate mystery by the script’s emphasis on the characters’ fear of ghosts. And, in what one can only assume is a combination of shrewd casting and firm direction, our suspicions are easily diverted by the actors themselves. If the servants weren’t so creepy…If Fionnula Flanagan’s housekeeper didn’t have the crazy eyes…If the truth-telling little girl weren’t so annoying (and we weren’t more likely to believe the little boy, who is, let’s face it, much cuter)…
Although the movie begins with religion (Kidman’s voice reading the creation story), and Kidman’s character clings desperately to her faith throughout — at one point even using a chalkboard on which bible verses have been written to block out the light from the suddenly-undraped windows — religious belief does not fare so well in The Others. Despite their prayers, the characters have not been protected from harm, there are no miracles, and the unseen presence in which Kidman’s character believes remains unseen, but perhaps not present enough to itself be considered ghostly. The film ends with a plea to a different sort of belief system — that of belonging and place. Watching “the others” (the living version) move out, the ghostly others watch from the window, fervently chanting “This house is ours…no one can make us leave this house,” as, in a trope-ish and unnecessarily sequel-baiting moment, a “For Sale” shingle is hung out upon the gate. This situation, it seems, will continue, and these others, it seems, will endure — though just how steadily and in what fashion, we do not know. This suggests that The Others is, in some fundamental way, meant to be a movie about the impression a place can make upon us, and the impression we can make upon a place. After all, isn’t this the reason stories about haunted houses “work” on us? We like to think we’ve left a trace in the spaces we’ve passed through. And perhaps we feel that other people have already done so.
Random Thoughts and Such
The exterior of this house is exactly how I always pictured the house of Usher in, appropriately enough, Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Right down to the reflecting pool.
Nicole Kidman looks like she just walked out of Brief Encounter. Well-played, costumer, well-played.
What an intensely-befuddled frowny little boy.
Having children you have to keep from escaping into lighted rooms by closing one door before opening another is a lot like having cats. Only more annoying.
There are some seriously snazzy shots in this movie.
Wait, I get migraines, too. Does this mean I’m a ghost? Damn.
Her hair really is fabulous.
Now, my apartment is admittedly not that big, nor is it in any way historic, but if I found a cache of random portraits of dead people, I’d be a lot more freaked out than she is.
The difference between a haunted house and a ghost movie is what? Character?
Covering gravestones with leaves is a full-time job.
I. Want. That. Magenta. Scarf.
Fog, awkward running, romantic clinches. This just became a melodrama from the 1940s.
Christopher Eccleston in this movie = Ralph Fiennes + Eric Roberts. Discuss.
I wonder if they thought about casting Bill Cosby for this role? What, is it too soon for Ghost Dadjokes?
I do not remember the (semi-)hot ghost sex. Why do I not remember the (semi-)hot ghost sex?
Scariest tree ever. Except maybe the one in Poltergeist.
So if some of the people in the death portraits are hanging about the house in ghostly form, does this mean that all of the people in the death portraits are hanging about the house in ghostly form, but we just haven’t met them all? Because I do not want to meet those hand-holding twins.
That is one crowded séance.
The take-home message, as in The Shining — isolation makes you crazy. This does not bode well for my career as an academically inclined hermit.
Culturally, we seem to be convinced that ghosts need to be either gore-tastic or Casper-goofy. Why is this?
“We must learn to live together, the living and the dead.” Word.