Savina Petkova on Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’ (2019)
From the indiscernible blinding whiteness emerges a lighthouse silhouette — almost surreal, as if drawn on paper. A disorienting cut then drenches the frame in black as spitting waves crash into a ship’s bow: the triangular shape reminiscent of a womb clamped into a narrow frame. Period-authentic foghorn growls a painful journey and an anti-oceanic feeling, as we glimpse a determined youngster, Ephraim Winslow (stellar Robert Pattinson), paired with the crooked captain, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). It’s the 1890s and senior and junior are taking care of a tiny island’s lighthouse, a place of frenzy and pulsating legends. As soon as Winslow takes a mermaid figurine in his palm, the mystery around the last caretaker’s death begins to unfold.
The power dynamics soon become clear as the ruthless captain forbids the youngster to climb up to the shining light itself, no different than Bluebeard’s ban from the well-known fairytale. Constant quarrels fill the dialogue and exquisitely so, as the rumble of Maine dialect and utterances of period-specific sailor jargon brings more delight to the audience than hurt to the protagonist. Salty and sour accusations flow in High English form, yet its content gravitates around bowels and swears, until the daily bickering seems less an assault than a habit, as the two men become hateful and suspicious of each other to the point of synergy. The chemistry between Dafoe and Pattinson is highly combustible and their outbursts breathe into each other, morphing into a cohesive single organism. Of course, alcohol lends a helping hand. The downfall of good-willed and good-mannered working boy Winslow is marked by his first cup of gin halfway through the film, and the spiralling down into daily spirit abuse and the destruction of his built identity. Visually, this shift is portrayed by a transition from deep focus framing with sharp detailed image to soft focus and blurred visions, marking a limbo between reality and nightmare.
The mechanistic, the mythological, and the superstitious weave the narrative’s eerie thread, both pertinent away from its historical specificity and timeless beyond ages. As we see Winslow toiling over the light generator with its million ticking bolts and wheels, the idea of the lighthouse as an outwardly being is strengthened by the visions that never leave the young man in his slumber. Beyond the obvious man vs. nature dichotomy, The Lighthouse employs the symbolic violence inscribed into the lonely male figures, deprived of socialisation and, most of all, female caress. The absolute absence of (real) women in the film is contextually adequate and lends a magnifying glass for examining masculinity in its rawest, hyper-realistic version.
Accentuating on their perpetual drunkenness, the camera gladly alternates its close-ups to reveal intoxicated smiles, flowing rivers of gin out of their mouths, bloody spit, vomit, urine, and even sperm – in the sacred brotherhood sheltered by a raging storm, everything is acceptable. Building trust in each other through one’s own misdemeanours reveals an experimental approach to character-formation, and by stripping them to their most vulnerable, director Robert Eggers (The Witch) can switch the power dynamics in a more ruthless and violent way. The psychoanalytic readings of the film rejoice in Winslow’s accusatory scream towards his superior: “You are not my father!”, as their rivalry for the lighthouse (the phallic object par excellence) grows vicious and murderous.
Referring to silent film aesthetics, The Lighthouse is both pleasing and nostalgic in its consistent cinematic grammar. While adhering to the period specificity in antique language, costumes, and storytelling, Eggers showcases a nauseating story of at-sea madness with remnants of the old masters: Murnau, Dreyer, and Bresson. The pivotal decision to shoot in 35mm black and white film has resulted in a self-contained aesthetic play of light and deeply-contrasting shadows, and while the camera rarely emphasises on the surroundings without their two inhabitants, the picture is grim and undoubtedly uncanny. As a visual prison, all of their vulnerability and traumas are crammed into the archaic almost-square movietone 1.19:1 aspect ratio, ideal for depicting tall objects (such as the eponymous lighthouse) and claustrophobic closeness (Dafoe and Pattinson neck by neck). At the same time, central compositions emphasise on one character’s face, while details in long shots are usually stuck in the periphery. Personality frantically bursting out of its enclosed margins in a traumatic, ecstatic experience that leaves a lot of salt in the rotting wound.
Screened as part of 2019 Festival de Cannes and in UK cinemas wide 17 January 2020