Invocation of My Demon Sister: Toxic Female Friendships in the Horror Film
“Mimesis and death,” writes Gary Indiana, in a column for The Village Voice republished in the recent Semiotext(e) book, Vile Days, “often have [a] kind of intimate relationship… Mimesis is generally thought to be protective imitation. An organism blends into the environment, becoming inconspicuous and therefore safe…this type of organic camouflage [can be] a luxury, even an incitement to cannibalism. Some mimetic creatures fool their own kind well enough to eat each other.” In the 2014 movie Queen of Earth, Elizabeth Moss — one of the best mimic-cum-actors of her generation, and a member of one of the most mysterious, conspicuously-camouflaged religious groups of this or any era — plays a character who has an intimate relationship with death, and does not make love to the camera so much as psychotically assault it: in the film’s first scene, a brutal close-up of her tear-streaked face, she talks like an emotional terrorist, and looks like a dripping watercolour painting of a lunatic.
“You don’t get any pleas, you piece of shit,” she snarls to an off-camera man, who sounds less supplicating than he does robotic. Men, in Queen of Earth, remain off-camera even when they are on-camera. It is old-school in the sense that it’s a melodrama, and is also old-school in the sense that it’s a kind of women’s picture, being a film about two women, and to some extent a film about the kind of dangerous female mimesis, injurious to both sides, that filmmakers have obsessed over since Bergman made Persona. When the title Queen of Earth appears onscreen, it is in hot-pink cursive that recalls the credits of Rosemary’s Baby: like text on a beachy postcard from the edge, from literal hell. Moss’ Catherine is the kind of girl who props a painting of a skull up in the guest room as a means of feeling more at home; she is a definite Polanski type, a woman who leaves food to rot and somehow makes the threat of murder sound not murderous, but borderline-flirtatious. “I could kill you right now,” she half-giggles to a drunk, anonymous man, “and no-one would ever know.” “In movies where a man has [a] breakdown, somebody gets murdered,” the film’s male writer-director Alex Ross Perry claims. “In movies where a woman has this kind of breakdown, the pain goes inward, rather than outward. And that is much more exciting.”
Tempting as it is to ask exciting for whom?, it seems pertinent to first outline the plot: after her breakup with the off-screen boyfriend, Catherine travels to the woods to stay with her supposed friend, Virginia, who is played by Katherine Waterston. Prior to Catherine’s breakup, her beloved father — wealthy, and an artist of some note —committed suicide. Because she worked for him as well as being his progeny, she is now bereaved, and unemployed, and single. “I’m in this self-repeating cycle,” Catherine mumbles, “where I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it.” We learn from flashbacks that the two women were also at the cabin one year earlier, and that though Catherine had at that time been with James, the boyfriend, and thus blissfully content, Virginia had been miserable. They claim to love each other — “more than anything, you stupid brat!”— but speak as if they’re bitter, estranged sisters, going for the jugular:
Virginia: It’s fascinating. I feel like I’m seeing you for the first time…I always thought you were so perfect, I thought you had it all figured out. But you were just surrounding yourself with men. James [the ex-boyfriend], your father, they took care of you. Without them — here you are, hmmm?
Catherine: I think the best hope for me now is to not end up like my father.
Virginia: How’s that going?
Catherine: Touch and go.
Virginia, having been hurt by the fact that Catherine mocked her own unhappiness last summer, has resolved to recreate that ugly mood, but with the roles reversed. She gets more than even: by the time Catherine is making phone-calls daily with nobody on the line, and saying that her “face hurts all the time…like bones are grinding underneath [her] skin,” it becomes clear that she is less stable than Virginia, and that this is no fair game. It is, despite the fact that Catherine is insufferable, the sickest switcheroo.
Scenes from the previous summer where the women bicker in front of James and Virginia’s neighbour, meanwhile, are electrifying in their frank depiction of the fact that for these men, the women may as well be speaking in tongues. “Do you think I’m a bad friend?” Virginia asks her neighbour. “I don’t think I can really answer that,” he carefully replies. The theorist Andrea Long Chu said, in a piece about Sex and the City, that “what’s on display most often [in the show] is a kind of same-sex eroticism whose job is to perform the sensitive caring labour necessary for keeping the dream of the heterosexual good life intact.” What does this mean for a relationship like Catherine and Virginia’s, or like any of the other brutal, foreign-to-men female friendships that recur in cinema of this kind? It might mean that rather than supplementing a heterosexual romance, they supplement a heterosexual toxicity: a desired, or learned, hurt. Catherine and Virginia fight like lovers, and insult each other with such balanced and reciprocated heat that it occasionally seems like they might fuck.
In the last five years, four new films have explored the trope of toxic, mutually-intoxicated female friendships: Queen of Earth, which was released in 2014; Butter on the Latch, from 2013; Always Shine, from 2016; Thoroughbreds, from last year. In all four films, the protagonists come as a long-term pair; in all four films, there is a dangerously mad friend, and a friend who is perhaps suggestible, perhaps as black-hearted as the hysteric friend, but sane. Three of them end in murder. All four have a horror movie’s style, an affect that is tonally appropriate for representing the experiences of young women aged between sixteen and twenty-seven, which these women nominally are. Three of the four have a nightmare’s logic, acting narratively like a fever-dream. Three of the four, as in the films of David Lynch, include phone calls that propel the action further into territory that is, as Manohla Dargis once wrote, “dark as pitch, as noir, as hate.” Renewed interest in the sick, ‘mysterious’ interior lives of women has not only, it would seem, extended to the personal essay industry: the movies love them, too.
Always Shine, a film about two actresses that’s sensitively written by a man (Lawrence Michael Levine), and skilfully directed by a woman (Sophia Takal), is the closest of the four to what the critic Miriam Bale describes as a “persona-swap film” — one where two girls, both alike in looks if not in dignity, switch places or begin to merge. Like Queen of Earth, it opens with a tearful monologue in extreme close-up. Unlike in Queen of Earth, the monologue is not an exercise in trauma, but a film audition. Beth, the kind of blonde who understands that men do not want femme fatales so much as very, very sexy babies, pleads a scripted case: “Please don’t kill me, I’ll do anything. You want to touch me? You can touch me. I’ll take my clothes off.” The fourth wall is broken by the film’s producer, interrupting to enquire as to whether she’s aware that the requirement for nudity in this production is “extensive.” (I do not imagine this will come as a surprise to you, the reader, any more than it is a surprise to Beth.) A few scenes later, we are introduced to Anna, Beth’s long-time friend, also talking to the camera: what appears to be another film audition is, in fact, a real-life confrontation with a gruff mechanic, who suggests that she behave more like a lady. Anna, being the kind of blonde whose mean mien calls to mind a gorgeous feral cat, is sexier by far than Beth, but in a terrifying way, and thus is far less popular with men. She is immediately marked-out as being more talented, more curious, less stable, angrier, and less inclined to sit back and allow a man to talk shit.
“If I was a boy,” she spits, “nobody would be telling me to calm down.” “I know what goes on there,” she hoots at a man who tries to chat her up by mentioning his ‘men’s retreat.’ “That’s where you guys sit around the fire, and bang drums, and bang your chest.” Beth and Anna have escaped, like Catherine and Virginia, to a cabin in the forest. From day one, it becomes clear that Beth is not the innocent babe in the woods that she purports to be; she is intimidated by, and jealous of, her girlfriend’s skill, and has cock-blocked her and job-blocked her with no second thought. “What’s your type?” asks Anna, when Beth gripes about the movie script she’s reading being a bad fit. “The wilting flower type? Do you have to take your clothes off? Jesus, again? Does it get tiring being so fucking helpless all the time?” An argument over a test reel turns first vicious, and then physical, with Anna chasing Beth into the trees. There is a struggle — during which we see a clapperboard enter into the frame, a for-real shattering of our fourth wall — and then Beth is dead. Anna, a perfect mimic and a better actress than the dead girl, adopts Beth’s identity. (“Some mimetic creatures fool their own kind well enough to eat each other.”)
The joke is that now, men adore her. Anna can’t help but hallucinate Beth everywhere, and still the visions are less frightening than the guy who calls her — God forbid — “an angel…soft and sweet, or something.” His attentions are an affirmation of the fact that mimicking a girl who is dumb prey is more effective than being an open apex predator. Girls will tussle with a bitch for longer than a man will woo one, which may be another reason why these kinds of passionate girl-frenemyships can be richer fodder for the cinema than boring heterosexual love: their passion is as deep and as sustainable, as seemingly renewable, as it is fucked. Two women, mirroring each other, create perfect, paradoxically-functional dysfunction, while a woman and a man — being unequal in essential rights, in brute force, and in the degree to which their more spectacular emotions are interpreted as “craziness” — create an imperfect dysfunction, or a mess. “They pour themselves,” Long Chu also observes of the four, ravenously-friendly women of Sex And The City, “into each other’s lives… It’s a curious thing that heterosexuality, in a show that purports to be taking it into the twenty-first century, doesn’t actually work without 24/7 technical support…Maybe there’s some kind of feedback loop at work here: heterosexuality forbids you from being a dyke, then makes you gay for your girlfriends.”
The most sexual, or at least most sensual, moment in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch is not one of the film’s two brief and stultifying straight sex scenes, but the one scene of real-seeming and intimate conversation between its two female leads, i.e. its queerest scene. Isolde, the more confident brunette, relates a sexual experience with a male masseuse to her wan, blonde friend Sarah on their first night at a hippy retreat. Attitudinally, Isolde is incredibly chill — physically, she’s unafraid to act out the positions. Just like Beth and Anna, and like Catherine and Virginia, they are staying in a cabin in the woods; unlike Beth, Anna, Catherine or Virginia, they are at a Balkan folk music camp, giving Decker ample opportunity to add a spooky, atavistic air to Sarah and Isolde’s friendship, then their jealous competition, and then finally to their eventual femme-terrorism. Improvised, the sequence invokes what the critic Nicholas Rapoid describes as “a sensation native to desire,” this sensation being as much about unpredictability as reassurance, and as much about kink as romance. “Yeah, it would be nice to be in a ‘formal’ relationship,” Isolde muses, as if she might as well be imagining life on Mars, or life as a millionaire. “Like…with a man.”
A man is the catalyst for Sara and Isolde’s descent into first romantic rivalry, then violence. Another attendee at the camp, he is so bland and so enamoured of his ukulele that I did not bother to write down the character’s name — in the history of female friendships torn asunder by heterosexual desire, the man’s being unremarkable is not unusual, or rare. What they compete for is not necessarily the man, but his desire. “In Bulgarian folklore,” the camp teacher says to Sarah, “there are many creatures in nature that are either friendly or ominous. In the snake family, they’re the ominous kind…it’s not that the thing itself is bad, it’s that a spirit might go into it and make it bad.” The implication is one of two things: that a literal spirit may have entered into Sarah or into Isolde, making them unkind and violent, or that women — as men have so often tried to tell us — are in fact snakes, made “bad” by the fact of wanting men. Certain cobras, like the aforementioned creatures with mimetic qualities, cannibalise each other, too.
Butter on the Latch, in places, is expressionistic, abstract, and directed in the style of Harmony Korine shooting a Lynch film, so that violence is suggested, not depicted. More than any of its shots of women dancing in the woods, its rushing lights and screams, the horror of its tone is crystalised by its first scenes, depicting Sarah on the streets of New York taking a phone call from a friend trapped inside a strange man’s house, then at a rave, then waking up herself in some dank warehouse, naked and in bed with someone that she clearly does not recognise. “What do you mean you don’t know where you are?” she screams hysterically in that initial phone-call. “Get out of the house, get out of there!” As tempting as it is to guess that Sarah is, like Lynch’s Mystery Man, both there and not-there, both the caller and the person being called, it is more likely that the same calamity has befallen two separate young women in New York within the same weekend. The fact there is a greater air of omnipresent threat in these two one-night-stands than in the scene when Sarah, possibly hallucinating, finally chokes the boring man to death may be indicative of why Alex Ross Perry maintains that it is only male breakdowns that end in murder in spite all of contradictory evidence.
“It’s a common intra-personal dynamic,” a consulting psychotherapist named Sarah Rourke informed me, over email, when I asked her why filmmakers might be fascinated by hazardous girl-on-girl relationships like these, “for emotional distress to be manifested either towards the self, or towards the other — for knives to go in, or for knives to go out. The difference is that historically, men have been encouraged in their anger, and told that for them, anger is a permissible emotion to express, whereas women have only been given permission to really express other, softer emotions, and to explore their own interiority. Perhaps this has led to women having a more honed and nuanced emotional arsenal.” The phrase “nuanced emotional arsenal” does not apply to the antagonist of the best of the four films that I mentioned earlier, Thoroughbreds’ blank and baby-faced Amanda, who avoids the cliché of overemotional girl-on-girl violence not only by being a surprisingly good friend to her accomplice, Lily, but by having no capacity to feel emotions at all. She is, if not technically a sociopath by diagnosis, something other than a normal, fully-feeling human girl. (As if to prove this, she has previously committed the ultimate anti-girl crime: murdering a horse.) “Life,” she shrugs when first proposing that the two conspire to kill Lily’s stepfather, “isn’t some sacred thing. There’s nothing holy about a dick and a vag getting together and spitting out a little dude. If that man causes more harm than good, then it’s like a malfunctioning piece of machinery.”
Amanda, being a malfunctioning piece of machinery herself, does not see her extreme lack of emotion as a handicap, but as a gift. “I have a perfectly healthy brain,” she assures Lily, “it just doesn’t contain feelings. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It just means I have to work a little harder than everyone else to be good.” Over the running time of Thoroughbreds, she helps Lily to commit murder, takes the flack herself, ends up incarcerated, bears no grudge, and admits that the reason that she executed Honeymooner, her beloved horse, was that he was already dying, slowly, and she could not bear to see him suffer. Whether this is her working a lot harder than everyone else to be good or is her working far too little is a matter of perspective; either way, there is no moment in the film in which she needs our pity, and there is no implication that her machinations are a female-centric weapon. “You’re incredibly off-putting and you freak me out,” says Lily, mirroring the sanest and most likely audience response. “[But in] kind of a fascinating way, like one of those YouTube videos of a zit getting popped.”
Earlier, I mentioned Butter on the Latch’s reference to the snake, a symbol so entwined with feminine duplicitousness that its invocation is as likely in a pop song as a poem: in the final scene of Thoroughbreds, writing to Lily from her jail cell, Amanda recounts a dream in which she is not only free, but reincarnated as her own long-dead horse. “I am Honeymooner,” she explains, sounding beatific in the voiceover, “and I am dying. And I rise out of my body, and I stare down at our whole suburb. And time is speeding up and I see whole generations coming and going and building bigger houses, and then eventually, people start spending more and more of their time staring at their smart phones. And soon enough they forget to clean their houses, mow their lawns, or eat. And they vanish into the internet. And this is the really beautiful part: the horses take over. And the whole suburb is just thoroughbred horses with no owners with no way of knowing how expensive they are, just mating and galloping through the ruins.”
Thoroughbreds’ situation of its women in the airless suburbs, and not in the natural world, makes its deployment of animal metaphor less pat, signalling something more opaque than “wildness.” “What is it with women and horses?” Molly Watson asked at The Spectator earlier this year. “Why do so many of us love them so much? I think it may have something to do with both power and powerlessness. To ride a horse and have it do as you ask, despite the difference in brute strength, is to feel powerful…The experiences I had with horses in my teens delayed my interest in boys and provided me with a useful precursor for later romantic entanglements. Horses are the ultimate strong and silent types, they let themselves be fussed over without any evidence they love you back.” If a horse is, as this might imply, equivalent to a man — an aptitude for riding, true, is often said to mean the same for fucking, and the phrase “hung like a horse” speaks for itself — what does this mean for Thoroughbreds, its subtext? That Amanda kills the horse she loves, not out of spite but out of mercy, then becomes him, is not feminine mimesis for the sake of mutual destruction: it is something less prescriptive, and accordingly more like a fucked-up and perverse brand of empowerment than melodrama. It’s the one film of the four where both girls, paired and not in competition, get the thing they want.