Not for a very long time have I watched a film at the pictures from behind the trembling visor of my fingers, but I have to say, without this bizarre, irrational protection, I don’t know if I would have made it through Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.
‘Shh, darling, it’s not real’…. a single mother desperately tries to comfort her terrified son who is convinced the monster from his story book has taken over their household. But with the violent memory of her husband’s death looming over them, the shadow of the Babadook threatens to come straight out of the pages and into Amelia’s life…
It’s the kind of horror that coaxes you into a dream-like state, so you feel as though you are floating through the oppressive darkness of the cinema screen with Amelia (Essie Davis) and into her nightmare. Then it attacks your senses, viciously and inevitably. The Babadook is an emotional exercise: you’re not a passive observer, and you’re not at a safe distance. (Hence the fingers).
Kent has focused all the attention of the frame on isolating Alice in order to heighten the intense simulation of her descent into terror-induced insanity. There are times when the composition feels almost caricatured and surreal. For instance, at her sister’s daughter’s birthday party, she trembles angrily under the weight of the panel of her sister and her friends, uniformed in different shades of cream and white suits, shiny hair, like statues of respectable femininity, with talk of their husbands and careers, gathered around the circumference of the round table in front of her. Their judgemental air makes her blood boil, and we boil with her.
Every which way she turns, she collides with unscalable walls in her efforts to just get up and get on with it, repressing her loneliness, her sexual frustration, and her fatigue. The story is supernatural, yes, and she is irrational, yes, but undeniably this is the most accurate and sensitive cinematic portrayal of post-natal depression we’ve ever seen. Alice flails in desperation under the pressures of facing motherhood alone, and the dark omen of her trauma is too much to contend with. The horror of this horror film is simply the horror of loneliness, and for once it is not treated as a dreary, dragging thing, but a very real and present threat.
In particular, the sound assaults our ears with a bite that’s not based on tradition genre jumps, closely followed by the classic sunny morning after with birds twittering shot, but actual painful attack that follow through. Scratching, gnawing, slurping, whining – all the things that mothers have to contend with on a daily basis that ‘drive them mad’ – are forced upon us. The burn of Alice’s insomnia is illustrated with lurid TV montages as she sits up all night in front of the box, us not knowing if they’re hallucinations or real, the goofy cartoon voices and jaunty music working us up into nervous expectancy. At one point Alice floats downstairs to find the source of the strange noises she can hear, and the ominous groan-drone only continues with her movement, ceasing when she ceases, as if the monster is playing Knock-Knock Ginger with her. Every moment of horror is connected with her physicality of being a mother, which is what makes it so visceral and moving.
In order to move into the future, we have to make peace with the past, and that is the simple message Kent is communicating. But that fact that she’s doing it through the relationship of a mother and son battling against the very real terror of post-traumatic stress, illustrated in the expressive idea of what would happen if a children’s scary book came to life, is beautiful.
See. This. Film.
I wish I hadn’t, as I always do, and probably always will, arrived at Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel 20 minutes after the start time of the film, so that I could have spent more pre-film time hanging out there. The cocktail bar on the first floor was unexpectedly energetic and colourful, quirkily decorated and comfily kitted out, and the gin and cucumber drink we sampled was more than worth missing the trailers for. The whole open plan space is crawling with personality, in fact, from the giant old glossy film posters to the rainbow-like light installation to the humungous bare brick walls. Genesis is one of the few individual cinemas that still keep their prices low and are committed to good films as well as money-making blockbuster releases. Despite the actual Screen 2 screening room being rather small and unspectacular, in the situation this felt somehow perfectly eery and bleak in partnership with the film, and I can’t wait to check out the luxury Studio 5 – their cosiest screen – next time.