Sundance 2023 Review: EILEEN, Perversely Beautiful
Womance receives the Hitchcockian treatment in Ottessa Moshfegh's story of a small-town girl gone bad with the author's manic smirk and wicked wink.
The most notable female authors of the young generation are receiving big- and small-screen treatment for their work.
The words of Sally Rooney, Kristen Roupenian, and Ottessa Moshfegh have materialized into moving pictures. This year's Sundance Film Festival introduced adaptations of Roupenian's short story Cat Person and Moshfegh's award-festooned debut novella Eileen.
Moshfegh's first book drew ire because she said she wanted to see if she could "write a mainstream book a normal person could read". It happened and worked out, as Moshfegh became an established (and marketable) voice in the turbulent publishing industry.
Lady Macbeth director William Oldroyd helmed the film based on Luke Goebel's script, which remains surprisingly true to the source material. (Unlike Cat Person.) The fact that Moshfegh worked on the script with Goebel might have contributed to the fidelity. The difference between the two films that premiered at the same festival proves that it is better to cut down than to add when it comes to literary adaptation.
Eileen is an honest adaptation that remains faithful to the novella. The story follows the mousy eponymous protagonist Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie), living in a small Massachusetts town, who is living an uninspiring existence in the 1960s. She returned home to care for her ill mother, and after her death, she remained to babysit her father Jim Dunlop (Shea Whigham).
Kicked out of the police force for drinking, Eileen's father continues to drown his sorrows in alcoholic binges and creates scenes by toting guns on the street. The father is the last thing that keeps Eileen in the aimless life, where she is wasting away, working as a secretary at a juvenile prison.
While the book is more of a psychological thriller, Goebel and Oldroyd go for a solid 'show don't tell', making the film more plot-driven, especially after the arrival of a new co-worker, Rebecca St John (Anne Hathaway), a Marilyn Monroe-sque femme fatale.
Rebecca St John radiates through Eileen's grey days and returns the juice into her life. Eileen starts to pay more attention to how she looks and less to her spiteful father. Rebecca seems to be the only person who acknowledges Eileen's existence, develops social interactions with her. Eileen takes that as a cue to gravitate towards her new co-worker with radiant sex appeal.
Hathaway plays the role of Rebecca as a woman with secrets and an agenda. On the other hand, McKenzie distills the naïve façade with a latent neuroticism that is a ticking time bomb. Eileen conforms to the male-dominated worldview where she serves her father and colleagues, suppressing whatever desires she might have had before she returned home. Rebecca plays by the rules of her own design. And those two worlds necessarily collide.
Oldroyd's film is a classic adaptation and the air of classicism seeps from the film until the shocking twist at the beginning of the third act. The DoP Ari Wegner (The Wonder, The Power of the Dog, In Fabric, Lady Macbeth) and art designer Gonzalo Cordoba (I'm Thinking of Ending Things), set decorator Michele Munoz (I Love Dick) and costume designer Michele Munoz (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) conjure up the period of the 60s, when women were supposed to be submissive and always keep the beer cold; the sexual revolution was still years away.
Eileen is a Thelma & Louise of under-the-surface psychological thriller. However, the bond with Sapphic undertones is founded on an apparently lopsided dynamics, with a timid and naïve party at one end and a self-confident bombshell on the other.
From the psychological vantage point, Eileen unfolds as a psychoanalytical case. Eileen is Dora of the era when female agency has been suppressed in major society. And Rebecca St John is the trailblazer and disruptor of the social norm, turning heads and weaponizing her sex appeal to wield influence.
Ultimately, the film grows to embrace Moshfegh's aesthetics of inner derangement and latent transgression, blowing the blonde bimbo and grey mouse stereotypes to pieces. The author's dark brand of feminism twists the central 'womance' into a Hitchcockian thriller, as perversion bubble underneath, with the protagonist succumbing to the impulses.
The transgression sets Eileen free from the asphyxiating grasp of her small-town, utterly submissive existence. And that's the perverse beauty of the film, the sophistication and implicitness in how it treats its transgressive material and the contrast of the old-days feeling with torn-apart psyche, courtesy of Moshfegh's direct influence.
And now Moshfegh knows that she can also work on a mainstream film "a normal person could watch" but with a manic smirk and wicked wink.
The film screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
- William Oldroyd
- Luke Goebel
- Ottessa Moshfegh
- Thomasin McKenzie
- Shea Whigham
- Sam Nivola