Ladies, is it feminist when a woman is brutally murdered? I assumed we were all on the same page, but recent releases have left me wondering.
Things Heard and Seen, Netflix’s adaptation of Elizabeth Brundage’s novel All Things Cease to Appear, offers a supposedly feminist spin on the ghost story, concerning the fate of Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried). Catherine gives up her job and her life in Manhattan when her husband George (James Norton) secures a teaching position at a small liberal arts school in the Hudson Valley. She is as ambivalent about the move as she is in her relationship with the entitled George, and tensions between them rise as Catherine begins to notice signs of another presence in their new home.
We first see Catherine as she sneaks away from a party to vomit up a single bite of cake. Her eating disorder is used throughout the film as a plot device and a means of driving conflict with George, yet it remains set-dressing, superficial. An eating disorder is not merely stepping on a scale and frowning at the number — it’s a miserable and all-consuming obsession, but the self-loathing that drives Catherine to starve herself is not evident in Seyfried’s (very likable) performance. Naturally, the more visceral physical symptoms of bulimia are also absent; wouldn’t want this horror movie to gross anybody out, afterall.
The portrayal of Catherine’s eating disorder echoes the exhausted trope of the Troubled Lady Drinker, who leans heavily on booze without ever getting DT or a swollen face. It signals to the audience “this is a woman in distress,” while side-stepping all the ugliness that her illness entails for fear that viewers may not empathize with a woman who is truly struggling. It’s an exceptionally bad choice for supernatural horror — after all, what’s a haunted house without a haunted woman living in it?
Dead Wives Club
From The Innocents to the greater and lesser adaptations of The Haunting of Hill House, the best ghost stories embrace the ambiguity of a protagonist who might be witnessing supernatural events, or may be inventing them in her misery. These unreliable narrators have gone out of fashion in the era of Believing (the right kind of) Women, but they offer rich material for a film, revealing the degree of subjective interpretation embedded in our day-to-day perception of the world around us. Things Heard and Seen takes no interest in this aspect of the supernatural; Catherine is sane. The ghosts, depicted in singularly uninspired special effects, are real. We’re left with little to do but wait to find out who they are.
Catherine’s trips to the local historical society and burgeoning friendship with Floyd (F. Murray Abraham), the kindly Spiritualist college dean, turn up a series of dead wives murdered by their husbands in Catherine’s home, their deaths hushed up by a complicit community. Obviously, this bodes ill for Catherine, whose own husband is rapidly unraveling.
We’re repeatedly told that George is charming and popular with his students, but the filmmakers decline to show him charming anyone; he switches from unctious social climber to chortling fratty menace, alienating Floyd, and butting heads with Justine (Rhea Seehorn), a whimsical weaving professor who takes a protective interest in Catherine. Even the townie girl George takes as a mistress is unimpressed. For her part, Catherine is frustrated with George, but curiously unafraid to challenge him, even when he starts to become physically controlling.
The spirits of the dead wives are trying to break the pattern of violence which keeps recurring in this possibly cursed house. It’s a somewhat novel reversal — the dead protecting from the living — yet despite this surfeit of ghostly guardians, George kills Floyd, puts Justine into a coma, and finally murders Catherine with an ax.
“Ending explained” is one of the top search results for this film. This speaks in part to how little most people trust their own powers of interpretation, but the last third of this movie is enough to bring out the Redditor in anyone.
After a wincingly corny montage of Catherine in the afterlife with her fellow dead wives — we’re talking flowing white robes and paintings of angels — Justine (get it? Like justice?) comes out of her coma and calls the police. We are given the image of a battered woman in a hospital bed, preparing to give a statement to a police officer who does not seem particularly interested in her dead friend, or in arresting the man who killed her.
The triumphant framing of this pitiful scene calls to mind the bafflingly fêted Promising Young Woman, whose heroine spends the movie taking her vengeance on would-be rapists by lightly scolding them, before at last being smothered to death. Of course, the wild women in all the legendary rape-revenge nasties die in the end, but crucially, only after they get in some cathartic kills of their own. Promising Young Woman borrows the containment strategy of these much more libidinal films, without offering the pleasure of watching a girl get even; it’s the same brutal punishment for much more minor transgressions. The gory deaths of rapists are replaced by a fantasy of carceral justice, with police cars pulling up to arrest the heroine’s murderer to the jubilant strings of “Angel of the Morning.”
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Lean In and Fall Over
Both Promising Young Woman and Things Heard and Seen spend their runtimes expounding on violence against women and societal indifference to the same, only to ultimately leave justice to police departments with their decades-deep backlogs of rape kits, the domestic abusers in their ranks. The filmmakers of Things Heard and Seen at least seem to understand on some level how little this satisfies, because they attempt to even the score with an appeal to cosmic justice.
A ghostly voiceover runs over the last part of the film, the voices of Catherine and the other dead wives blending together in a disjointed monologue. The audio mix renders their words difficult to pick out, which may be because the spirits have some truly fatuous things to say. “Goodness always triumphs,” they whisper, which is just patently untrue. The film ends with George taking a sailboat out into a storm, while the voices tell him he’s damned. “Because of you,” the dead women chant at him, “our powers grow.”
Here the film transcends its fate as indifferent chum for the content buckets (#feminist-horror, #dark-cottagecore) to become something uniquely epistemologically deranged, positing death at the hands of an abusive husband as a kind of feminist liberation. I can’t believe I have to say this, but getting murdered is not empowering. Kind of the opposite, actually!
While we were taking turns ranting at each other about how much we hated this movie, my girlfriend pointed out that the title Things Heard and Seen echoes the placating Biden-ism that cropped up in every centrist politician’s Twitter feed during the demonstrations last summer: We see you. We hear you; a witnessnessing that shames action. As ridiculous as this movie is, it illuminates the logical endpoint of a worldview that conflates witnessing suffering with doing something about it. There’s a real danger in mistaking passivity for virtue, the least of which is making a really lousy movie.