TADFF 09: GRACE Review
Let us put the cards down on the table, shall we? Most horror movies these days aim to titillate, not actually scare. When you are cheering for the victims (or the slasher) to be splattered or carved on screen, this is lynch-mob entertainment or vicarious wish-fulfilment. An honest to goodness horror movie, in the humble opinion of this writer, should burrow at a deeply personal, individual level. There is nothing wrong with the former group spectacle - akin to blood-lust for gladiators in the coliseum or the role of football in current times; it is just not my personal cup of tea. When a movie like Grace comes along and shows how a few very well articulated ideas, specifically (specifically, an amplification of the anxieties of new parents) can really massage its audience with discomfort and bile, you will have to indulge me for getting a little giddy at the thought. The Sundance buzz around this picture, in the wake of a few audience members fainting or rushing for the doors, proudly proclaims to "See it at your own risk." Believe it - the film is the real deal. Moms-to-be or folks who have a young one at home in the crib are going to have a more difficult time with Grace than some of the more acknowledged classics of the 'pregnant-horror' sub-genre À l'intérieur or Rosemary's Baby.
Writer-director Paul Solet is content early on in the picture to take precisely aimed satirical strikes at some of the things expecting parents (in the western middle class, but to a degree in any culture) will likely have to deal with at some point. Many 'older couples,' as in those getting pregnant into their thirties and beyond, have a rough go at getting pregnant. 'Mission sex' centered more around conception than personal intimacy becomes the order of the day. The goal of spawning takes on the guise of a masters thesis. The research around reproducing, the medical and social decisions can be daunting and veer off into obsessive and narcissistic realms. Natural birth or epidural pain killers? Midwife and Doula or Hospital? Breast feeding or baby formula? How far do you want to let the in-laws into the child raising decisions? How do you keep them at arms length if they disagree philosophically. Judgement calls become personal flags of stubborn pride that can alienate friends and family. All the while, images of handsome little infants gleam out from product advertisements in glossy parenting magazines and the overall sales machine of all manner of baby-do-dads. This level of anxiety-joy is much more heightened than say the lucre-circus of marriage due to the biology involved. Biology is one of the great avenues to really going after a horror metaphor; something that David Cronenberg or Shinya Tsukamoto knows a thing or two about, and Grace is certainly gunning to be in that league.
Madeline and her husband Michael are finally expecting their first child after several miscarriages. Michael's mother Vivian, a high-powered judge (played with real intensity by the Gabrielle Rose, perhaps best known as the kindly and sympathetic bus driver from Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter and playing 180 degrees from that role here), has cuckolded her husband and son, and is aiming to get Madeline away from all notions of touchy-feely organic food and natural childbirth. Her 'mother-in-law- from-hell' meddling reaches the high point when she practically forces one of her friends, Dr. Sohn, as their primary Obstetrician. A 'labour scare' drives the couple to the hospital and a fight ensues between the new Doctor and Madeline's friend and chosen OB/midwife, Patricia, upping the familial stress ante to the breaking point. A car accident on the way home re-writes the whole landscape when Michael is killed in the collision along with the unborn baby. Shockingly, (moreso because this apparently actually happens) Grace decides to carry the dead fetus to term with the midwife where the biology of child-birth is shown onscreen in a way more realistic (ironic considering the baby is dead) than most TV or film births. Biology is an ugly, messy thing, and any hospital birthing ward is an area of uninhibited pain and screams. But I digress, this being a horror movie, the child comes out not-quite dead. Already showing the tenacity of a mother bear protecting her cub, Madeline keeps even her midwife at bay after the subtle suggestion of 'this miracle should be studied' and vows not to go anywhere near a hospital or her mother-in-law's Dr. Sohn.
A beautiful and precious baby Grace is nonetheless like all infants, very needy and very parasitic - both of a mothers precious bodily fluids, but also of her sleep and sanity. It certainly does not help that Vivian is trying to claim Grace by legal means as a surrogate for her own lost son, and that for some reason Grace is drawing flies in the bedroom. Soon enough, breast milk isn't enough for the child, requiring the more nourishing red stuff, taken by painful and visually arresting means from mothers bosom. Growing more anemic by the day, with a sympathetic Patricia and malevolent Vivian trying to help in their own way, Madeline becomes savage in her maternal intensity. A gallery of dangling sheets of fly paper recontextualizes the bright clean mural in Grace's nursery and the rotting fruit and casual mess redefines the gourmet kitchen. It's not long before a corpse or two is added to the decor.
One thing I found curious about Madeline is that while she is very much an organic, natural foods sort of person, she seems to take a perverse pleasure in watching those slaughter house and mistreated animal videos intended to scare people off of industrial farming and food processing. This is an interesting point about the ugliness of human behaviour, that a well meaning layer of activism often is just a veneer for the more base instincts of people that polite society covers over but does not eradicate. Solet is not merely sniping at the more well meaning liberals in society though. The conservative parents, particularly Vivian and Dr. Sohn are monsters of a different kind. Close minded and controlling (and condescendingly superior) attitudes are cloaked under the guise of a well-meaning helping hand.
Zoran Popovic's cinematography alternates between clean crisp lighting and warm yellow-y sickness that gives a more 'digital' feel despite being shot on 35mm. Low angle photography keeps things looking menacing and interestingly from the child's point of view. The smiting of a housefly is taken to extreme measure for maximum metaphorical (and icky) effect. The film carries along in a very slow-burn fashion, worming beneath the skin as it develops its scenario and plot to synch sharply with its ideas and themes. Smart, decidedly un-sexy, and anxious, Grace is of the more legitimately scary and lingering horror pictures to come along in years. Child rearing can and does indeed suck the life out of you.