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5 April 2008

How to Be Uncomfortable

After almost a whole week of pretensions of spring, the crap weather was back with a vengeance today. My suede boots did valiantly but they are five years old and not very well tended so by the time I made it through the pouring, sleety rain to the cinema, my feet were both soaking and freezing. For reasons known only to the management, the Arts cinema, while a pretty decent establishment in many respects, insists on rubbing in the fact that they have a very efficient air conditioning system. In England. In winter (OK, spring; same difference). The weather was wet enough that I abandoned style in favour of some semblance of waterproofing and wore my cagoule with a hoodie underneath, although I forgot to put a scarf on before leaving the house. As such, I was frozen sitting in my seat this afternoon - even my gloves didn't help as they were rather damp too.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't have been so bad but I went to see The Orphanage, in which former orphan Laura returns to reopen the orphanage she inhabited as a kid, as an orphanage for disabled children, only for things to go awry. It's a horror film (although it is more psychologically than visually horrifying) with lots of things that go bump in the night and the fact that I was already bracing my body against the chill only made me all the jumpier. I've never had a problem with graphic horror scenes and I'd never walk out of a film that was psychologically harrowing but I am - and have always been - very jumpy, which I blame on my brother, who used to hide in dark corners in our house and jump out at me. Still, I was impressed at my self control (especially compared to the girl sitting next to me, who kept shrieking) until my CrackBerry, which was in the pouch of my hoodie, started vibrating at a particularly tense moment and I did let out a bit of a gasp.

I've always been rather masochistic when it comes to jump-worthy films, though, as I know that they make me really tense and agitated and yet I still insist on watching them. Take Final Destination, which I saw the night before flying to the States (always reassuring to watch a film the night before flying in whch a boy dreams the night before flying that his plane blows up, only to realise the following day that the plane really is going to blow up). Or its sequel, Final Destination 2, which I watched in a tiny, almost deserted cinema in Paris on a lone-wolf trip to the city. These films involve characters who "cheat" death only to find that there is no cheating death, and they slowly get bumped off by the most innocuous of household objects. Having watched the film, I then walked back to my hotel, all alone and absolutely convinced that the random chandelier-like light in my (otherwise rather modest) hotel room was going to fall off and land on my head in the night or that I would get electrocuted by my alarm clock. It gets worse when I rewatch these films and know how the characters are going to die and that somehow makes me even jumpier.

Anyway, its effect on my nerves aside, I liked The Orphanage, not least because it gave my Spanish a good workout, although I wouldn't have coped without the subtitles. The basic premise is that soon after Laura and her fair-weather husband Carlos and their adopted, HIV-positive son move into the orphanage, spooooooky things start happening and then - oh noes! - the son disappears, and we get into real unreliable narrator territory (always a favourite plot device of mine) as Laura becomes increasingly unstable and batty, so much so that FWH Carlos is so scared of the house that he wants to leave. Laura says that he can leave but she ain't going nowhere (for two days, anyway). So he leaves! He leaves the house that was creeping him out so much he couldn't bear to stay another day... As I said, fair-weather husband, because for the rest of the movie, he's actually a pretty nice guy - a good husband and a loving father.

It is a horror film but it's also quite a touching, emotional and well-told tale and the depth of the love that Laura and Carlos feel for their son is quite powerful. The relationship between the three of them (particularly between Laura and Carlos, and between Laura and her son) is really at the centre of the movie, with the ghost story parts of it being a convenient way of advancing the plot. It is reminiscent of The Others, of course, which I really disliked (although if my memory serves me well, I was multitasking when I watched the film so I may not have got it and instead relied on the fact that I didn't like Nicole Kidman's character).

The Orphanage also scored points from me for not wandering into silly territory, as in the case of The Descent, which was shaping up to be a really good psychological thriller of some gals who go on a caving trip, only for disaster to strike (this is what happens when women go off without male supervision!). Also, one of the characters was sleeping with the husband of the protagonist before husband and kid were killed in a vicious car crash a week earlier, so there were some great examples of cattiness being overcome by a need to pull together in the face of adversity. Fine. Then along comes some particularly vicious (and man-eating) Gollum-like creature that happens to have been inhabiting the very same cave system in which the women are trapped. The way The Orphanage ends is also very similar to the ending of The Descent, although the films don't have much more in common.

Finally, does it always have to be the woman who's the wacky, irrational, "the ghosties did it" type character while serious, rational doctor (AKA FWH Carlos) almost has a fit when Laura suggests they get in a medium and then again when Laura starts to believe the show that the medium and her cronies put on? I'm sure there are examples of films in which it's the daddy who goes slightly loopy (although believes there is some conspiracy/supernatural presence at play) because of the disappearance/illness/death of his son, while the calm, rational mommy (and the docs) become increasingly concerned that daddy is losing the plot - I just can't think of any. Is this just due to the maternal bond, which is, stereotypically, stronger and so has more effect on the mental state of the mother? Certainly, there are plenty of example of films where the male character believes there is a conspiracy and his wife doesn't believe him - until it's (almost) too late; that ever-present, unreliable narrator...

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