Lizzie–Quiet Desperation

Lizzie— a psychological thriller– is a reinterpretation of the story of Lizzie Borden, the  accused murderer of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. Starring and produced by Chloe Sevigny and premiering at Sundance Film Festival last year, the viewer sees the highly restrictive circumstances of  women in a patriarchal society and what happens to them when they actively fight against a lifetime of subjugation.

Lizzie Borden, a thirty-two year old single woman,  has very few options other than  residing with her tyrannical father, a wealthy corrupt banker and real estate mogul.  Her  passive stepmother, Abby (the wonderful Fiona Shaw), and elder sister, Emma (Kim Dickens) all live under Andrew’s oppressive roof. An Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (a fine-tuned performance by Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence as a maid. At first, seeking perhaps solace and a kindred spirit in Bridget, Lizzie teaches her to read.  Soon Lizzie and Bridget form an intimate but conspiratorial relationship.

The theme is female empowerment in a Gilded Age of punitive patriarchal strictures. Lizzie’s uncle and stepmother  provide no practical escape from  her father’s brutal supervision.  She is a woman on the verge  of a mental and physical breakdown.   Several scenes with pigeons that Lizzie nurtures and loves provide a brilliant metaphor for Lizzie’s own free-spirit: living in a cage, yearning for freedom and release from her entrapment.

Lizzie‘s cinematography (by Noah Greenberg) expertly conveys the dark, foreboding patriarchy in camera angles of candle-lit windows, doorways, behind stair-railings and bedroom doors. The lighting alone elicits the sense  that Lizzie and Bridget are both trapped, living a claustrophobic, spiritless life.

Although the pacing will challenge the patience of  some viewers, the opening scenes justifiably hook the viewer in. There is much to praise here besides the fantastic sepia-toned and black-and-white camera shots.  Lizzie is a thought-provoking and elegant Victorian-period tale of women attempting to take their destinies into their own hands when society will not allow that. 

Lizzie may, at times,  lack energy, due to slow pacing, but the hushed and mute austerity of the action plot and the character development are engaging and well-worth seeing.   Sometimes things unsaid increases the dramatic tension necessary to sustain a film.  Lizzie reflects on the abuse of power, class and sexual dynamics of a male dominated society that existed not so long ago. Today’s Handmaid’s Tale? 

Note: DVD available on Netflix

“Hit and Miss”–Or, “Boys Don’t Cry” meets “Dexter”

This new mini-series created exclusively for DirecTV’s Audience Network stars Chloë Sevigny as a transgender hired assassin living in Yorkshire, England and fated to parent four children who have just lost their mother to cancer.  One of the children, Ryan, is her son whom she fathered before pursuing her journey to becoming Mia. Now she finds herself the legal guardian to  four children.  When the children she inherits begin to affect her, she is shaken by her own amorality.

In each opening scene, the camera moves over Mia’s pre-op transsexual body: nude with both breasts and a penis.  The grey drizzle of the scenery of Yorkshire emphasizes the “film noir” mood of the narrative. Sevigny, an extraordinary American actress, has mastered a Yorkshire accent in a cast of British and Irish actors.   Every episode features her gangster boss, Eddie (Peter Wright), assigning a “hit”, which Mia has to carry out, usually disguised as a young boy in a hoodie or as an alluring prostitute.

Chloë Sevigny’s first breakout role (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award) was in “Boys Don’t Cry“, as the girlfriend of a transgender youth.  It is a tribute to Sevigny that the role of Mia in “Hit and Miss”  feels remarkably natural.  The audience is forced to contemplate how gender defines our identity.  Sometimes Mia is a  deadened or robotic self, but she is awakening to the gentle self of mother, father, and lover.

Ben (Jonas Armstrong) will certainly become a heartthrob for his exceptional performance as the one so deeply in love with Mia he can accept her pre-op transgender body in graphic sexual scenes while questioning why he is so attracted to her.  Armstrong’s cool but empathetic air in understanding the problem of a relationship with a transgender partner is an incredibly moving window into the heart of gender identity.

“Hit and Miss” fits into a recurring theme in some of the most talked-about current television series:  the dark past of the anti-hero who has hidden himself or herself in order to blend into “mainstream” society.  Family complicates the secret life by forcing honesty with those the hero loves (or wants to love).  Think:  “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men”, “Suits”, and “Damages”.  The back-story inevitably unfolds: an explanation–not quite a justification–for the main character’s moral ambiguity or sociopathology.  “Hit and Miss” clearly fits into this ferociously psychological contemporary genre, engendering a visceral response to the uncomfortable but familiar rabbit hole of human relations.