[Written by Alice Millar Thompson]
The image of a static lighthouse amidst a protean ocean encapsulates the themes of constancy and change which underpin Robert Eggers’ most recent film, The Lighthouse. It is a taut, visceral film of extremes, both stylistically and thematically, as it vacillates between sinewy realism and gothic horror in an uncanny tangle of celestial and corporeal imagery. Boundaries between dream, reality and madness dissolve into metaphysical anxieties surrounding the inability to trust external forces of nature, gods, fate, and other people, as well as the internal mechanisms of one’s own mind. A sense of horror is wielded over viewers in the restrained use of disquieting images which are never fully elucidated, stimulating the ubiquitous fear of the unknown. Eggers’ venture into this darkly spiritual unknown marks an attempt to resurrect a sense of mystery, which he suggests has been lost in an increasingly secular contemporary culture dominated by science and statistics. The lighthouse flame which becomes a monomania is imbued with mysticism, most pertinently that of the Prometheus myth. Yet, it is also significantly referred to as St Elmo’s fire; the reawakening of a spiritual dimension in the scientifically explicable phenomenon.
A sense of the uncanniness arises in the friction between ancient and modern which gathers energy as a familiar tale unfolds. Narratives from Greek mythology are reinterpreted through a 21st century lens, gesturing to a historical continuity of storytelling and drawing tacit comparisons between the concerns of spatio-temporally disparate societies. Though the film is ostensibly a period piece, historical accuracy is not a primary concern. The fin de siècle setting serves to establish conditions which facilitate broader discussions on human nature, and more specifically masculinity. In conjunction with ideas from the modern field of psychology, particularly those of Jung and Freud – with whom Eggers is particularly fascinated – it is implied that reflecting upon the past may inform our understanding of the current epoch, and allow us to anticipate humanity’s future trajectory.
The volatile relationship encircling the lighthouse is itself, even in moments of camaraderie, forever on the brink of collapsing into confrontation. The characters regard one another as wild dogs would, they vie for dominance, but there is also an air of tense domesticity which straddles the boundary between instinctual and ‘civilised’ behaviour. Modes of communication range from primal barking to overwrought invocations reminiscent of epic poetry, although the driving sentiment remains the same. An emphasis is placed on physicality throughout the film and much of the communication is non-verbal; the most explicit example of this is the marking of territory through the free expulsion of bodily fluids. The attention paid to the male body in moments of voyeurism and drunken revelry also introduces an uneasy sexual dimension to particular exchanges. This is explored in a nuanced manner that refuses to neatly categorise the proclivities of either character.
An unrelenting atmosphere of hostility pervades the natural environment and the technical features of the film. In a visual style inspired by the works of artists such as Sascha Schneider and Gustave Dore, a monochromatic pallet and chiaroscuro lighting create a foreboding atmosphere of searing light and abysmal darkness. The unconventional aspect ratio narrows the frame into a cell-like confinement, forcing the characters closer together and restricting the boundaries of movement. In conjunction with the recurring mechanical foghorn wails, an atmosphere of extreme discomfort is established from the opening scene.
Viewers approaching the film from a 21st century perspective may discern a thematic relevance to pressing issues which have persisted over time, such as humanity’s warring relationship with nature. Following the killing of a gull – an act which evokes Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner – repercussions of disrespecting nature take form in extreme weather conditions comparable to those affected by anthropogenic climate change. Additionally, notions of ‘monstrous’ female sexuality, which were common in 19th century gothic literature, surface in the equally seductive and fearsome figure of the siren. Initially perceived to be a woman, this depiction is relevant to the modern context of female sexual agency as she is most appealing to Winslow as an object of desire. Still, he is horrified upon realising her true nature and the sense of control she possesses; the dynamic is inverted as he suddenly becomes vulnerable to her dominion.
Despite the pervasive bleakness of the film, brief reprieves are offered in moments of humour, which spring from brazen vulgarities, colourful monologues, and physical comedy. Though the film is strewn with literary and mythological allusions, it is worthy of merit as an independent work of fiction, even if no definitive interpretation of the film exists. Eggers instigates an unsettling discussion around our understanding of the very reality we know and accept by presenting ambiguities in his gestures to inhuman phenomena, via the promethean flame of the lighthouse.