The Lighthouse (2019)

Dir. Robert Eggers. Starring Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, a very sassy bird

As this is still in theaters, here’s a spoiler warning, but also I don’t know that this is a movie someone who cares about spoilers would be into, so…

 

Persona: Ingmar Bergman’s twenty-seventh movie

3 Women: Robert Altman’s fourteenth movie

Mulholland Drive: David Lynch’s ninth movie

Fight Club: David Fincher’s fourth movie

Performance: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s first movie

The Lighthouse: Robert Eggers’ second movie

 

Since the release of Persona, by acclimation one of the twenty-five greatest movies ever made, the story of two people holed up together who become so close as to become indistinguishable, or so close as to switch personalities entirely, has been rapturously remade by a number of filmmakers. The latest reconsideration of that picture is The Lighthouse, which more than any other I know of apes Persona in its look (some really distinctive and lovely black-and-white photography, with a fondness for glowing lights in dark rooms) and its setting (with austere and rocky Nova Scotia standing in for alien and rocky Farö). Certain rules are upheld in this picture, as they are in the others like it: the participants are always of the same sex and are physically isolated, though not necessarily so much that no one else is there; 3 Women is a good example, as the characters live in a small desert town. Between the two there must be a firm power imbalance at the outset, but not an insuperable one. In Persona, Elisabet is a famous actress and Alma the nurse taking care of her; Alma has some ability to stand up for herself and the rules, but Elisabet is the more potent figure especially in the early going. In The Lighthouse, there’s a more obvious imbalance: the senior lighthouse keeper, Wake (Dafoe), gives orders to his junior, Winslow (Pattinson). And, of course, there must be some scene where it’s made clear that our two people are alloyed, amalgamated with one another. One of the reasons that Persona maintains its place at the top is because none of its successors—heck, virtually no movie ever made—has a shot like the one where Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann’s faces come together.

What’s remarkable about the Persona revisions is that all of them are good movies, for I think the concept is difficult enough that one cannot just hand it over to any director and hope that s/he’ll turn out some incredible movie. The concept alone is a sort of limiting factor. Yet, even though the list above is obviously incomplete, I think there’s value in giving this sort of project to a more experienced director, one who has made all-timers in the past as opposed to one who might do it later. It’s the difference between Persona or Mulholland Drive and Performance or The Lighthouse; there’s an incompleteness to the latter two movies, a lack of emotional resonance, a lack of a truly transcendent sequence. Persona has the melding of the faces; Mulholland Drive has Betty and Rita weeping over “Llorando.” There are good scenes in Performance (I can hear the Roeg stans yelling at me about “Memo from Turner,” which I get). Even Fight Club, which has a twist on top of the rest for reasons that no one has ever adequately made clear, has that scene where the protagonist burns himself with lye. But there is no great scene in The Lighthouse. Maybe Eggers is working up to it the way that Roeg and Fincher ultimately did work up to those supreme expressions of skill; all the same the lack of it is keenly felt in a movie which is otherwise not such a bad take on Persona. This is such an abstruse concept, and one that is generally worked towards slowly, that a real punch to the gut is a necessity, whether because the sequence is overwhelming or because the idea is so new. The Lighthouse does not give us something new to work with; honestly the end of the movie is more Alex Garland than Robert Eggers.

The closest we get in The Lighthouse is very near to the end. Throughout the movie Winslow, which is not his real name, has yearned to get up to the light itself. There is a platform which is locked from beneath, and only Wake has the key to it. He guards the key and the light jealously, so aggressive in this that it comes to feel like a taunt. When Winslow Howard does make it to the top, he gazes at this light. It has been a long time since I’ve been to a lighthouse—thank you, fourth grade project that sent me to Navesink—and I had almost forgotten how hypnotic the Fresnel lens is. Seeing it while it is lit up must be something like being in the presence of a Biblical angel, and Howard’s reaction to it is not unlike that of the people the angel visited. There is awe at first. Then curiosity: he opens it up to touch what’s inside. And then there’s fear, anguish, pain. There is a tremendous scream, and with no counter of “Do not be afraid” we see Howard’s unfortunate body tumble all the way down to the bottom of the spiral steps, hitting every one of them on the way. He has acceded to the place Wake held, could stay there for only a moment, and is jettisoned down below again, where, of course, Wake’s corpse is lying not so very far away; his own suffers the indignities of the outdoors in the next, and final, scene. It’s a very good scene. The first real sense we get that these two are one comes earlier, and is effective. After making a big deal out of asking Wake to call him “Winslow” after getting “dog” and “lad” for a fortnight, it turns out that his real name is Howard; Winslow is the name of someone he knew from his last job who died, someone who Howard could not save. Their first names, however, are the same: both are named Thomas. Not an uncommon name in 1890 or so, but it is the primary clue that these two are aligned by more than location or profession or madness.

If there is an advantage that this movie has over its predecessors, it is in how unbelievably funny it is. The scold in me proclaims The Lighthouse my favorite romantic comedy since The Big Sick. If this is a Persona with male players, how fitting it is that they’re living in, fighting over, and generally in the presence of an obvious giant light-up phallus. There’s a variation on “pissing into the wind” that really lands, tee hee. There are sea chanteys and dances which got big smiles out of me, although as any good sailor knows there can never be too many sea chanteys. I wouldn’t have guessed at Eggers’ sense of comedic timing from seeing The Witch, but he proved amply that he is capable of building a moment up so far that you begin to worry the payoff will never come, and then when it does come you feel a tremendous joy at it finally happening. In The Witch, Eggers skirts around the old patriarchal binary of civilization and nature/man and woman until all of a sudden he doesn’t. That’s how the jokes in The Lighthouse feel, and the one that is likely to live on the Internet longest is the one about “me lobster.” As the movie progresses, Winslow gets more and more comfortable critiquing Wake—a comfort aided by whatever swill Wake pushes on his apprentice, and which Winslow ultimately becomes quite enamored of—and in one scene he lets the elder lighthouse keeper have it about how much he dislikes his cooking. The response Wake gives him, captured by Eggers in a close-up, is legendary. Dafoe is great in this movie, and he is extra great when he is just allowed to ramble on in this pirate voice he’s got going on: in letting Winslow have it, Wake invokes Triton and a number of sobriquets for same, uses surprisingly beautiful phrases like “engorging your organs” and “crowned in cockleshells,” and all the while has this feverish look in his eye. And then, once he’s exhausted his epithets, there’s a cut. We’re now in the hall behind Wake. We can see Winslow, seated, legs up tight against his body. He says, perfectly deadpan: “All right. Have it your way,” and then, cool as can be, “I like your cooking.” Cut to the next scene. Just priceless.

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