In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.
Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures was the first lesbian film I ever saw.
Like many people in the early 2000s I was obsessed with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. After being completely taken with The Fellowship of the Ring, I read the books with my dad in 4th grade, and then got the first film on DVD while I awaited the sequels. This is when the obsession really began. The Fellowship of the Ring was when I discovered special features and these extensive behind the scenes featurettes clarified what I’d known since I was in pre-school: I wanted to make movies. At the time, if you’d asked my little elementary school self what made me different than the other kids that’s what I would’ve said. Other kids want to be athletes or join their family business, but not me. I wanted to be a movie director. That’s why I didn’t fit in. I didn’t know the word trans. I didn’t know the word gay except as an insult. But I knew the word artist. I knew I was an artist.
Jackson’s pre-Tolkien films were all rated R and I wasn’t allowed to see them. But, always one to draw my own moral lines, I created an exception to the rule. If a film was edited for TV I decided that made it automatically PG-13 and therefore it was allowed. This is how I saw Heavenly Creatures and found myself in its fantasy world, its romance, its horror, its pain.
Heavenly Creatures is based on the true story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hume, two teenage girls who met in the New Zealand city of Christchurch in 1952 and developed an all-consuming relationship that culminated in the murder of Pauline’s mother. The screenplay written by Jackson and Fran Walsh is taken directly from Pauline’s diaries which lends it a certain authenticity — depending on who you believe.
Jackson’s love of fantasy and boundary pushing special effects is found here as Pauline and Juliet’s imagined land The Fourth World is brought to life with majestic colors and bizarre clay figures both docile and horrifying. This is a film that cares about its subjects’ point of views and lets us inside its subjects’ point of views. The film begins and ends in blood but there are so many moments where the reality is tempting to forget. Paul and Juliet think of themselves as artists and Jackson manifests their vision. The dread simmers under, but the dream feels so real.
Pauline is played by Melanie Lynskey in her debut role. Unlike the weirdos of so many teen movies, Lynskey actually feels like an outsider. She looks unbearably normal, filled with the anger of a confused, awkward teen. Lynskey has spent two and a half decades giving understated, underrated performances and it began here. Her Paul is tragically relatable.
Lynskey finds her foil in Kate Winslet’s Juliet. Juliet comes from England, comes from money, declares her goals with an abandoned entitlement, and talks back every chance she gets. She and Pauline are not alike per say but they are both special and that’s enough — they both feel special and that’s enough. Rewatching the film now Winslet is kind of insufferable. But when I was 10, I was as enamored as Paul. The confidence, the creativity, the love bombing. I wanted to meet someone who understood me the way she seemed to understand Paul. I wanted to be rescued by her belief that we weren’t just different, we were better.
The courtship between Paul and Juliet is delightful to watch. Paul goes from a depressed blob to an adorable little chaos monster as she soaks in Juliet’s joie de vivre. They play dress up and sculpt figures and go to movies and strip down naked in the middle of the woods. Moment by moment, Pauline finds happiness. Yes, she’s in love with Juliet, but it’s more than that. She’s found someone who validates her idiosyncrasies, encourages her spirit. All of a sudden she’s free.
When I think back through my childhood and adolescence, every year is defined by a bully and a crush — with some occasional crossover. It’s not really about those full names lodged in the unnecessary cavities of my brain — it’s what they represent. The bullies were the reminders of my difference, the crushes were a hope for escape. My relationship to girls and people I thought were girls was never just about lust or romance. I was looking for examples of who I could be. Paul adopts so many of Juliet’s interests, not because she’s exclusively obsessed with Juliet, but because Juliet presents the first version of girlhood that Paul finds appealing. That’s how it was for me, cycling through crushes, looking for a version of girlhood — of personhood — that suited me.
Neither Pauline or Juliet’s parents are particularly bad — or particularly good. Juliet’s support her creative spirit, but are so wrapped up in their own dramas they become neglectful. Paul’s mean well, but they have a conservative streak that scrapes against Paul’s newfound self-confidence. When their boarder John coerces Paul into having sex with him, Juliet’s mother is quick to call her a disgrace and “a cheap little tart.” And then, as if forgetting this whole conflict, Paul’s mother along with Juliet’s father begins suspecting the girls of homosexuality. A psychologist confirms it, and Paul’s mother becomes determined to keep the girls apart. “She’s always been a normal, happy child,” Paul’s mother says, confirming that she never once noticed her daughter before she became a concern.
Paul’s mother is not simply slut shaming and homophobic — there’s more to her worries and more to Paul. “You don’t think these stories are going to get you a school certificate?” Paul’s mother yells. “You don’t seriously think anyone is going to publish them?” Paul’s mother has a limited imagination for Paul’s life and Paul can feel herself slowly getting smothered. Her sexuality, her creativity, her agency are all at stake. She takes a typing class and looks as miserable as she did before she met Juliet. It becomes a matter of her life. It becomes a matter of life and death.
Paul begins to fantasize about her parents dying. Then Juliet’s parents announce they’re sending Juliet to live with an aunt in South Africa and things grow dire. Sensibly the people to blame in this situation are Juliet’s parents. But the Hume home has become a safe haven of creativity and freedom for Paul. It’s less complicated for her to invent a scenario where she goes with Juliet to South Africa than one where she blames Juliet’s parents for sending her off in the first place. It’s less complicated for her to blame her own mother than the surrogate mother she adores.
The weeks leading up to Juliet’s supposed departure are filled with magic. The girls spend more and more time in The Fourth World and they consummate their relationship. They say they’re just acting out how their characters would have sex, but Paul and Juliet are the only two people in the bed and as the fantasy slips away they remain, mouth to mouth, body to body.
Of course it’s wrong to kill Paul’s mother. The film doesn’t suggest otherwise and neither will I. But I know what it’s like to be an angry kid. I know what it’s like to feel trapped. When I was Paul’s age I had violent fantasies about my friends who were bullying me and I felt a rage towards my mother that scares me now to recall. I punched holes in my bedroom wall. I dug my nails into my fingertips until they bled. I was scared that if I ever hit someone I wouldn’t be able to stop. I’m certain my moralistic self never would’ve been capable of murder, but I also don’t think everyone capable of murder is destined to do so. We are the people we are and we are the people we become, and while I was not like Paul and Juliet I understand their circumstances enough to feel for their unfortunate metamorphosis.
Ultimately, Heavenly Creatures is a tragedy. Despite my young feelings for Kate Winslet, the movie isn’t sexy or salacious — nor is it particularly critical. It’s just really fucking sad. Death should not be the punishment for stifling your creative queer child, but that lack of understanding is still painful. The girls are so scared of the realities they’ve been given that their fantasy — murder and all — feels like the only choice. They don’t know yet that there’s a whole world of creative queer people out there. They only have each other. And the thought of separation is unbearable. A life is lost. Lives are lost. It’s all so unnecessary.
Paul and Juliet thought of themselves as superhuman, above the rules of normal society. You can connect this to Nietzche and to Nazis and to Leopold and Loeb, but it’s that last evolution that interests me most. Like Paul and Juliette, Leopold and Loeb were gay and thought of themselves as superhuman. Like Paul and Juliette, Leopold and Loeb committed a horrible murder. Both actions were obviously wrong, but what strikes me in both of these cases is how their homosexuality was considered a sin alongside their murder. Morality becomes murky when your very existence is considered immoral. When you are told you are worse, it’s tempting to believe you are better. When you’re told you’re a sin, maybe it becomes easier to believe it — and to stop caring. At least within the text of the film, the murder feels less like a choice and more like an inevitability. A last resort. They refuse to be separated, they refuse to conform, and so a brick ends up in a stocking and a horror cannot be stopped.
The real life Paul and Juliet were released from prison five years after their sentencing. It was a condition of their release that they never meet again. Paul became a recluse. Juliet became a successful crime novelist. And, supposedly, they never did meet again, despite living mere hours apart in Scotland, despite how much I’d love a sequel. But I wonder if they met again through others. I wonder if they discovered a world of people they could connect to and identify with. Maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But I think if we’re going to condemn these individuals we should also condemn the society that made them — if not for them then for the rest of us who barely survived.
Want more movies? Check out Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time.