Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Devil Knows My Name: The ambivalence of motherhood in 'We Need to Talk about Kevin'

There are very few mainstream anti-mothering films. Those that do exist tend to be horror-films which essentially take the pregnancy-as-infection/invasion discourse to its logical conclusions. Considering the massive physiological and hormonal changes the female body is forced to undergo through pregnancy, along with an ever growing baby bump which looks exactly like a massive tumour, it seems that pregnancy is uncomfortably close to being a disease. Films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Brood express this instinctual fear that pregnancy is not necessarily experienced as a powerful maternal bond which connects mother and baby as kin but rather, as an outside colonisation of the female body where a woman is forcibly disconnected from her own body, unable to recognise that which grows within her as a part of herself. This feeling can only be made worse by the societal expectation that she will be suddenly transformed into a paradigm of maternal instinct from the moment of conception. In this way, those films that do explore pregnancy as disease function as one of the only ways to offer up an alternative narrative of motherhood, one replete with the anxieties and fears that are so thoroughly jettisioned from normative ideals. Of course, they can only do this under the protective guise of horror or science-fiction which ensures that any controversy can be made palatable through an insistence on its fictive nature.

We Need to Talk about Kevin refuses to hide behind such notions although its director, Lynne Ramsey, has described it as a psychological horror. A few genre conventions aside, the film concerns itself with the reality of mother-hood, with the unsettling fact that it is possible to mother a child and from the moment of birth, feel nothing but absence. After giving birth to Kevin, Eva (Tilda Swinton) sits in a hospital bed, staring into the distance as her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) dissolves into his own deluded world, in love with the new baby. In one image, we see how isolating it must be to feel so separate from what is undeniably your own flesh and blood. And of course there are reminders of this everywhere, from the accusing looks from other women as she pushes a crying Kevin in his pram, to the similarity of their faces as Kevin grows into a coldly beautiful young boy. Precocious and dangerously intelligent, Kevin very quickly begins to actively participate in Eva’s ambivalent experiences of motherhood because he refuses to recognise her as kin either. Actually, he more than refuses to go along with her attempts to fulfil the traditional duties of mother as play-mate, teacher and confidante; he reveals these enactments as pure performance, reminding her that she is merely going through the motions. ‘Just because you're used to something doesn't mean you like it’ he says to her. ‘You're used to me’. She knows there is no point in contesting his implication.

We Need to Talk about Kevin has been called an anti-Oedipal film but I think that it is precisely the spectre of Oedipus which haunts its main concern- the relationship between Eva and Kevin. Really, Kevin is absolutely devoted to his mother in that his only desire is to destroy her. It is a commitment which becomes obsessive. Poor naïve Franklin barely comes into it except as a pawn in a terse battle of wills between mother and son. Kevin only pretends to be close to his father in order to more thoroughly torment his mother. Any identification is pure simulacrum; the mere fact that he can so easily manipulate Franklin means that there is no fear of castration here- Kevin does not see Franklin as being anywhere near his equal. Updating Freud’s original theory, Jacque Lacan envisioned the Oedipus complex as that which ‘superimposes the kingdom of culture upon the person, marking his or her introduction to Symbolic Order’ (Escrits). If we were going to read this film purely through a psychoanalytical lens, it could be argued that it is no surprise that Kevin becomes the amoral creature that he is. No resolution of the Oedipus complex means that he never has to recognise a symbolic system that is independent of him i.e. a societal moral code. Instead, Kevin is a grossly exaggerated Ubermensch, pure cartoon nihilism as read by a smart but stubborn teenager. ‘There is no point’ he says, dead eyes staring at the computer screen whilst his mother looks at him with hopeless despair.

And of course there is a vague sense of sexual tension between the two, although it’s hard to say if this was intentional or not. A lot of this comes down to the actor himself, Erza Miller, who is all pouty-lipped and snake hips, already sort of screaming sex anyway. The camera emphasises this physicality as it focuses in on specific parts of his body, the male gaze in reverse. He is nearly always shirtless or in tiny t-shirts which ride up to expose his stomach. It all adds up to an overt and somewhat disturbing sexiness, considering that Kevin is supposed to only be fifteen. But it adds a layer of Freudian complexity to what was already a deeply ambivalent relationship between him and Eva. He is not embarrassed about his sexuality; if anything, he parades it in front of her. In a scene where she catches him masturbating, he barely flinches. Instead, he continues, his eyes fixed resolutely on her until she closes the door, disturbed and offended. There is definitely a fuck you attitude there but there is also a sense of him displaying his sexuality as a dark threat. When he speaks in aggressive sexual terms about the girls in school, he is almost pushing her, daring her to admit that she has no traditional maternal feelings for him. With every languid movement, with every smirk, he forces a sexual element into their relationship which reminds her and us that this is no traditional mother and son paradigm. Indeed, what we understand to be natural and essentialised regarding being a mother or a son is suggested to be a societal fiction which has merely been naturalised into our present discourse.

Of course, despite everything, Eva and Kevin cannot do without each other. Ultimately, Kevin goes the way of Oedipus Rex, disposing of the father, finally alone with the mother. Towards the end of the film, we witness Eva fixing a room for Kevin which is identical to the one in their old house. It is understood that even though he has committed awful crimes against her, he will come back home after he is released from prison. She continues to visit him. She takes the punishment for her son’s sins with mute acceptance. And she accepts that he cannot really tell her why he did what he did. Perhaps because she knows deep down, that everything he does is about her. She is his entire life. Really, until the day that he enacted his will against a bunch of unsuspecting school children, the only person who knew what he was capable of was his mother. She was the only person he allowed to see it; in a twisted way, she is the only person he trusts. ‘It was the most honest thing you ever did’, he says, referring to a moment of domestic violence which he used as a gun held up to her head until the day of his crime. Her disavowal of motherhood means that she sees Kevin for whom and what he is, unlike Franklin who buries his head in blind paternal devotion. Despite his sociopathic lack of empathy, he seems to respect her for this. It is hard to tell whether his emotional reaction in their final scene is genuine or just another manipulation but therein lays the importance of the film. Everything is resolutely ambiguous when it comes to these mother-son interactions. There are no easy and ready answers.

And so too is this film’s honest and unflinching presentation of motherhood as it exposes the myths surrounding that strange ontological status, those very myths which continue to isolate and imprison women. Motherhood hangs over Eva like a dead weight, like an ill-fitting jumper. She never quite embodies it. But who can ever really embody that word, that notion- mother- when it is so heavy, so stuffed full with connotation and expectations and demands? We Need to Talk about Kevin is unique amongst modern mainstream cinema for daring to ask and encourage debate around central questions regarding motherhood. What does it mean to be a mother? Are you made a mother by virtue of giving birth or do you become one? What if you never really become one despite giving birth? What if you give birth to something that you despise? What to do if the devil doesn’t only know your name but shares your name and your blood?