by Greta Christina
Let's begin with a true story. Once upon a time, in 1954 to be precise, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, two bright and talented teenage girls in Christchurch, New Zealand, planned and executed the cold-blooded murder of Pauline's mother. The crime received an enormous amount of publicity, particularly in the British tabloids. In very little time, the girls became two of Great Britain's most notorious and hated figures.
Now, if an American production company had made this story into a movie, it would no doubt be a fast-paced, blood-drenched, sensational crime thriller. It would feature backlit close-ups of the wicked vixens plotting their crime; a coarse-but-clever detective sifting through the evidence to track down the unlikely culprits; and dozens of cameras popping in the girls' faces when at last their dastardly deed is revealed to a shocked and outraged British public. In other words, it would be a movie that you'd seen a hundred times before, and there would be no reason for you to see it again.
Fortunately for us, Heavenly Creatures wasn't made by gauche Americans (although it is being distributed by Miramax). Written and directed by New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson (Meet the Feebles, Dead Alive, Bad Taste), the movie takes an intelligent and original perspective on the crime. Thoroughly researched and based largely on Pauline's diaries, Heavenly Creatures is a graceful, mesmerizing, genuinely insightful look into the lives and minds of the two young murderers.
There are so many smart filmmaking decisions apparent in this movie, I don't know which one I should begin with. For starters, the story is told almost entirely from Pauline and Juliet's point of view. Thus, instead of a patronizing sermon on Why Murder is Bad or a breast-beating, hair-tearing rant about How Could This Atrocity Have Happened, we actually get a look into what the girls were thinking and why they committed the murder.
Furthermore, the film doesn't waste time on the aftermath of the crime. No crusty detectives, no spinning headlines, no stern judges pounding gavels and crying for order in the court. In fact, except for a brief crawl at the end of the movie with some basic information about the girls' arrest, imprisonment and release, the aftermath gets no attention whatsoever. The film's focus is on the mental landscape of Pauline and Juliet, and there are almost no extraneous details that might detract from the rendering of that landscape.
What a landscape it is. The real meat of the film is the depiction of the deep friendship between the two girls, the imaginary world they create together, and their gradually deteriorating grip on reality. The bond between them is vivid and realistic, with the intensity that only adolescent girls are capable of. The fantasy world they create is remarkably well-executed, striking a delicate balance between genuine majestic beauty and the excessive, overdramatic tackiness of adolescence.
And the process by which the real world around them becomes supplanted by the world they create is both weirdly unreal and disturbingly comprehensible. It's quite chilling to watch the adolescent fixation on pop singers and movie stars and quasi-Arthurian fairy-tale kingdoms transform into a severe delusion. The girls' active and lively imagination slowly but steadily becomes a dangerous madness -- a madness that perceives the normal frustration and powerlessness of life (particularly the life of children) as a spiteful, willful malevolence that impedes the progress of true genius and deserves to be done away with.
What makes this transformation both impressive and terrifying is the degree to which the audience can identify with it. As soon as you begin to accept the foundation that underpins Pauline and Juliet's fantasy life, their actions start to seem, not just reasonable, but almost noble; the shrewd and daring struggle of two brave young heroes to find happiness in a cold and uncaring world. The film doesn't permit us to look down on the young murderers as an inferior and therefore separate species. Instead, it puts us alongside them, allowing us to see what we have in common; how we might, in another life, become them.
Unlike many movies about deep attachments between adolescent girls, Heavenly Creatures neither ignores nor exploits the lesbian sexuality that often accompanies these attachments. The blossoming of the girls' sexual awareness, the passion and sensuality that blends into their affection for one another, and their eventual exploration of that passion, are handled with both taste and candor.
Now, for a little rant. Actually, it's not so much a rant as a mildly ornery passing remark. Heavenly Creatures is a remarkable piece. It's sensitive, perceptive, intelligent, original, blah blah blah. It's also another movie about crazy lesbian murderers; and this makes me somewhat uncomfortable. If it weren't for the obnoxious prevalence of crazy lesbian murderers in movie history, I wouldn't bat an eye. Since that history does exist, however, my eye has unfortunately been batted.
But please don't let that deter you from seeing the film. We're not talking Basic Instinct here. Unless you're already a hardened homophobe, you're not going to come away from this movie hating or fearing lesbians. A murder movie that neither glorifies nor demonizes murderers, that acknowledges the humanity of the criminals without trivializing the crime, Heavenly Creatures is a rare creature indeed.
Copyright 1994 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Bay Times.