Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Dawn Like Thunder

The Dish: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

What's In It: Kristen Stewart as eighteen-year-old Bella, the one true love of the immortal vampire Edward Cullen, played by Robert Pattinson. Taylor Lautner also stars as Jacob, a werewolf and former love interest of Bella's.

Tastes Like: An unexpectedly funky addition to the pregnancy horror sub-genre, a film able to keep company (thematically, at least) with the likes of Grace (2009) and John Carpenter's Pro-Life (2006), from Season Two of Masters of Horror.

Extra Flavor: A too-briefly seen Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) as Aro, leader of the Volturi vampire clan.

Nutritional Value: While Breaking Dawn - Part 1 has been roundly trashed by critics as being insipid, wrong-headed, and an affront to both art and progressive thinking in general, it merits more than the curt dismissal it's received. I'm pretty out of the loop when it comes to Twilight (the only other chapter in the saga that I've seen was the Catherine Hardwicke-directed original and - surprise! - I've read none of the books) but I found Breaking Dawn - Part 1 to be an intriguingly twisted film by the standards of mainstream fare.

Lingering Aftertaste: I knew the basic storyline going into this movie: Bella and Edward wed, then consummate their union, and then face a life-threatening crisis when Bella finds herself carrying Edward's baby - a trauma that her human body is not equipped for. But that thumbnail sketch doesn't convey the oddness of the film. I'm assuming that screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg's adaptation is mostly faithful to the book, which only leaves me to wonder just how nutty author Stephanie Meyers is and what her personal views on marriage, sex, and motherhood are. Because what's on screen in Breaking Dawn - Part 1 is a vision of masochistic suffering.

In Breaking Dawn - Part 1, we have a story in which the main character loses her virginity in an act of lovemaking so powerful and violent that it leaves her bruised all over her body. After this one punishing night of passion (which she begs to have repeated but Edward, ever the gentleman, demurs - fearing causing further harm to Bella), she then finds herself pregnant with a child that is destroying her from within. In depicting the baby as a virus infecting - and mutating - its host, Breaking Dawn broaches Cronenberg territory. Bella's bodily deterioration is similar to (if less graphic than) Seth Brundle's in 1986's The Fly as both films traffic in imagery that reminds one of real life AIDS victims (at one point, Bella disrobes and we see that her body has become gaunt and skeletal) and Bella eventually craves blood to feed the new lifeform inside her, as does Marilyn Chambers' character in Rabid (1977).

I don't know if there's any data out there to confirm whether I'm right about this or not but I'm willing to bet that a large part of Meyer's readers didn't quite care for her conclusion to the saga because it is so far removed from the world of dreamy adolescent crushes that the series gained its mass audience with. My only previous exposure to Twilight is the original film but that's enough of a comparison to know that Breaking Dawn is surely not what a lot of Meyer's fans signed on for. This is a far cry from the innocent, wish-fulfillment laced romance of the first Twilight. Here, Bella is set on a path of suffering that she is willing to follow up to her own martyr-like death if need be.

While many of Meyer's readers likely hoped to see Edward and Bella together eventually, they probably imagined that the pair's life as a married couple would be much more fun than one night of painful sex followed by an instant - and potentially fatal - pregnancy. To have a story like this created by a woman and sold to an audience largely composed of women makes one wonder what the message is.

Maybe there is no message but it's hard not to see this as a staunch pro-life tract, on top of depicting marriage and motherhood as being womanly duties that must be endured with no soul searching or second guessing involved.

Star Ingredient: Director Bill Condon, who is probably best well-known to the public as the director of 2006's Motown saga Dreamgirls, but is known to genre fans as the writer/director of 1998's acclaimed James Whale bio-pic Gods & Monsters (in a Breaking Dawn flashback, Edward attends a screening of Bride of Frankenstein) as well as having penned the screenplay for the quirky Strange Invaders (1983) and directed 1995's Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. Condon does an admirable job with Breaking Dawn - Part 1, perserving the arch, operatic nature of the material and delivering some surprisingly unsettling imagery within the confines of a PG-13 movie. He isn't able to prevent the movie from resembling a Bad Acting Contest (or to sell me on the virtues of CG werewolves) but Condon, who prior to his more prestigious successes was interviewed as part of Maitland McDonagh's 1995 book Filmmakers on the Fringe, knows his way around Weird. Breaking Dawn - Part 1's soundtrack may be loaded with candy-assed pop songs but Condon ensures that his movie is more than a bubblegum affair.


Sarah said...

There's a lot of commentary from both sides about what the message of the Twilight books and films are. I'm more familiar with the feminist side of it (particularly just feminist, not people who are into horror much), and even the snarky side of it, so if you wanted to look into it, the info is out there on the internet. The general idea is that Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon, and that has a lot to do with the general weirdness...and it does get weirder apparently.

I've only seen the movies, and with Rifftrax. Even with Rifftrax, they're pretty boring films to watch. I really don't have time or the desire to read the books, nor spend a lot of time hating the movies or books. I see the Twilight books as the modern equivalent of the Sweet Valley High books I read when I was a pre-teen. Those had a lot of odd/dangerous messages as well, and now women my age and older have entire blogs devoted to deconstructing and snarking on the SVH books in a feminist manner.

Here are reviews of the books from a buddy of mine with a feminist POV:

And this lady pretty much only updates her blog now to snark on the Twilight movies with the format of summing them up via characters within 15 minutes:

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks for the links, Sarah! I have to say, the underlying messages of BREAKING DAWN - PART 1 were a little shocking in their regressiveness. It's strange to see a young female protagonist with no motivation to explore the world or to live for herself in any way and is entirely happy to not just be married at eighteen but to bear her husband's child, even if it means her own death. It makes me think that Meyers is something of a crackpot but just the same, it's a fascinating thing to observe.

Timmy Crabcakes said...

Man, you've actually managed to convince me that something Twilight-related could be creepy... not that the creep was intended by the creepy woman who spawned them.

Sarah said...

There was a short scene in the last film I think, where Edward encourages Bella to go to college, but she refuses. It's very odd in some ways. It's a choice, but it's almost no choice since it could be argued that Bella suffers from some form of Stockholm Syndrome. Believe me, I've seen articles online where in the battle of Edward vs. Jacob, people will take one side or the other to discuss which one is actually the more progressive suitor. I think I saw one such article on io9 last year when the last movie came out.

Jeff Allard said...

Knob, the creepiness of BREAKING DAWN probably was not fully percieved by Meyers but I think Condon was surely in on what a tweaked tale he was telling.

Sarah, I think the Twilight saga is fodder for more debate than any one person could possibly consume! I think the messages at the heart of the story are terrible but it's amazing to see the devotion and discussion these stories have led to.

Mummbles said...

I have had no interest in seeing a romance vampire film, I feel I know what has happened in all the movie just by seeing the previews. But I read your review and this one seems to be actually somewhat interesting. I am not sure I will see it but I like that they sort of took in a different way. Thanks for the info!

Jeff Allard said...

You're welcome, Mummbles! I don't think that BREAKING DAWN - PART 1 is going to win over any horror fans to the Twilight cult but it was a much more interesting film that I had hoped for.