It’s unusual these days to look for a film and be unable to even find an old DVD edition that has gone out of print, especially when the filmmaker is as highly regarded as acclaimed playwright, artist, and author Philip Ridley. Because of the shameful lack of availability of his first two films, we’d only seen his third and most recent effort, 2009’s underrated East End horror Heartless. So it was with a great deal of excitement that we made our way to the Roxy Bar and Screen for Savage Cinema’s double bill of his previous work, set deep in the heart of America: The Reflecting Skin (1990) and The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995).
“Poor Seth. It’s all so horrible, isn’t it? The nightmare of childhood. And it only gets worse.”
The Reflecting Skin is the story of eight year old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) who lives with his parents at a gas station in a small rural community in the 1950s. Both parents seem to be on the verge of a breakdown, as his mother takes her anxiety about Seth’s veteran older brother Cam’s (Viggo Mortensen) return from the Pacific out on Seth and his subdued father. Seth amuses himself by tormenting their mysterious English neighbour Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) who he believes to be a vampire and responsible for the on-going murders of local children. When Cam finally returns and falls for Dolphin, Seth decides he has to save his brother.
Our first impression of The Reflecting Skin was just how fantastic it looks. Ridley’s history as an art student is certainly apparent and the shots of the never-ending fields and the fragile houses standing as lonely outposts are simply beautiful. There’s also a huge amount going on in this bizarre southern Gothic fairy-tale. The characters are so bizarre and the world is so peculiar that the existence of the supernatural seems entirely plausible. Seth’s head is filled with angels (he decides a stillborn foetus he finds in a barn is the angelic reincarnation of a murdered friend) and vampires while the adults are cruel, confused, and quick to anger as the heat, the stink of gasoline, and the inescapability of the location creates a stunning but intensely claustrophobic environment.
Ridley spoke after the film about the dream-logic narrative making the film’s timeframe quite liquid and it does create an uncertain world. Characters have to be reminded of the terrible events that have befallen them. At one point Cam asks Seth why he doesn’t go and play with his friends only to be told that they’re all dead. Both the possibility of the supernatural and the mercilessness nature of the environment are characterised in Lindsay Duncan’s stunning performance as Dolphin Blue. Dolphin is a grieving widow whose husband committed suicide weeks after bringing her to America. Her clumsy, playful attempts to bond with Seth (“50? No, I’m much older than that. I’m 200 years old.”) lead to his delusions of her wickedness. She subsequently connects with Cam through their shared experiences of the war (she was present during the Blitz; he worked on atom bomb testing in the Pacific). But Duncan plays the character with just the right combination of fragility and humour that her scenes with Mortensen are deeply touching while her interaction with Cooper’s wide-eyed Seth are darkly funny and bordering on threatening.
The Reflecting Skin is a beautiful dark fairy-tale that’s a fascinating vision of twisted rural Americana. It’s a crying shame that this wonderfully photographed, excellent film has not been properly restored.
Look out for our review of The Passion of Darkly Noon tomorrow.