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Pearl (2023)

I just saw Pearl, directed by Ti West and co-written by him with lead actress Mia Goth, and despite a slow start it was honestly amazing. It’s a film that’s absolutely sold by its lead performance, which is frankly one of the best of the year (last year for American audiences). If movies this weird, gory, and deliberately awkward won Oscars, Goth would at least have been nominated. It’s a film that seems like it’s going to be a pretty standard nudge-nudge-wink-wink slasher comedy, but evolves into a genuinely unsettling, even heartbreaking portrait of a sick young woman who was doomed from the start.

Goth takes this character to places that a lot of actresses would be afraid to. It’s relatively easy to play a funny feminist serial killer in a knowing slasher film (see: Jennifer’s Body, American Mary, Promising Young Woman), harder and braver to make a character as ultimately, harrowingly pathetic as Pearl. The last shot lingers on Goth in a moving image that sums up her character and is more haunting than anything I’ve seen this year.

Pearl is the second in a trilogy by West and Goth, a prequel to X, a slasher film set in the late 1970s and about a pornographic shoot on a Texas farm owned by a maniacal elderly couple. The trilogy, due to conclude with MaXXXine (set during the rise of VHS in the mid-eighties), is a meditation on pornography, madness, ambition, and jealousy.

Pearl takes place in 1918 as its titular character, the daughter of German immigrant farmers, dreams of becoming a dancer in the silent movies that she sees without her cruel and austere mother knowing. Pearl’s husband, the son of a more affluent family, is away at war. But as the Spanish flu grips her small community (definitely a COVID allegory going on here) she starts to be seduced by a sleazy projectionist with a sideline in ”stag” (porno) films.

Pearl’s mother says that she will never leave their farm and must spend her days assisting with its upkeep, as well as the care of her stroke-addled father. But Pearl has big dreams, and a frightening lack of moral sense…

The prologue is apple-tart and sun-drenched, utilising vintage production styles to present a world parodying the technicolour melodramas of the 1930s as well as the silent era of its actual setting. From here you think that you know what you’re in for: a gleefully ironic and safe subversion of tropes, a Girl Power satire in the Promising Young Woman mould. And there are moments of humour. But what unfolds becomes progressively more awkward, starting with a scene where Goth is made up like Dorothy and dancing with a scarecrow in a manner that wouldn’t have made it into The Wizard of Oz.

By the second act and Pearl’s descent into madness, the film has become a grotesquely compelling and surprisingly empathic, truthful character piece about a psychopathic personality. You can’t tear your eyes away from it, especially during a long monologue cruelly focused on the character’s mascara-stained face as she empties out her soul. Normally in a film like this the murders would at least be cathartic, but West and Goth show nerves of steel by not presenting them that way. It would have been so safe and easy to have Pearl eviscerate cardboard cutout aggressors, allowing her to seem smarter and scarier and more powerful than everyone else, an audience surrogate for enacting revenge fantasies.

But Pearl the character is not frightening. She’s not very bright, not very talented, and helpless in a way that makes her an object of pity. Her victims don’t really deserve to die, and it’s pathetic how the light leaves her eyes when she attacks them. The story is like a dark inversion of The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy never makes it over the rainbow.

It reminded me of a newspaper article by George Orwell about a true crime case where a tea girl who dreamed of being a gangster’s moll, like she’d seen in the movies, eloped with an American GI who indulged her fantasies and took her on a killing spree. Dreams and fantasies of glamour have made people do crazy things since cinema was born. There’s a fantastic dance sequence in Pearl where we see inside her head before her dreams are snatched away, a scene that for all its period costumery and scenery could have been plucked straight from the audition rounds of The X Factor or American Idol. Pearl the character is an extreme version of every sad, lost, desperate soul singing their heart out for the cruel dismissal of the judges, forced to realise that they’re actually not “special” enough for an industry that treats them like disposable props.

She just wants to be loved by you, by nobody else but you. But she might not be a very good person…


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