“What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves — our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.” - Iris Chase in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin
Movies about mothers – mothers’ relationship with their children, children’s relationship with their mothers – can trade in easy sentiment or melodrama. But motherhood isn’t all swaddling and coddling and comfortable archetypes. In the rough terrain where a woman becomes a mother, she can feel she’s been corralled, her personality, her persona, her entire independent self suddenly defined largely by her actual or idealized connection to a child. These three thrillers tap into the poignancy and pressures that many mothers face, digging into the complicated web of social expectations in a world that both mythologizes and devalues motherhood, while translating the everyday tensions of caregiving into the language of the fantastic and the grotesque.
Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) is a keen of maternal panic and dread. On her first morning in London, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) is already running late: late dropping off her four-year-old daughter Bunny at her new preschool, late meeting the movers at the new flat, late to the market to stock the bare cupboards. At midday when Ann arrives conscientiously early to meet the teacher, Bunny is nowhere to be found.
Teachers and staff shrug, shake their heads, and claim they’ve never set eyes on Bunny – or on Ann, for that matter. The only staff member Ann met in her morning rush has quit in a huff. A four-year-old has vanished and no one, including the police, seems as concerned as she expects. “It’s like a nightmare,” Ann (Carol Lynley) says…but you can wake up from a nightmare.
The film’s suffused with a harrowing mixture of scrutiny and disregard that many women, not just mothers, will recognize. Even before Bunny goes missing, Ann faces indifference or veiled hostility at almost every turn, and when someone does turn their attention to her, it’s to misunderstand, dismiss, or discredit her. Only her brother Steven (Keir Dullea) and Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) treat her with kindness – and the detective’s crisp courtesy is understandably tempered with professional impartiality.
Even lechery is a form of hostility. Ann’s new landlord (played by Noël Coward in a grubby sweater and perpetual leer) barges in unannounced during moving day, “carrying out my landlord’s right of inspection,” lashing her with greasy innuendo, and ignoring her demurrals. When he returns later, Ann’s panic outweighs her docility and she first begs, then barks at him to get out; he offers to soothe her “buttermilk flesh” with whiskey and amorous bruises.
The landlord’s absurdly ill-timed and repulsive harassment should feel incongruous, but instead it underscores the tone of the film mercilessly. His coercion and Newhouse’s polite skepticism form the heart of Bunny Lake is Missing, the easy devaluing of women’s words and experiences. As police and school staff search for her missing daughter, Ann’s parenting, competence, and memory for details are all impugned. Eventually the most fundamental facts of her report are called into question, all while dreadful doubts grow in Ann’s mind – and in the audience’s.
Are the stubborn schoolmistresses concealing a dreadful mistake, maybe even a deadly one? Is Ann’s memory at fault? Why is Superintendent Newhouse oh-so-gently pressing Ann to produce anyone or anything – a scrap of clothing, a passport, a school record, a child’s toothbrush, a passing witness on the street or the bus – to prove that Bunny ever arrived in London?
Director Otto Preminger’s framing and the busy, off-balance sets reinforce this claustrophobic scrutiny. Closed-in rooms, closed-off doorways, cluttered or barred windows, and off-kilter angles create a tight, airless world. Even the streets of London feel cramped and tight as Ann tries to move through blocked roads and sluggish crowds. Bunny Lake is Missing turns everyday oppression to high-pitched tension.
Sometimes it’s not the loss of the children that provokes panic, but their presence. We don’t like to acknowledge this, but parenting – though for some incomparably joyful and fulfilling – is also a gruelingly hard job, physically and emotionally, and one that often weighs disproportionately on women. In The Others (2001), strict, stringent Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) has been stranded with her small children in their secluded home on the island of Jersey, just after the end of the German WWII occupation.
Residents have been slipping away since the first days of the German occupation. When the film opens, it’s been a week since Grace’s servants vanished, a week she’s been trapped in that looming, dark house by fog and drudgery and fear of Nazi soldiers wandering the land, a week that she’s been tending her children’s needs alone. And her children’s needs are burdensome.
As Grace explains to the trio of new servants who arrive hopefully at her doorstep, a big old manor like hers requires rigorous upkeep, and her children’s care is demanding, too. Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) have “a very serious allergy to light,” a painful and potentially fatal condition which she safeguards by exacting routine. As she walks from room to room, Grace unlocks each door from a ring at her hip, locking it again behind her before opening or closing the heavy curtains.
Grace speaks with the crisp precision of utter faith even in anger, her piety lending an austere certainty to all her beliefs, religious and earthly. “This house is like a ship,” she instructs new nanny Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan.) “The light must be contained as if it were water.” Grace has been struggling to keep her own head above water. The safety of her children is paramount, and safety means, above all, control: control over locked doors, control over the light, control over the children’s movements, control over the natural high spirits that even ill or isolated or rigidly disciplined children feel from time to time.
During the tour of the house, Grace tacitly describes her children as obstacles. “Because here, most of the time, you can hardly see your way. It’s hard to see if there is a table, a chair, a door, a sideboard… or one of my children playing hide-and-seek.” But the house boasts more than stumbling blocks. Grace is often shown behind or against bars – the imposing barred gates of the estate, the banisters of the grand staircase, bar-backed chairs, seemingly endless rows of tree trunks lining a path – or hemmed in by rooms cluttered with stacks and piles of old, upturned furniture. In a very real sense, this home is her prison.
The island setting, the occupation, the spell of bad weather, the children’s affliction: all conspire to justify the film’s tenebrous desolation. Director Alejandro Amenábar tempers the moody atmosphere and high-pitched scares of The Others with the everyday leavening of humor and even incensed irritation familiar to anyone who’s ever tended children. Caregiving is often exhausting and sometimes pettishly annoying: repeating, reminding, minding manners, setting rules and boundaries.
Children test one’s patience, and the children of The Others are no exception. Anne especially is believably bratty, screwing up her cute face into moues of sneering derision and mocking pretense, teasing her timid brother (“cowardy cowardy custard!”) and goading her mother. When she starts to mention ghosts and mysterious visitors, pious Grace punishes her for telling such cruel lies – and blasphemous ones, at that. Anne becomes increasingly peevish and snide, sniping at Grace with insinuations of inadequate parenting.
Of course the parenting is inadequate, because what one mother – what one person – could stand up to the demands of this life? Isolated in the misty isle, maintaining her household without help or hope of relief, fearful that her home and her small family might still fall captive to foreign soldiers, she musters on, pretending that all is well.
Grace demands a great deal – from her servants, from her children, most of all from herself – and every bit of that strain shows on her face, in the set of her shoulders as she carries the weight of this isolated household on her back. She’s resolutely repressed her own needs, her own feelings, her own fears in service of what she fervently believes to be her children’s well-being. Under such dutiful strain, even the mother’s milk of love can curdle and the staunchest certainty can crumble.
The surrender to uncertainty that Grace thought would be her downfall turns out to be her salvation. No one, not even an eternally vigilant mother, can always know best, and realizing that allows her to loosen her grip enough to embrace her children… and herself, with all her flaws and failings. Accepting our faults opens the door to forgiveness, to grace, to love.
Some people, some parents, some mothers instinctively know how to embrace their own complex and not always happy histories, and how to construct from them something loving and giving, something that rewards them even as it fosters others. In El Orfanato (2007), a terrifying and tender story of devotion, Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the seaside orphanage where she spent her happy childhood. She and husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) plan to renovate the now-disused hall into a school dedicated to a handful of chronically ill or disabled children, They will grow up there with their own young son, Simón (dimply darling Roger Príncep), and in turn the students will keep him company, one big near-family in this lonesome, lovely countryside.
But for now, he’s alone, and as lonely children will, Simón finds his own companions. His longtime imaginary friends are joined by a brood of new ones, mischievous pranksters who whisper secrets. At first, Laura and Carlos don’t let Simón’s diversions worry them. Kids have their fancies, and soon enough their home will be filled with real children, a whole cohort of kids for Simón to romp and wrangle with. In the meantime, their son and his invisible friends stomp and storm around the old house. Some of the noises can be blamed on his play, some on the renovators, but some are no doubt just the thumps and bumps of an old house settling its bones as the new tenants shape it up.
Just as old houses resound with unexpected sounds and secrets, families reverberate with unsounded depths. Simón confronts Laura about their family’s history, angrily insisting that he hasn’t snooped, that his new friends spilled the secrets. It’s true that his naive grasp on the facts rings the crude, even cruel note of children’s taunts. Laura begins to wonder why her sunny, sweet son’s fantasy life, once so harmless, has suddenly taken a turn for the dark. Is this simple adjustment to a new home, a new life, an emotional revelation? Or is something more sinister happening here in this handsome house by the sea?
Though the story plays shamelessly on the popular assumption of a good mother’s fathomless guilt, Laura’s palpable anguish and remorse – and, most of all, her abiding, doubtless love – blanket the atmospheric scenes and practiced beats of director J. A. Bayona’s cinematic grammar, creating a rich and utterly credible character at the center of the story. The familiar sentiments and terrors of El Orfanato are deployed with assured patience, drawing out Laura’s anxieties – and our own – with intent deliberation.
When the scares arrive, they’re devastating, but the film’s soul resides in its melancholy sweetness, in the fierce and loving heart of Laura, who will do anything to protect her son. Belén Rueda shoulders the weight of this mournful, gorgeous film, and she’s riveting to watch, a rangy, graceful woman using every sinew of her body and every ounce of love to brace herself for a battle with fate.
The true horror of El Orfanato is not the specter of ghosts or even of the human evils traditionally understood to create them. The crux of the film lies in the pain we each carry inside us, perhaps parents and caregivers more keenly than anyone, the knowledge that even in our sweetest and strongest battles for those we love, we’re still capable of raining down damage and destruction upon them. Not only can we; we will. It’s the nature of nurturing: even when we do our very best, we never know until too late what hapless word or gesture will deal the crushing blow.
Love can crush as easily as it can cherish, and the best comfort we can take from this truth is simple: it happens. It happens to all of us, in large ways or small, and most of us recover enough to muddle along and learn to do our best in turn. Whatever your relationship to your mother or your children or even yourself – sweet security, ambivalence, blank absence, even scorn or spite – the world is full of people who have walked that same path. Most of us do the best we can, and most of us do well enough. Not perfectly, because none of us is perfect, but persistently.
Whether you are a mother or a father or a child or a lover or a friend, this is the essence of love. We try, and we fail, and we try again. We all give imperfectly of ourselves and our love. That’s the best we have to give each other: our love, and ourselves, and our love again. And giving them, even imperfectly, is the greatest thing we can do.