This review contains spoilers.
Sundance is in full swing in Park City, Utah this week and I’m pleased to note that 2018 is going to be an excellent year for Autostraddler-friendly narrative and documentary. There are a number of titles coming out of the Festival worth keeping tabs on, including a doc on Joan Jett (Bad Reputation), another on the lesbian couple who became the only doctors willing to treat AIDS patients in Utah (Quiet Heroes), a Christine Vachon-produced biopic on the queer author Colette (Colette), and Desiree Akhavan’s Adaptation of e.m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. (It’s almost enough to make me forget that Sebastian Lelio still hasn’t dropped a trailer for his Rachel Weisz-on-Rachel McAdams affair, Disobedience.)
There’s also Lizzie. This Sundance, I’ve been cruising for a bruising that only a good drama can offer; this one exceeded my needs. Craig William Macneill (Channel Zero) has re-imagined the events leading up to and following the 1892 murders of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts. Chloe Sevigny stars as the accused axe-wielding daughter, Lizzie Borden; Kim Dickens, her older sister Emma; Fiona Shaw, Abby Borden, their stepmother; Kristen Stewart, the Borden family’s maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan.
Lizzie is brutal, historically attuned, and committed to exploring effeminate trauma and retaliation. As you might remember, Lifetime took a shot at a telling this story in four years ago with Christina Ricci in the lead role. While I enjoyed Lizzie Borden Took an Axe’s anachronistic blues rock soundtrack and Clea Duvall’s sour-faced Emma, it’s pretty impossible for a television network to craft a period slasher movie when its most risqué rating is a PG-14. Macneill also refrains from watering Lizzie into a mischievous bombshell. Grappling with health issues, reading books aloud to her pets, and living under her father’s thumb, she’s anything but cool. Perhaps this is what makes this movie so alluring: there’s a little of Lizzie in all of us.
The movie’s quick to distance itself from this earlier interpretation. Within twenty seconds, we’ve gotten very up-close-and-personal with Andrew Borden’s mutilated face. A detective asks Lizzie if her father had any enemies. Before she can respond, we flashback to Bridget’s arrival at the Borden home with nothing but a tiny trunk and a convincing Irish accent to her name. I wonder if Stewart ever considered that the repression that underpinned her Bella’s entire plot was rendered literal in Bridget. When she’s in a role that actually acknowledges and plays with gender (such as Maureen in Personal Shopper and Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria), Stewart has so much more to work with — even if that work entails cleaning windows with the deceptive (and totally alluring) vigor that Tom Sawyer once deployed while whitewashing fences.
Bridget and Lizzie grow closer after the maid nurses her lady back to health after a seizure. Their intimacy is born from Bridget simply doing what Mr. Borden pays her pocket change to do; a circumstance that will haunt Bridget after the murders. But given Lizzie’s motherlessness, she is a stranger to care. The connection swells between the two, warming the cold Borden estate.
Channeling The Handmaiden, Lizzie gives Bridget reading lessons. When the maid receives a letter that her mother has died, she tearfully clings to Lizzie as her employer confirms her worst fears. As threatening letters from an unknown sender begin appearing in the mail, the two women pass notes of their own in dark hallways like schoolgirls. Later, Lizzie and Bridget bond over the absence of their mothers and the omnipresence of Lizzie’s father, who begins raping Bridget while tormenting Lizzie, killing her pigeons and isolating her. Misery loves company. We know where this tale inevitably leads, but some pleasure precedes the axe.
Screenwriter Ed McBain (The Birds) was the first to speculate that the real Lizzie and Bridget were having an affair. Anticipating this, Lizzie fakes out the viewer out several times. A camera lingers on the women’s impossibly close bodies as Bridget continually helps Lizzie dress and undress, as reliable as roast mutton.
When the hook-up finally happens, it’s, in a way, make-up sex. When Lizzie discovers that her father’s been sneaking into their maid’s room at night, she sprinkles shattered mirror fragments outside of Bridget’s chamber to wound him upon exit. It’s a defiant gesture that Bridget does not appreciate, one that results in a lecture on class. Bridget chastises Lizzie, urging her to remember their respective places in society. Lizzie is able to resist doing anything she doesn’t want to do. Bridget, however, doesn’t have that luxury; physical intrusion part and parcel of being a domestic laborer. Clearly, the Progressive Era’s ideals haven’t quite landed in the Borden library just yet.
When Lizzie goes to Bridget’s humble quarters to apologize the next afternoon, she utters a lethal string of words: Don’t make me leave this room. Bridget doesn’t. Instead, they both depart at some point, winding up in the hay barn where Lizzie gave Bridget her first reading lessons. Dresses ruffle and hands clamor beneath hemlines. Bridget winds up in her employer’s lap. She thumbs down Lizzie’s lower lip so precisely that she reveals no teeth but a tongue, silver and ready to pounce. Because the women remain fully dressed throughout the scene, the camerawork is lax and indulgent, pulling back and revealing the totality of bodies and setting; Lizzie’s abandoned pigeon cages are mere feet away. The love scene, when contrasted with the ensuing murder sequence, becomes reminiscent of a Highsmith novel that weighs sex and murder in even palms. (The women conduct their slayings in the nude.)
It may come as a disappointment to some viewers that, a few moments into their lovemaking, Mr. Borden can be seen peering through the barn’s clapboards, livid. This moment, which risks dismissal for being “too male gaze-y,” is actually permissible. The only thing all four Borden women agree on is that their patriarch, not Lizzie, is the ultimate embarrassment to the family name. It’s nice to see him experience the humiliation he frequently inflicts by witnessing his non-consensual mistress become his daughter’s eager lover. For many men, a grisly death is preferable to erotic defeat.
When Mr. Borden, unable to actually name the love that dare not speak its name, confronts Lizzie about her relationship with Bridget and demands that she practice “terms appropriate to lady and household,” his daughter toys with him.
“Say it,” Lizzie antagonizes.
“You’re an abomination,” he spits.
“Then at least we’re on equal footing, father,” she bites back, beat unmissed.
There’s so much more about Lizzie to savor, but I’d like to return to that question from the first few scenes. When Lizzie is asked whether her father had any enemies, her answer, revealed later on, is another zinger, summing up the way this movie efficiently connects the past with the present day: This is America. There’s not a man in this country who doesn’t have enemies.