LITTLE SWEETHEART (1989)

********************THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOLERS*****************************

I saw LITTLE SWEETHEART on TV when it came out in 1989, but didn’t record it, and have always wanted to see it again since. I was finally able to recently, thanks to YouTube, or rather the YouTuber who posted it. It seems that many people who saw it found it memorable, so it is a pity that the film is not available on DVD.

This British made-for-TV movie is based on a novel called THE NAUGHTY GIRLS, written by Arthur Wise. A couple, Robert and Dorothea, are on the run – he is married and has embezzled money, and she is his mistress. In a small, isolated holiday resort, they meet two little girls, Thelma and Elizabeth. Out of boredom, the girls spy on the couple, and when they find out about their situation, blackmail them. Thelma is the more dangerous personality of the two, and when Elizabeth wants to stop what they are doing, Thelma shoots her with a gun that she stole from Robert, leaving her for dead. When she is reported missing, Robert becomes the prime suspect, now on the run for a crime he did not commit. He is gunned down by the police while trying to escape, but Elizabeth survives and returns, presumably to reveal the truth.

A clever con man reduced to begging a precocious, cruel little girl not to ruin his life – who would be brave enough to play such a part, and who could pull it off more effectively than John Hurt? If that was in line with his particular penchant for playing victims, he gets the rare chance to show a charming and sexy side in addition here. A contemporary interview in RADIO TIMES even called it one of his most romantic parts to date – relatively speaking, since the story obviously isn’t very romantic. But rather than once more sing the praises of one of my favorite actors, I would like to comment on a subject that I find extremely vexing: children and sex in the movies.

This film has often been compared with BAD SEED. There are some similarities, whether by direct influence or mere coincidence, but except for the premise of a child being capable of murder, I find them hardly worth mentioning. I enjoyed BAD SEED for its critique of psychoanalysis, but it ends up going too far in the other direction: it regards upbringing as irrelevant and blames heredity (the girl’s biological mother was a serial killer as well). By contrast, LITTLE SWEETHEART proposes several factors (innate disposition, experience of loss, cultural influences such as television), without insisting on any explanation. Furthermore, even though it does deliver harsh poetic justice, it is not as ridiculously moralistic as the film version of BAD SEED (while trying to get rid of the last piece of evidence of one of her murders, the little girl is struck by a lightening bolt, as if by divine justice). Hence, LITTLE SWEETHEART is less intent on conveying a message, which – depending on one’s point of view – either makes it seem less serious or more subtle. In any case, I found it more suspenseful, because the adult characters add more to the plot. BAD SEED comes across as a very talky (almost discursive) stage play, and LITTLE SWEETHEART, despite its outdoor setting, is somewhat limited by its TV budget, so both films mainly engage the viewer through story and acting, and both are very effective in that regard.

What puzzles me more and even disturbs me is that LITTLE SWEETHEART is often compared with LOLITA. Even allowing for the possibility of innuendo, there is at least one crucial difference: In contrast to Humbert Humbert, there is no reason to assume that Robert Burger (Hurt’s character) has paedophilic notions. This is neither necessary for the plot nor do I see it implied anywhere, and I don’t think that Hurt would have been unable or unwilling to portray it if the role required it (see, for example, MIRANDA [2002], which comes close to implying that Hurt’s character had a sexual relationship with the young girl that he picked up from the street, with Christina Ricci being an obvious choice for such a role). Robert may be flattered by the girls’ attentions (as his girlfriend Dorothea suggests) and treat them as “ladies”, because he believes that he can manipulate them with his charm as a man, but this is plausibly motivated by his immoral yet relatively “normal” interests (the money and his mistress).

Hence, finding the girls (who are even younger than Lolita) sexually suggestive is either a questionable consequence of the portrayal, whether intentional or not (eg the sunglasses and ice cream cone may either be a reference to the LOLITA poster, or they may just be common props of American girlhood), or a consequence of the disposition of the beholder. Be that as it may, it is definitely not a character point of view, as it is in LOLITA (which made it so difficult to transfer the novel to the screen; I haven’t read the source novel for LITTLE SWEETHEART, but a commentator wrote that there was no such element in it).

Even though I don’t believe in childhood sexuality as it was conceived by psychoanalysis, I don’t regard children as completely unaware of sex or feel that they should be, so I don’t think that I am prone to moral panic. Nonetheless, in view of such interpretations as the comparison with LOLITA, even just placing child characters in sexual situations seems to have its dangers (for example, the girls spy on Robert and Dorothea having sex on the beach, with a mixture of curiosity and disgust, which isn’t sexual desire quite yet). Hence it is a difficult question how far the film is to blame for its reputation. In any case, it would be a pity if this is all the film is remembered for. On the one hand, it is much too harmless for that (so it is neither equipped to deal with such difficult topics, nor – thankfully – is it likely to satisfy paedophiles), on the other, it has too many merits to deserve being put into the wrong category, at least thematically.

THE MAGNET (1950)

++++++THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS++++++

THE MAGNET (1950) is a British film produced by the Ealing studios, directed by Charles Frend, starring Stephen Murry, Kay Walsh and William (later known as James) Fox. One day a young boy, Johnny Brent (Fox), cons a younger boy out of his prized possession, a large magnet, by trading it with an “invisible watch”. The little boy’s Nanny accuses Johnny of stealing. Johnny runs away and tries to get rid of the magnet in various ways, but it keeps returning to him. Finally he gives it to the inventor of an iron lung. The inventor tells the story of the boy’s charity on fundraising events, upon which the whole town searches for the mystery boy. One day on the train home from school, Johnny comes across the Nanny again and overhears her telling a friend how her parakeet died of a broken heart. He misunderstands and thinks that the little boy died of grief over losing his magnet. Johnny runs away from home and hides out with a gang of street children. While playing a game of dare on a bridge, one of the children falls, and Johnny saves his life. The injured boy is brought to the hospital and ends up in the iron lung, upon which the magnet has been mounted. When Johnny visits the boy, he runs into the inventor. Johnny receives a civic award, which he gives to the little boy he cheated out of the magnet.

Ealing is, of course, best known for comedies. This film is also commonly categorized as a comedy, and it was advertised with the tagline, “It turned the whole town TOPSY-TURVY!”. Perhaps the film is one of the studio’s lesser known efforts because it might disappoint in that regard. The misunderstandings and improbable twists and turns of the plot certainly provide some amusement, but it is hardly humor of the slapstick sort, and the protagonist’s predicament even has its dark side. False expectations would be a pity, because the film has much to recommend it on its own terms, and many people who have seen it seem to find it very memorable.

Two aspects intrigued me in particular. Firstly, the plot is an ironic reversal of the standard Hitchcock story. Instead of an innocent man being pursued, the protagonist actually did do something wrong, imagines even worse and feels guilty about it. Various people are looking for him not in order to persecute or harm him, but to help and even commend him. The director’s attraction to this story may not be entirely accidental, because Frend edited several of Hitchcock’s early British films, namely SECRET AGENT (1936), SABOTAGE (1936) and YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937). The film is quite suspenseful as well. It creates atmosphere and empathy with the protagonist’s fear, but with comparatively few subjective devices. Instead of Hitchcock’s surreal touches, the film is shot in a low-key style, almost like a documentary.

Secondly, and this also has some relation to Hitchcock, the film makes fun of psychoanalysis. The protagonist’s father is a child psychologist, and when Johnny begins to behave strangely due to his guilt feelings, he begins to analyze his son in the standard way, which entirely misses the mark. Mr Brent believes that his son’s anxiety is due to the growing pains of separating from his mother. Nothing could be further from the truth, because even though Johnny’s fears are exaggerated, the way he tries to deal with them alone is quite precocious, and his reasons for avoiding his parents have nothing to do with his relationship to them.

Even though class is certainly an important element of many British films, I do not quite agree with user reviews who regard the critique of psychoanalysis as a negative depiction of the middle class in contrast to the more positive depiction of the working class children. After all, the game of dare nearly kills one of them, and in the end, Johnny returns to his family and community. What ultimately wins the day so charmingly are traditional British virtues and values that are shared by all.

By aplantage

AFTER DARKNESS (1985)

++++++THIS FILM IS RATED R++++++THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS++++++

AFTER DARKNESS is a Swiss television movie from 1985, which fortunately (and surprisingly) was issued on DVD a few years ago. Judging from user reviews on the internet, most people who have seen it are very impressed by it, but also rather puzzled. Since I found very intriguing myself and felt that I might have some clarifications to contribute, I thought that a review might be worthwhile.

Peter (John Hurt) is a professor of anthropology, who appears to be living an ordinary life with his wife (Pamela Salem) and their young daughter. But he also has a younger brother, Laurence (Julian Sands), who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital because he suffers from schizophrenia. Laurence is tormented by visions of his twin brother Jan, who was killed in quicksand as a child. When Laurence attempts to kill himself for the third time, because he believes that this is Jan’s wish, Peter decides to care for Laurence himself. He rents a huge, empty apartment for his brother and himself to live in. A female student of Peter’s, Pascale (Victoria Abril), happens to find out what he is doing and becomes entangled in the lives of the two brothers. Laurence falls in love with her, whereas Peter’s attitude wavers between aggressive sexual attraction and resentment. Pascale mistrusts Peter and wants to help Laurence become independent of him. The “triangle” ends in tragedy: Peter kills Pascale, upon which Laurence kills Peter.

Firstly, it seems to be a common misunderstanding that the twin brother Jan is only imagined, as Peter claims. This cannot logically be the case, because Pascale finds a photo of the twins, which reveals to her that Peter is lying.

Secondly, even though Peter increasingly unravels, it is not accurate to say that he becomes insane through contact with his brother. Almost the opposite is true: There is certainly a disposition for schizophrenia in Laurence (he had hallucinations even before his twin brother’s death), but Peter is the prime cause of his current state. This explains Peter’s guilt feelings, which are shown from the beginning (eg he is almost killed in a car crash because he is distracted by a Virgin Mary figure). He knows that what he is doing is wrong, and even how manipulative he is, because he wants to hide what he is doing and does not want to be objected to the same methods of “observation” himself.

The core problem is that Peter has been sexually obsessed with his brother Laurence from childhood and that he killed Jan (or at least did not try to save him) out of jealousy. This is suggested by his behavior towards the children (following and photographing them) and their fear of him, his later dreams (Pascale turns into Laurence during a sexual fantasy) and his behavior towards his brother (he walks in on him when he masturbates and does not leave). Finally, he kills Pascale for the same reason – jealousy. He even says that he and Laurence “stayed together until dark” after Jan’s death; how far the sexual abuse actually went is not explicit, but Peter’s desires are clear enough.

As a critic of psychoanalysis, I find it very commendable that the trauma is presented as real rather than just as a hallucination or wish fulfillment of the victim. However, it is somewhat problematic that the actors are very alluring, and that Peter’s dreams are not only erotic in a relatively normal adult way, but are presented in an aestheticized and titillating manner. This not only makes the story more difficult to understand, but it also undermines the abusiveness. This is a common problem of depictions of sexual abuse, especially visual depictions. Contrast this with the clumsy way Laurence tries to have sex with Pascale as well as Peter’s crude sexual assault on her, which is more realistic and arguably less of a turn-on for the viewer.

Perhaps the reason why few people seem to have understood the core problem is that in order to create suspense and a surprise twist Peter is portrayed as a bit too “normal” in the beginning (job, wife, child etc.). This makes it seem as if his troubles started with caring for his brother, almost like the “contagion” of the possessed subjects that he studies as an anthropologist (a choice of profession that is in line with his voyeuristic tendencies). On the contrary, Peter’s obsession is the dark side of his motivation to “help” Laurence in the first place. I do not know how realistic it is that Peter is able to function relatively well otherwise and that his obsession carries on into Laurence’s adulthood. On the other hand, Laurence’s schizophrenia has conserved him in a childlike state, which Peter seeks to perpetuate (in contrast to Pascale), and he even regresses himself (in the games he plays with his brother).

The only thing that disturbs the consistency of this explanation is the scene with the psychic child, the subject in an anthropological study who talks as if she were able to read Laurence’s mind or were channeling Jan’s ghost. The incident serves to alert Pascale that Peter has a problem, because he reacts to the child’s words with fear, but it is definitely not just Peter’s hallucination (because it is documented on video tape), and it is too elaborate to be mere coincidence. This is the only detail where the filmmakers seem to have been unable to decide whether they were making a supernatural horror film or a realistic psychological drama (or both – a story about a schizophrenic haunted by a ghost), so it comes across more as a mistake rather than as an interesting ambiguity.

The significance of the line “Do I stand before the King?”, which is repeated several times throughout, is not explained (as far as I can tell). Apart from appearing in the Bible (referring to God as the “King of Heaven”), it may be a reference to DON CARLOS. The Grand Inquisitor asks this question of the King, who is plotting to kill a family member (his son though, not his brother, but the theme of intrigue, guilt and inquisition might be the connection). Laurence’s wish of wanting to drown is probably connected with the seaside and Jan’s sinking into the sand as if it were water. I do not quite know what to make of Laurence’s vision of people turning into ice. It seems to appear when Laurence is subjected to excessive, inappropriate emotional demands of others (his mother’s, Peter’s), to which he reacts with fear (so in a sense, he is actually the one who freezes up). Again, contrary to psychoanalytic interpretations, it is quite realistic that some elements of fantasies are simply random and purely idiosyncratic, rather than have a specific origin and meaning, so perhaps none is intended.

The father seems to have left the family after an argument, and one wonders what became of the mother. Perhaps the twins and the older brother are half-siblings, because they are far apart in age and look so dissimilar. I would have liked to know a bit more about this; perhaps there was something in the script that did not make it into the finished film.

Finally, I do not understand why some people regard the film as ending on a positive note, even though Laurence is seen leaving the house, which expresses some independence. He is hardly ready to take care of himself, and it is likely that he will be the prime suspect for one or even both killings. And even though it may help him to have understood something of the true nature of his brother, he has not only suffered the loss of another loved-one, he now carries the guilt of having killed a brother himself. But perhaps one should not elaborate on a story beyond what is seen (or written).

The visuals are imaginative and the creation of mood is very well done for such a low-budget film. Abril is lovely, with the right mix of sensitivity, curiosity and intrepidness. Sands, despite his impressive stature, projects the necessary childlike beauty, helplessness and innocence (his voice and speech seem a bit too mature, cultivated and untroubled though). Hurt is fantastic, as usual, and this role, for once, gives him lots to do (such as chasing Laurence around as Quasimodo – ironically, a role that he once turned down). His character’s desires, anguish and cruelty are all there from the beginning – they just unfold. Hurt is even able to make his character somewhat sympathetic, by playing him as if, despite his manipulations, he were helplessly watching his own monstrosity. Hurt’s striking eyes, which are impenetrable, yet convey the impression that they are desperately trying to see, are photographed to great effect (strangely, they look not only darker, but larger than usual), almost like a focal point of the film’s theme, the contrast of vision vs. truth. As a fan of the actor (which was my personal motivation for watching this), I even forgive the film for making his character sexier than it should be. Hurt’s quirky, protean sex appeal has been deplorably underused, so I enjoyed the opportunities he is given here. One can certainly understand why the filmmakers thought of him for the role and why Hurt accepted the project, even though it did not have much to recommend it besides the story.

It is a pity that this movie is usually categorized as a horror film (and it was even bundled on DVD with films like BLOOD SABBATH and NECROMANCY), because it is certainly more interesting for people who enjoy psychological drama rather than horror. It is also a pity that the writers/directors Sergio Guerraz and Dominique Othenin-Girard have not done much since (except for contributing to further installments of the OMEN films, which may have influenced the categorization).