Overcoming the light

Sally Marlow watches the film The Lighthouse directed by Robert Eggers.

I went to see The Lighthouse with my significant other. We’d just had an offer accepted on a remote and derelict property in the Yorkshire Dales, off grid, no access route, and in a wild and windswept landscape. The Lighthouse seemed apt viewing – it is the story of two people isolated from the world, left to their own devices with a daily battle against the elements to complete monotonous but vital tasks requiring hard physical labour. Will they pull together or will it all come crashing down? Spoiler alert – it’s not the former.

The Lighthouse is an extraordinary film. It is mystical and supernatural, but intensely psychological, and a bit like watching Kubrick’s The Shining, you never really know what you are watching – is it a ghost story, a horror flick, a psychological thriller, a descent into inner madness, an art house experiment, or all of the above and more? It is stuffed full of cultural references, which never quite steer it in the direction of pretentious tosh, although reflecting on the film afterwards in the cold light of day this seems like quite an achievement. Moby Dick is there, not just in the sea, but in the obsession with the lighthouse, and a hubristic wish to possess and overcome its light. It is the tale of Prometheus and Proteus, made all the more compelling because in the real world of Greek mythology these two never actually hung out with each other. H.P. Lovecraft’s sea monsters are there, swirling and strange, and the language nods to sea shanties, Shakespeare and the romanticism of Edgar Allen Poe.

The viewer watches the action play out through a square in black and white, as the two men irritate and chafe against each other, until eventually it’s all out war. At times it feels like looking into a box, at times it’s the characters who are looking in, and this serves to increase the sense of claustrophobia, combined with a soundscape consisting mainly of wind, rain, storm and waves underpinned by a relentless, shuddering horn. In the scenes where the lighthouse itself inhabits the screen it dominates – there is no cropping, no extended landscape to sit it in context. Rather it towers and glowers angrily in the middle of the square. In a HuffPost interview Robert Pattinson gives a clue to what the Director, Robert Eggers, was aiming for with the lighthouse: ‘it was pretty explicit… the script said the lighthouse looked like an erect penis’.

There is a brooding undercurrent of sexual tension throughout the film. Pattinson’s character Winslow furiously masturbates over a carved mermaid, Defoe’s naked Wake communes with the light of the lighthouse in some erotically charged ritual, excluding Pattinson, who watches from below, dodging bodily fluids as they drip through the floor. If this sounds gross and weird, well, it is.  

There is humour, but that too is weird. When the men are drinking to oblivion with the storm howling in the background, Winslow curses Wake with one of the fruitiest, most eloquent, longest diatribes I’ve ever heard in a film, to which Wake responds ‘you’ve a way with words, Tommy’. A prolonged stand-off between Winslow and a seagull is genuinely funny, until it’s not funny at all as Winslow cracks under the seagull’s onslaught.

Twitter liked The Lighthouse. @trishgreenhalgh described it as Waiting for Godot meets Lord of the Flies, whilst @RobertBEnglund (who as Freddy Kruger knows a bit about horror films) described it as H.P. Lovecraft-ish. @markcousinsfilm meanwhile captured it thus: Like Baby Jane directed by Jean Genet. In a very good way.

And what of us, the pair watching this depiction of what happens when two people are left to their own devices in an inhospitable landscape, with no other human contact on the horizon? A few days after we watched the film, the owner of the land in Yorkshire accepted a better offer. It looks like the city will have to keep us for a few more years. Perhaps no bad thing.

- Reviewed by Dr Sally Marlow, Engagement and Impact Fellow in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, and Associate Editor for ‘Culture’.

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