Saturday 7 October 2017

We Don't Go Back #68: The Falling (2014)

1. The word hysteria comes from the Greek word for womb; the medical profession, or at least the documented part of it, the part that was controlled by men thought that the menstrual cycle – the "disordered womb" – inclined women to be irrational, prone in numbers to wild behaviour.

2. Men historically have been thought to be inclined to magic, the stuff of ritual and study; women meanwhile have been given to witchcraft, the traffic with spirits and dreams, the work of the irrational.

3. The maenads, the crazed worshippers of Dionysus, who tore the grieving Orpheus to shreds when he would not play with them, were of course women.

4. How do you write about something that's so personal, so centred on the secret solidarity of women, so based around womanhood, when you're a man?

5. A friend promised to do a guest post about Carol Morley's 2014 The Falling but life got in the way for her, as it does, and I hope that she'll still write a piece about it for me one day because she's a good writer and I am positive she could get things from it that I couldn't (and it's not like there's no precedent, since several films have had more than one post now) but the book has to get finished, so. Here I am.

The Falling is really an extraordinary film. Its mood is wistful, and imbued with an odd nostalgia, with measured, almost balletic visuals under a gentle soundtrack, with several songs by Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl) and the repeated theme of Mary Hopkin's version of "Voyage of the Moon". Its plot is only nominally linear, and the distance of its framing hints at near-bottomless depths. Every so often, subliminal single-frame images litter the screen.

Lydia Lamont (Maisie Williams) is a strong-willed but lonely sort of girl. Her best friend is Abi Mortimer (Florence Pugh) who is charismatic, and popular, and through whom Lydia lives a life of vicarious excitement. Lydia's brother Kenneth (Joe Cole), a wannabe Thelemite, is in love with Abi; Lydia's mother Eileen (Maxine Peake), is a nervy chainsmoking woman who runs a hairdressing business from her living room and never leaves, and who clearly wishes that Abi was her daughter, not Lydia. Abi has a power that Lydia dreams of having, but is nonetheless Lydia's best friend. They are close. They love each other.

But over the summer, when Abi lost her virginity to Kenneth, she she got pregnant too. She doesn't want it. There's some suggestion that Abi might be trying to get rid of it on her own. She keeps trying to tell Lydia something, can't say the words. The girls clash.

In the sixties, nice middle-class girls "didn't" get pregnant. They "didn't" have abortions. 
Titch: If it's not passed you by, it's legal nowadays.
Abi: Not for the likes of us.
Whatever Abi does or does not do, quite early on, in a school corridor, in front of Lydia, she collapses, and, fitting, dies there on the spot, killed by a miscarriage.

And the school holds a memorial for Abi, and Lydia and the other girls have their own private ceremonies, following that sort of low-key DIY paganism that kids, mainly teenage girls, so often adopt. And then, consumed by stress, Lydia faints, in class. Her eye twitches, and then she collapses, dramatically, theatrically, convulsing exactly as Abi did.

And then she does it again. And then other girls start doing it. Not all of them, not even all of Lydia's friends. But enough for it to spread across the school. The head teacher, Miss Alvaro (Monica Dolan) and her deputy, Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) are at first bemused, and then, later, just infuriated by it. No one has an explanation for it. It's "mass hysteria". That is, girls being weird in a group.

One of the teachers too, Miss Charron (Morfydd Clark), begins to fall prey to it too. A hypnotic power ascends over the school. Lydia's eye twitches, and someone faints.

Several of the girls, including Lydia, will be hospitalised and given psychiatric assessments. And it blows over, but in the course of the crisis, relationships change, secrets come out. Much is resolved. Nothing is resolved. 
Lydia is at the centre of it. The question of whether she consciously orchestrates the epidemic of fainting or whether she's as much a victim as anyone else is left open. I'm inclined to see what happens to Lydia as a case of possession. She's somehow imbued with poor dead Abi's spirit and charisma.

When Lydia's eye twitches, someone faints; and this is sort of magic(k)al in the way it's done, an enchantment. Not an evil eye exactly, but certainly an exertion of will. Towards the end of the film's second act, nearly the whole school falls prey to an episode of this "hysteria", and in the centre of it, Lydia becomes a sort of guiding spirit, whose own ecstatic agonies receive the kind of respect a priestess might.

Later there will be actual incest, but is that because Lydia has somehow, symbolically, taken Abi's place? So that Lydia's wants and needs become those of her dead friend? That Kenneth the casual magician sees the girl he was in love with in the shape of his sister? That she is no longer Lydia but an avatar of Abi, overshadowed by her, in whatever way, literal or figuratively? The Falling leaves it open as to whether this is supernatural or not. Explanations are constantly, consistently refused. As they should be, because as a film The Falling doesn't owe us anything other than a narrative. The film shows us what happens at a distance. It leaves us to work out what's going on inside.
The one certain thing is that it's tied to youth. The only one of the teachers who succumbs to the fainting plague, Miss Charron, is only a few years older than the girls; it's telling that when she gets up, she seems to share a little look of solidarity with the other girls, a half-smile that suggests that she half-knows what is happening. They all only half-know what is happening. Which is about a half more than the authorities. 
Lydia: I resent this idea that we're just emotional! It's real.
Psychiatrist: It's real and it has consequences, yes. What's important here is that it's real to you.
Lydia: Real to me, what does that mean? It's real to all of us. Something is seriously wrong. Why is everyone ignoring us?
Lydia has a strange power that she doesn't entirely know she has, and yes, there's something sexual about it, but only inasmuch as she's a young woman on the verge of adulthood. Her sexuality is only part of this. And there's a real temptation when you're looking at a film about young women being young women in their own spaces to make it all about sex and sexuality, but of course that's because we're trained to, and in fact, it's more complex, and difficult than that.

And it goes on throughout our lives; as we get older, we begin to realign the way we see things, become misunderstood in our own way.  
Miss Alvaro: If they had any idea what it was like to be a middle aged woman, they'd know what misunderstood meant.
(Miss Alvaro and Miss Mantel burst out laughing) 
It's important that Miss Mantel and Eileen aren't seen as villains; a moment between Miss Mantel and Miss Charron suggests a connection between the young woman and the older one, and a wealth of experience and hurt. And Eileen's agoraphobia and her hostility to her daughter both come from a deep trauma.The only characters who don't receive a full and sympathetic representation are, for the most part, the men, especially the oblivious psychiatrist (Simon Paisley Day) and the equally oblivious science teacher (Matthew Baynton).
I really like The Falling. I think it's a very true film that taps into issues of generational conflict, and adolescence, and aging, and grief; it speaks on so many levels and I think it's deliberate that not all of its levels are going to be clear to everyone. I think that's how it's supposed to be. I think it's a fabulous film. I don't think I entirely get it. I'm glad of that. I'm glad it exists.