Directed by Agnes Merlet
Released in 2008
It seems particularly fitting to re-examine this film in the context of Women in Horror Recognition Month, since it is the product of a female director Agnes Merlet and female writing team (Merlet, and Juliette Sales). Their vision results in a quietly haunting film which keeps the viewer unsettled; which examines what it is like to be a woman with no allies or connections in a society with a prevailing sense of masculinity, where both male and female roles are warped by a cold, unforgiving authority. The film also centres on the relationship between two women, Dorothy (Jenn Murray) and her psychotherapist, Jane Van Dopp (Carice van Houten), with fine performances by both lead actresses. As Dorothy, Murray demonstrates an incredible range, portraying a multitude of personalities of different ages, genders and types. It’s a challenging role, and one which she acquits with considerable aplomb.
The film is set on a small island off the Irish coast and the opening, with its views of bleak, windswept cliffs, creates a sense of loneliness. This cuts to a small community church, where the pastor is talking about God’s presence being everywhere on this earth and in the heavens. The dour faces of the congregation and relentlessness of the message give a sense of claustrophobia and threat, one that suggests the impossibility of escape rather than spiritual comfort: “Where can I flee from Your presence?” In a neat counterpoint we cut forward in time to see the psychiatrist, Jane, talking about her placement in Ireland. She talks of it as a need, somewhere she had to go “before the city smothered me,” and we have a sense of her seeking her own escape. The resulting sense of foreboding builds, as we see her clearly placed as an outsider even while still on the ferry to the small island community where the young Dorothy has recently attacked a baby in her care. The brutality in this act, of a child choking another innocent, is naturally shocking; it also raises, more explicitly, the concept of being smothered.
Jane herself is almost overwhelmed before she even reaches Dorothy. Upon arrival on the island, she is driven off the road and into a lake by a bunch of wild youths and a girl who are taking part in a reckless car chase. The islanders arrive at the scene of the crash and their response is cold and bloodless: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”. However, Jane manages to survive and is taken to the local inn.
When Jane meets Dorothy she finds her a withdrawn and unhappy child who doesn’t want to speak because “no one listens to me.” She has no memory of hurting the baby and denies even being there. Jane concludes that Dorothy is scared to death – she just isn’t sure what she’s afraid of, or even whether the child is only afraid of herself. At Dorothy’s next session she says she is now Mimi and that she is three years old. The way Dorothy then begins to switch between different personalities is disturbing to watch: one moment she is an infant, the next an older individual whose hostility and latent violence hover just beneath the surface. The sense of mystery at her core is unsettling, particularly as it seems there may be a supernatural cause. This is coupled with the way the islanders close in around the child: this is a community that takes care of its own. Dorothy lives with her aunt, who at one point tries to take the child away from Jane. Interference is not appreciated, no help required. At the same time we see the influence that Pastor Ross has over Dorothy: even as the Mimi personality, she looks to him rather than to her aunt for instruction.
The islander’s influence over Dorothy doesn’t stop there. Jane discovers that they believe the child to be special, one who has been granted access to the “realm of the dead”. Far from protecting her, it seems each person has their own reasons for wanting to exploit Dorothy. We see them gathered around her, calling down divine light onto the child so that she can be used to channel the dead back to the living. We see one mother using Dorothy to try and speak to her dead son. This raises parallels with Jane, since she is in the process of grieving her own son, David, who drowned before she came to the island.
Even while the sense of Dorothy’s strangeness grows, the viewer gains sympathy for her. At her ‘channelling’ sessions she is physically restrained, distressed and protesting. When her other personalities surface, one says that Dorothy is asleep inside her and “the others” don’t let her out because she only tries to kill herself. Even wild child personality, Mary, says that Dorothy is probably “moaning or praying or something in here”. Where Dorothy surfaces she expresses a longing to escape. In a rare moment of brightness we see her poised on a cliff edge, the camera panning around her to show a clear blue sky above, the sea crashing on the rocks below: there is a sense of freedom but also of being hemmed in, showing the impossibility of getting away other than through her own death.
Director Agnes Merlet sustains the uncertainty between natural and supernatural explanations for Dorothy’s condition until well into the film, with moments of revelation being undercut by countering viewpoints. Breakthroughs in Dorothy’s therapy sessions are undermined by increasingly mysterious events. Supernatural developments are given a scientific explanation, revolving around Dorothy’s ‘flighty’ mother and childhood trauma. Jane’s own desire to help and her belief in science is balanced by her grief and longing for her dead child, resulting in an internal conflict that intensifies as events unfold.
Above all, though, Jane is a seeker of truth, and it is this that brings her into more overt conflict, with the islanders. The pastor’s lesson to the local children is “curiosity – sin or flaw?” For him, there is no other possibility, nothing that would justify any risk to the community. Belief and obedience permeate society: even on the wall of the inn it is written, ‘God alone is lord of conscience’. As a setting, the island raises comparisons with Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973), with its isolation and strange, insular ways. Everyone seems to know more than they are letting on, at least to an outsider like Jane, and the islander’s commitment to faith above anything else not only forms the bedrock on which their community is built but is the foundation of the pastor’s power and influence. There is a similar sense of being trapped, with Jane beholden to the irregular ferries and frustrated by her inability to contact the mainland.
As well as conflicting with the community norms in her role as a scientist, Jane becomes a counterpoint to its emotional sterility by becoming a friend to Dorothy. She is the one who wants to listen to and understand her, to give the child a voice. Both enter the situation with their own need, and ultimately, each finds a connection in the other. This female bond also contrasts with the pervading masculinity; on the island women hover about the edges and men hold all the power.
The threat of violence increases throughout the film, with warnings from the local garda (policeman) and indeed from several of Dorothy’s personalities that Jane’s actions are placing her in danger. As Jane finds out more about the child’s various personalities, events from the past are being uncovered and another story is being told, of secrets kept and the need for revenge and revelation; of more voices crying out to be heard. In the climactic scenes of the film, it becomes clear that there will be no escape until the past is faced and dealt with.
Alison J. Littlewood is a writer of dark fantasy and horror fiction. Her short stories have appeared in issues 7 and 16 of Black Static and issue 11 of sister magazine Crimewave. She recently contributed to the charity anthology Never Again, edited by Allyson Bird and Joel Lane.
Other publication credits include the anthologies Read by Dawn Volume 3, Festive Fear II and Midnight Lullabies, as well as magazines Ballista, Murky Depths, Dark Horizons and Not One of Us. Her life writing has appeared in The Guardian. Alison is currently seeking a publisher for her first novel, A Cold Season. Her website is www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk.