Thursday, October 10, 2019

If That Nightingale Won't Sing

Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale (2019)

The Nightingale (2018) shares some elements with director Jennifer Kent's debut film, The Babadook. Both films are about motherhood. Both films are about women driven to extremes. Otherwise, the resemblance is slight. Where The Babadook was an intimate, almost private film, The Nightingale is altogether more ambitious. It takes its specific story and projects from it a more global portrait of a world that is sick at heart. It's also a good deal more violent. There were walk-outs at the showing I attended, something I can probably chalk up to an arthouse audience unaccustomed to a rape/revenge film that doesn't pull any of its punches. Even accounting for that, it's a rough film to watch. It's not an exploitation movie, not really, but it has the visceral impact of one.

The story follows Clare, an Irish woman transported to Tasmania for some unspecified crime. In Tasmania, she is on parole, serving a military garrison out in the bush who are busy pushing out the black natives in favor of white settlers. Clare has married fellow convict Aidan, and has a child by him. She is the main entertainment for the troops when she isn't doing domestic work, billed by the commanding officer as "The Nightingale" for her beautiful singing voice. Lieutenant Hawkins is bucking for a promotion, and a visiting senior officer is on hand evaluating his fitness for a command back in civilization (so to speak). In private, Hawkins views Clare as his "property" and refuses to grant her the letter that would free her of her servitude even though she's served her sentence for her crime. Instead, Hawkins uses her for his own gratification, raping her whenever he feels the need. When Hawkins is denied his promotion because his unit is drunk and ill-disciplined, he takes it out on her. When Aidan takes it upon himself to demand her freedom, Hawkins and two of his soldiers storm their home and kill him. Hawkins deigns to "share" Clare with his sergeant, but the screaming of the baby distracts him. The other soldier silences the child by bashing her against the wall of the cabin. The three of them leave Clare for dead, and set out to beat the captain back to headquarters in order to preempt his report so that Hawkins can claim his promotion. Clare, for her part, survives and vows to hunt the men who murdered her family to the ends of the Earth. She commandeers a tracker, Billy, who is one of the last members of his tribe. He has no love for Clare and Clare disdains him, but necessity compels her. Together, they set out after Hawkins...

Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale (2019)

In addition to its main plot, there are two thematic threads running through The Nightingale. The first is the horror of a colonial power that places one type of person at the apex of its power structure--white Anglo-Saxon men, natch--and disregards the humanity of everyone else. In the film, that locus of power is Hawkins, whose only real check comes from other white men who are higher in the structure of (military) power than he is. In his corner of the world, though, when no one else is looking? There, he's God. He decides who lives and dies, and he sees others--even his own subordinates in white male power--as disposable once they've exhausted their usefulness to him. He kills Clare's husband because he's an annoyance. He has her baby killed because the child cries too loud as he's raping Clare. He feels no remorse for any of this because as convicts and as Irish, Clare and her family aren't human, or even useful animals anymore. The film is blunt in its assessment of colonialism, and perhaps over the top, but for the fact that the historical circumstances in which the story exists were very real. It's worth keeping in mind that the racism endemic to the histories of both Australia and the United States were taught to them by England. The vehemence with which Clare denies that she is English to Billy is the repudiation of a subject people, and carves her away from colonialism in spite of the color of her skin.

Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr in The Nightingale (2019)

The other thematic thread running through the film is found in the relationship between Clare and Billy, which at first mirrors the power structure in which Hawkins exists. Clare is white, Billy is black, therefore she has power over him. This is a kyriarchal relationship in which intersecting oppressions trickle down from their fountainhead. But unlike Hawkins, Clare comes to realize that Billy is just as human as she is, with wants and needs and a pain as deep as hers from the extermination of his people and his family. They are mirrors of each other, and when Clare finally ceases to call Billy "boy," they realize they are more similar than different. The implication found in their relationship is that the only way to overthrow the patriarchal colonialism of Hawkins and the British is for oppressed peoples to put aside their differences and unite in common cause. The film is clear-eyed about this, though, because it places significant barriers to this reconciliation between Clare and Billy, and they are few in numbers and not as well armed as Hawkins and his men.

The surface plot of the film makes obvious that male and female is an axis of conflict, too, given that this is a rape/revenge film, and the rage engendered by that framing is sometimes all consuming for both the characters and for the way the film's violence impacts the viewer. Such is the force of these scenes that further acts of violence by Hawkins seem like rape even when they aren't. And, of course, Hawkins isn't the only rapist the British characters have in tow. Hawkins's sergeant wants a taste of the aboriginal girl they encounter and feels obliged to abduct her and use her as he sees fit, and of course he kills her. The key motivating element of both men's characters is entitlement. The rage that fills him is the rage of mediocre white men who are thwarted from receiving what they view as their just due. They have been told that they are better than everyone because they are white and male and that everything is theirs to take regardless of the wants of the not white or not male peoples of the Earth, and if that's not the core of rape culture and Patriarchy in general then nothing is. In this, the film reveals the strength of having a woman in control of the narrative, because a male filmmaker might not find this locus. Kent, on the other hand, puts almost too fine a point on it. There are other elements of the film that seem female-identified, too, not least of which is the way it casts the incredibly beautiful Sam Claflin as Hawkins. There is a tendency in a lot of rape films made by men to view rapists as somehow ugly or unappealing, but this film makes him a golden boy who doesn't need to rape except as a function of basic existence. He might as well be brushing his teeth or beating off into a napkin for all the meaning it has for him. Perhaps the most monstrous element of a monstrous character is that he's not even all that remarkable. Clare's status as a mother further identifies the film with a female gaze, and some of her difficulties over the course of the film are biological troubles that a male filmmaker might not think about. What does she do with the milk her breasts are still producing, for example? This adds a layer of misery to her journey and adds both specificity and universality to her character.

Baykali Ganambarr in The Nightingale (2019)

This is also the work of a director who is at home with horror. This is a haunted film, in which Clare is tormented by ghosts that may or may not be real, but the visions they provide are horror movie set-pieces. This is particularly true when she goes completely mad near the end of the film once Hawkins captures Billy and leaves her alone and unarmed in the bush. A more visceral kind of horror is found in the homestead where Clare and Billy find two dead settlers, a scene that plays a bit like something from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Blood Meridian. This scene, and it's rape scenes are indicative of a film that understands the value of blunt force trauma as opposed to insinuation and elision. Indeed, this is not a subtle film at all. Its themes are barely subtextual, and usually play out right in the open. The Nightingale is also one of those films that suggests that there is no catharsis in revenge. Both Clare and Billy get their revenge in the end, but what has their revenge accomplished? They still end up on a beach together as Billy breathes in ragged dying breaths from his wounds and Clare watches as Billy, the last of his kind, rages at a rising sun that never sets on the brutal empire that has made him extinct.

This doesn't coat anything in treacle to make it go down easy. It's a hard film to watch and a harder film to love. It's a necessary watch, though, one that has timed its moment perfectly.

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