It is not often that I come across a film, complex and uncomfortable in so many ways. A film I replay in my mind and rarer still a film that makes me want to know more about it, embark on research, write about it, surprised by the twists and turns my mind took as I retreated further into a solitude searching for meaning in sculpted time.
After three months in near isolation, enduring a mandated physical and mental shut-down, this psycho-geography into the depths of Being, stirred that melancholic urge to retreat some more to write about a film without creating a spoiler.
The film stars William Defoe as Thomas and Robert Pattison (of Twilight fame) as Winslow. They are lighthouse keepers (“wickies”) trying to maintain their sanity while stranded on a remote and mysterious island somewhere off the coast of New England in the 1890s. The physicality of the performances, shot on location, exposed to the elements, winds, rain, gales and gusts, demanded endurance from Defoe and Pattison. Their characters stand as much about youth and old age, masculinity and patriarchy, master and servant, power and subservience, crime and punishment, as they do about flesh and the fluidity of form.
Released in October 2019, it was directed and produced by Robert Eggers who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Max Eggers and was shot in black-and-white with nearly a square 1.19:1 aspect ratio. The cinematography, music and editing are by Jarin Blaschke and Mark Korven and Louise Ford respectably who also worked with R Eggers on his 2015 debut feature film The Witch.
The Lighthouse is dense, replete with historical accuracy and prophesy. The micro minutia are exacting. Memoirs, logbooks and journals, were consulted, as were texts recording the vernacular and prosaic language of seamen travelling off coasts around 19thc New England and Maine. The film makers went as far as to reconstruct a precise c19th lighthouse, complete with a giant mirror-lantern, a kind of crystal Mascinenmench capable of producing light to penetrate through the thickest fog and warn ships of the dangers that lay ahead.
We are not sailing into safe harbor. Each frame is exquisitely composed, scenes crafted to create an oppressive mood, and enough tension to know that what fury is about to be unleashed by the ghosts of literary giants: Marlow, Melville, Hoffman, Poe, Kafka, Hemmingway and Beckett whose legacy establish the goalposts within which the film is understood as a tragedy: dark, blind, hubris, crime, light, punishment.
I recommend not to read any detailed reviews before viewing the film. But much will be gained if some familiarity is established with the mythological gods and titans and mortals the film alludes to, including Proteus (the old man of the sea) Sisyphus and Prometheus, Icarus, Aphrodite, the Sirens as mermaids, illusions enticing wonderment but also death. A little reading of Freud and Jung might add another dimension. Never mind, contrast and compare it to The Little Mermaid, watch the film and embark on your own research.
Switch off all mobile devices, and experience a dark film about light in the dark without interruptions. And yes, the meerschaum pipe and mermaid keepsake are phallic objects. What is a lighthouse a symbol for after the Fall?
Every frame and theme in the film can invite the critical mind to observe further. It is not enough to dismiss it as a historical drama, a period piece seeking contemporary relevance. It does not promote itself as a fantasy, surreal, psychological thriller, or arty film. Nor is it entirely in the American horror/film noir milieu.
Considerable focus is put on Perspective, requiring one to see the world as experienced by the other. It is a film largely from Winslow’s point of view, as many close ups of his eye appear throughout the film. It is also from a bird’s eye view, with many camera angles hovering from above. It also dives deep into the murky pool of the psyche, with dream sequences, intoxicated brains, a kerosene fueled descent into madness, with an obsessive rhythm, foghorns and squealing sea gulls, amplifying the suspense of impending doom.
The Lighthouse is a film shaped by a Romanticism. C19th Romance and Gothic revivals inside the American Gothic, and in the minefield of Weimar Expressionist film. Homages to F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang abound. Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Bergman, Kubrick and Tarkovsky habitate the film, with references to many great moments in cinema history. Literary and Cinematic themes, conventions, tensions and repressions are teased, providing a ruthless exploration into the deranged spirit experiencing a psychological crisis, where horror, tyranny and chaos have been unrestrained and unleashed to wreak pandemonium.
We are as a species interconnected in our shattered mess. We share many symbols and a language for what we witness, remember, value and dream. Cinema captures the surface and the subconscious of Being, presenting it through symbols, myths, archetypes, the screen is a mirror of collective experience.
I experienced The Lighthouse as my first foray post Corona into a winter night and into the theater in the company of my lover and the comfort of strangers. We watched the film together in the dark. I was sucked into the film’s cosmic order from the opening credits but equally I was aware of experiencing shared space with other bodies, bodies that may think of me as diseased in case I sneezed.
The time this film is set is not unlike ours. Nietzsche had proclaimed the death of God in c19th. We had become spectators of our own demise, and all sorts of calamity has been unleashed, because our clinical distance cultivated a culture of failing to act. We are detached from ethical considerations absolutely convinced in the ingenuity of machines and Science to save us from calamity. We have lost our way, unable to navigate with ease, our freedom of movement curtailed, unable to have a conversation, plan, hope or dream. Public space has been decreed contagious. We stand back, detached, all knowing but unable to act, guided by machine intelligence, artificial, lacking in spirit, deplete of all essence. God was pronounced dead in c19th, society was killed off in the c20th, and it seems that in the c21st are well on our way to declaring the death of the human.
But then again a spirit was pulsating throughout this film, and why I have felt compelled to write about it and vouch for its quality and relevance. This film honors history. It honors, literature, cinema and the creative urge in all consciousness. It honors the human body and mind, pitiful but majestic. It looks to the past with great curiosity, making a careful argument against the pitfalls of nihilism, even as the film forewarns of the great suffering ahead. It still asked the question: Why expend so much energy alone or together, inventing and crafting, speculations, illusions, dreams, why do we create cinema, and dwell in the wonderment of light if nothing exists?