By Mónica Delgado
What a better figure that the one of an imposing lighthouse to inquire about masculine fears? If in The Witch (2015), American filmmaker Robert Eggers explores the fears of trickeries and religious precepts in a community of New England in the seventeenth century, in The Lighthouse (2019), he stops in two solitary characters trapped in an island at the end of the nineteenth century, who survive among hallucinations, the effects of alcohol and the majesty of a lighthouse (the father, the libido or the symbolic power) which rules it all.
Like he did in The Witch, the filmmaker concentrates a specific imaginary here imaginary, something which torments the characters and that slowly convinces them of their own madness or the existence of supernatural states (or psychological depths, in a Lovecraftian way). Two men move to an island to manage a lighthouse, in Maine. They are left there at the service of a demented weather, of storms and fog, but also exposed to the rules of this micro-world, where “feeding” the lighthouse is a permanent task. Little by little, the mistrust and fear of the other will submit them, in a hellish descent that strips their phobias, where reality is shown like a nightmare.
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson communicate with each other through an old English cadence, evoking literature of the time, and where the shadow of Melville and his Moby Dick, in its philosophical background, seem to poke out. Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is an old sailor, rough and alcoholic, obsessed with the lighthouse and its power, leaving Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) with the more mundane tasks of the place, averting him from approaching the luminous tower. From this prohibition, and due to the excessive exploitation of almost forced labor, the young sailor starts to hallucinate with sirens, and the demonic figure of Wake as a castrating, controlling being, who treats him badly and constantly underestimates him. Only alcohol manages this repellency to dispel, while a weird empathy grows between them, of subtle homoerotic touches or a special struggle for power.
For Eggers, a work and friendly relationship between two men trapped in an island cannot be told from the codes of adventure or the epic. He instead forges it from the elements of psychological horror, propped by a strange connection with the natural world. Menacing birds, waves that break up to the house where they live, powerful rain showers, and a permanent atmosphere of darkness. This component of the real is shared by the supernatural side, placed in the beliefs about the lighthouse or the maritime world: sirens and the transformation of the sea into an invisible being that locks them up.
The acting duel by Dafoe and Pattinson, in a tense relationship, is imposed over the setting chosen by Eggers: very small rooms which allow a theatrical touch (especially in the way Dafoe speaks: eccentric and grandiloquent) where the characters sleep and dine; the only spaces of coexistence, where they discuss or imagine the purpose of the lighthouse. As spectators we ask ourselves through the film: what is this lighthouse?, however, the question slowly fades away against the proposal that takes us through Pattinson’s mind itself, who suffers an important mental transformation, which Eggers accentuate several times with the figure of the double. Are we watching his feverish mind imagining evil, or are this ravings product of the celestial effect of the lighthouse?
The expressive force of the film is contained also in its format and medium. Eggers choses the 1.19:1 format (like the first films of the last century) and 35mm film to give the image a texture of tension, in a black and white of strong contrast, summarized in the excellent cinematography by Jarin Blaschke.
The Lighthouse is a brilliant and disturbing film, not only because it poses as a new way to show the mechanisms of psychological horror, but also because it delivers two actors in a state of grace (the scenes of the dances and alcoholic communion with kerosene are remarkable) in a fable about inner demons, where the lighthouse who guides is turn into an icon of madness and the materiality of evil.
Quinzaine des Realizateurs
Director: Robert Eggers
Script: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers
Music: Mark Korven
Fotografía: Jarin Blaschke
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Production companies: New Regency Pictures / RT Features. Distribuida por A24
U.S.A., 110 mins, 2019