The Lighthouse: On Cinema, Mythology and Gender

It was my brother who proposed we go and see The Lighthouse. I wasn’t so sure. A film with Robert Pattinson, whom I mainly knew as the teenage heartthrob from the Twilight films? But my brother was persistent, the trailer seemed intriguing, and so off we went. And boy, am I glad we did.

The Lighthouse is not, as one might expect, a film adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel. It is very loosely based on an Edgar Allen Poe story, and while it loses most of the story’s plot, it keeps a sense of ancient evil lurking just beyond everyday reality. The Lighthouse is shot in black and white, with high contrast, and in an almost square ratio. I’m no cinema buff, just an enthusiastic amateur, and I no doubt lack the technical understanding to fully appreciate these aesthetic choices. But I will say that the film made me feel claustrophobic and tense from the get go. And this is a compliment, as I like my art as uncomfortable as possible.

The narrative is simple: two lighthouse keepers, one young and one old, find themselves together on a remote island. The weather is terrible, they hate each other’s guts, and the two men slowly descend into madness. Who wouldn’t, given the circumstances. As can be expected, the boundary between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred as the film goes on. Pattinson’s character in particular is prone to hallucinations caused by his traumatic past.

The scholar in me loved the mythological references that pepper the film. From mermaids to seagulls to Triton, they made the film feel ancient and somehow larger than life in an almost Lovecraftian way. The characters, I felt, are not just fighting their own demons, but a mysterious force that is much more powerful than they will ever be able to comprehend.

And then there’s the gender strand. The lighthouse itself could easily be interpreted as a giant phallic symbol, especially because the film generously focuses on the male body at its dirtiest (cue copious farting, pissing, drinking, puking, and masturbating). But the mermaid that keeps appearing, with her grotesquely oversized vagina (yes, I told you this film was odd) seems more of a menacing personification of femininity, and less of a subdued woman against whom the two men define their masculinity. The lighthouse itself holds a strange power over both men, which seems almost sexual in nature, and as far as I’m concerned we don’t get to see masculinity at the top of its game. Instead, we see two men losing it at the sight of a mysterious natural power which may or may not be feminine.

If I’m sounding opaque here, it’s because the film does that to its viewers. It’s billed as a horror film, but if you like your horror packed with chainsaws and screaming maidens, this film will bore you to death. Instead, it’s the film’s very strangeness that makes it scary. It crawls under your skin, despite or because of its deceptively simple plot, and sticks around for days. It’s been almost a week since I saw the film and last night I had a dream in which thick slime was dripping from my phone. Slime – of various descriptions – features quite prominently in The Lighthouse. I will say no more.

This film is definitely not for everyone. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar: it’s simply too weird, to scary, and at times to uncomfortable. It’s not an easy film to watch: it’s filthy, its characters are often unlikeable, and I was glad I could step out of the cinema and onto a busy road afterwards. But what an experience. It’s been a while since I was this impressed by a film, or a book, or any work of art. Go and see it if you can, but go easy on the booze. And be nice to seagulls. You’ll find out why soon enough.

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

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