The blonde woman in expensive clothes explodes into the dowdy brunette’s life like fireworks. She just appears one day, flung out of space, and nothing will ever be the same for the Plain Jane working girl again. Everything is upended in Midcentury America, surprise feelings warming in the brunette’s belly she doesn’t even have a name for, inspiring a sudden need to run. And yes you’d be forgiven if you thought I was speaking about Carol, Todd Hayne’s 2015 masterpiece about a love affair between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who no matter what Harge says were not ugly people.
No I speak of a different lesbian potboiler that just popped off at Sundance this year, director William “Lady Macbeth” Oldroyd’s Eileen, based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel…
While I’m sure Moshfegh’s book was in the works for some time before publishing it’s interesting it came out the same year as Carol did! Carol was of course based on thriller-maestro Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 book The Price of Salt. Funnily enough the only moment that falls a little flat in Haynes’ masterpiece is the one where he leans into the pulpiness of the source material and has Blanchett suddenly waving a gun around at a private investigator; the film he was making didn’t really feel like that film.
Eileen on the other hand is very very much that film. The pulp version, with shadowy femme fatales and smeared lipstick. From the outset its setting is far more working class – Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie, putting her preternaturally pissed-off mousiness to great effect once again) works at a prison, and her father (Shea Wigham) is a mean drunk ex-cop who waves guns around at night in the middle of the street for fun. Her life is as miserable as her wicked pissah accent is thick. Abandoned by siblings and missing her dead mom she’s been left to mop up after Dad’s nightly mess, all while Boston stays as gray as the prison bars.
Enter a pop of color in the form of the prison’s new psychologist – her name is Rebecca and she’s played by Anne Hathaway so you know she smiles. And brighten up a room it does, from the shock of yellow hair on top of her head down through all those mean curves her Hitchcock business-suits accentuate. Needless to say Anne’s having a hell of a time here, and Eileen is riveted from the moment she lays eyes on her. And Rebecca reciprocates, fascinated in turn by this little creature’s fascination with her. Before you know it Eileen’s smearing on glossy lipsticks and wrapping herself in her mama’s furs and the two are shaking their groove things for the sedentary drunks at the local pub, all eyeballs agog.
Meanwhile, and of course, at the edges of the unspoken dalliance these two women are tugging at is a murder mystery – a boy in the prison they work at has brutally murdered his father, a big scandal for their neighborhood and one that deepy resonates with Eileen; Who, after all Eileen wonders, wouldn’t want to murder their father?
From there the ways that case insinuates itself into the palpable pulp tensions between Eileen and Rebecca are best left to experience in real time. But let it be said that Eileen (the movie and Eileen the character) has mad surprises in store, and I personally was made giddy by its swerves off the expected path. It’s the movie Carol didn’t want to be, and I’m personally thankful we now live in a world where we can have both! That both films are set at Christmas-time only further inflates my glee, as I look forward to a life-time of yuletide double-features of star-crossed sapphic cinema spectacular.