This is the second installment of our “Home Movies” column by Philippa Snow, about what we watch when no one’s watching.
Watched this week:
Birth (2004) | Destroyer (2018) | Moebius (2013)
For some reason, I have lately started wondering what quarantine will mean for women whose appearances are usually upheld by injectables. Extremely wealthy women, I have to assume, will find some way to break the rules of social distancing in order to gain access to their Restylane, their Botox, their Juvéderm et cetera, in the same way that they will somehow manage to maintain their perfect hairstyles. This is somewhat disappointing to me, since there are few pleasures like an actress who was previously addicted to cosmetic surgery suddenly freeing up her face and doing interesting work with it, as if a spell that had been cast on her had suddenly worn off—I am thinking, in particular, of Nicole Kidman, whose inability to move her brows or cheeks for an extended period during the noughties led to her developing a reputation as an actress who could not fully emote. “I did try Botox, unfortunately,” she told an interviewer in 2013, “but I got out of it and now I can finally move my face again.” By 2017, in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, she had returned to taking risks, and she looked if not credibly her age then closer to it: an expensively maintained middle-aged woman, rich and gorgeous but not totally unreal.
In Birth, Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 sophomore film, there is an extraordinary scene that only works because of Kidman’s control of her face. The movie’s premise—that a woman’s husband, who died suddenly of a heart attack ten years prior to the film’s events, might have been reborn in the body of a ten-year-old—is fantastical enough that it might be funny or absurd if any part of the film’s makeup had been lacking. The script and the acting have to be extremely tight to hold up a conceit this batshit and ambitious; mostly, Birth succeeds, self-serious but elegant as hell. In the scene in question, Kidman’s character, who is named Anna, has just met the boy who claims to be her husband, and is seated at the opera. The music, thunderous and frenetic, is a piece by Wagner. Very slowly, the shot closes in until the screen is filled by Anna’s face, her damp eyes and her trembling mouth. Her feelings, changing every second, are evident in great waves, her skepticism turning into optimism and then back again. We believe in the contradictions that are running through her mind: that it is impossible for her husband to have been reborn, and that it would be wonderful, and that it would be terrible for him to have been reborn in the body of a child so that the two could never reconcile. Watching Birth for the first time in quarantine, it felt as if I was discovering an unknown, unfamiliar actress for the first time, rather than watching an old performance by a very, very famous star.
Right now there is something that feels right about films that play fast and loose with space and time, their logic seeming no more unusual than that of the present. In Destroyer, a film from 2018 by Karyn Kusama that is currently on Netflix in the U.K., Kidman plays two versions of herself: a grizzled cop, gray-haired and dressed in stinking leathers, and a younger version of that woman who is still as beautiful as Nicole Kidman. What has transpired to turn the familiar Kidman into the uncanny, Halloween-wig-wearing Kidman is the main thrust of the film. An undercover job, a bank robbery gone haywire and the death of someone dear to her have made Detective Erin Bell into a shell, a nihilist and a staggering alcoholic. As with Kidman’s turn as Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s 2002 The Hours, we are meant to be impressed by the refreshing lack of vanity she shows in letting herself be degraded by not being hot. In fact, as with The Hours’s prosthetic nose, the change is so distracting and unnatural-looking that it threatens to derail the film: her makeup calls to mind a child painted up to play an old woman in a school production, or a crone mask stocked at Party City. Had Kusama trusted Kidman to do all the work herself, building the character’s decrepitude with mannerisms and facial expressions, Destroyer might be a better, more engaging film; it might have more to say about the impact of having the proverbial shit kicked out of you by an unhappy twist of fate. Kidman is 52 years old, an age at which many real women do have gray hair or lined faces, and yet the likelihood of us ever seeing her with either outside of a “brave,” “challenging” role is scarce. If her experiences with divorce or Scientology or bad reviews have tired or drained her, they have not altered her looks in the same way that they might alter a civilian’s.
Birth and Destroyer both have plot twists that rely on a reveal that’s circular, looped from earlier in the film, making what came before seem horribly inevitable viewed in retrospect. In Moebius, a film by the South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk that I watched several nights ago, the loop is less literal, more conceptual and psychosexual: a jealous wife, catching her husband cheating, first tries to cut off his penis and then, thwarted, cuts their teen son’s off instead. What follows is a Freudian nightmare, not least because the castrated boy ends up infatuated with his father’s mistress, who is played by the same actress, Lee Eun-woo, who plays his mother. When the son receives his father’s penis in a transplant operation, things become more literally incestuous, an Oedipal transfer of power that is as much about the terror of aging, of being overtaken by one’s children, as it is about mere shock. There are scenes in Birth in which Anna considers beginning a relationship with the ten-year-old, telling him that when he is eighteen, they can marry. In Destroyer, Erin has fucked up her relationship with her teenage daughter, and when we witness the two of them together, the contrast between them—vital and half-dead, precocious and world-weary—is another vision of what age, to say nothing of the experience of living, can do to a face and body, or a soul.
What will any of us look like when we emerge from this period of isolation? What will looking good mean when for months, our only focus has been not becoming ill? A man returning in the body of a boy is science fiction; a middle-aged actress inhabiting the face and the body of a younger woman is just Hollywood. It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that I do not, in fact, wear makeup “for myself,” feeling no less empowered with a bare face than I do with lipstick on. I could not say when I last spent more than ten seconds at the mirror, or when I last plucked my brows. Beauty, for all its cultural cachet, does not make a person impervious to sickness or to fear, making it feel particularly useless in the current climate. Still, that said: I have been getting through this period of solitary confinement in part with the help of @kidmanfits, an Instagram account devoted to Ms. Kidman’s style throughout her 37-year career. Because she has spent decades in the public eye, and because she has changed her mind about the degree to which she should freeze her face, the posts show many different Kidmans—looking younger, and then older, and then younger, and then older again, in a way that often does not have much to do with her actual, biological age. Clicking through feels like warping time, a chronological unsticking that is perfectly in step with the prevailing global mood—one in which it is increasingly difficult to cleanly separate “before” and “after.”