Present Tense: Angel Baby
Present Tense is a column by Sheila O’Malley that reflects on the intersections of film, literature, art, and culture.
John Lynch and Jacqueline McKenzie in Angel Baby (Michael Rymer, 1995)
At first, the color palette of Michael Rymer’s Angel Baby is warm and bright, almost liquidy, as if the world is swirling into tie-dye patterns, whirling around like the wheel on Wheel of Fortune, a show with enormous significance to the two main characters, Harry (John Lynch) and Kate (Jacqueline McKenzie). The colors turn a bustling city into an inviting oasis of play. When Harry and Kate make out in a telephone booth, a huge mural on a wall beside them screams in red letters “YES!” The outer world confirms and reflects their inner world. For a while, the bright colors envelop Harry and Kate, flooding their one-room apartment with vivid curtains and blankets. They stand on a wide bridge over a river, the sky filled with seagulls, and they fly upwards in spirit, supported by the air’s eddies and flows, cawing along with the gulls. They are exuberant and free.
Slowly, as the characters deteriorate, the color palette changes. Darker tones infiltrate. Shadows take on corporeal form. Scenes are broken up not by dissolves or fade-outs, but by white-outs, the glare obliterating the images. Cinematographer Ellery Ryan uses high speed film stock and a fluid style, swerving from hand-held camera work into hallucinatory angles and inserts. Gaps open up in the narrative, as Harry’s and Kate’s psychosis takes over. That bridge no longer hovers in the air. It turns instead into a beckoning precipice.
Harry is recently out of the hospital, having survived yet another suicide attempt. He lives with his brother Morris (Colin Friels) and Morris’s wife, Louise (Deborra-Lee Furness), and is a playful uncle to his nephew (Daniel Daperis). Every day he goes to an outpatient clinic to meet with a support group. One day, a young woman named Kate shows up. Her manner is aggressive and almost off-putting, her eyes glittering behind caked-on eyeliner. She grins like she has a secret. Harry falls in love at first sight. After chasing her through the streets, she finally stops, and they talk. There is instant intimacy. They compare wrist scars. She casually tosses off that she was removed from the family home at age 5 “because my father raped me.” It’s never mentioned again. Within a couple of hours, the two are grinding into each other in a dank tunnel, and their passion is such they’re practically eating each other alive.
Kate lets him into her world. Every day she watches Wheel of Fortune, taking notes in a complicated alphanumerical code, which reveal messages from a celestial being called “Astral.” Harry doesn’t question any of this. He supports it, and even gets into it. Everything needs to add up numerically, and there are good numbers and bad numbers. In one scene the two of them refuse to buy an object at the sale price, insisting on paying full price because only then do the numbers add up properly. Harry and Kate’s connection launches them into the stratosphere, much to the concern of everyone. Friels and Furnell take what are potentially “nothing” roles and bring a real sense of backstory and history. They love Harry, but come to every interaction with wariness and worry, knowing a crash is inevitable; they’ve been through it countless times.
Harry and Kate’s relationship is, at first, stabilizing. They take their meds. They get jobs. They move in together. Harry invites her over to meet Morris and Louise, and Kate, in a skintight pink dress, smokes cigarettes and confides in Louise: “Harry is the best lover I’ve ever had.” There are shots of the two of them running through what appears to be a deserted city, the streets and buildings witnesses to their once-in-a-lifetime love. When Kate gets pregnant, they flush their meds down the toilet. They believe their baby has come from Astral, and they do not want her to be infected. They refuse to go to an ob-gyn. Predictably, things spiral down, slowly and then rapidly.
Irish actor John Lynch, who made such an impression in 1984’s Cal (his debut), looks ravaged here, but also filled with light, sometimes simultaneously. Harry’s mania is so effervescent he practically gives off sparks, and his joy—in rain falling on his face, in his relationship with his nephew, in Kate—is expansive. In each emotion is its opposite: when he laughs, anguish is present too. Lynch understands so well how hard-won is Harry’s pleasure, he understands that Harry appreciates joy more than stable people do because it is so rare an experience. McKenzie first got attention for her disturbing performance in 1992’s skinhead drama Romper Stomper, where her blonde kewpie-doll looks were a perfect smokescreen for the character’s cruelty and trauma. McKenzie does not fear ambivalence, she runs towards it, understanding that that’s where the good stuff happens. Here, she plays a woman barely holding it together, but McKenzie does not condescend to Kate’s struggles. Kate is a very sick woman, but Kate is also smart, and Kate is a survivor. The intimacy these actors create with each other is so visceral you can almost smell it. The final 20 minutes of the film is so harrowing I have remembered it almost shot for shot, even though I haven’t seen it since 1995.
Angel Baby was Michael Rymer’s first film. It won awards in almost every category at the 1995 Australian Film Institute Awards, one year after the crowd-pleasing Muriel’s Wedding swept the same awards, and was distributed internationally. Since then, it has been nearly impossible to find (it is now available on streaming). Rymer has gone on to great success in television, directing the 2003 Battlestar Galactica miniseries, and then directing (and producing) many of the episodes in the subsequent long-running series. He was a producer and director on Hannibal, and has worked on other hot shows like American Horror Story. After a childhood making Super 8 films with his friends, he went to USC, and then spent two years in an acting program, studying the Meisner technique, an in-the-moment way of working, which he uses in his work as a director and a writer. “As a director I always come back to actors,” he has said. It shows. With Angel Baby, “The characters came first. I found them appealing and intriguing.” This also shows.
It’s difficult to explain madness to people who do not suffer from it. (Some may not like the term “madness.” For me, it has always been useful.) John Keats’s phrase “wakeful anguish” in his poem “Ode on Melancholy” is as close to accurate as one can get. Hamlet, in act two, scene two, describes his malady: “This most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” This is what Rymer and Ryan pull off in Angel Baby, particularly in the sequences on the bridge: it’s a place of freedom first, the sky an “excellent canopy” and then it morphs into a place of dread, the sky an empty void. In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, one of the characters tries to explain her depression to a doctor; she circles around the subject until finally homing in: “‘Everything you see gets ugly. Lurid is the word . . . I fear this feeling more than I fear anything, man. More than pain, or my mom dying, or environmental toxicity. Anything.’”
Few films get mental illness right. Some portrayals are over-simplified and condescending, showing a distressing lack of research. This filters down from the script into the performances and directorial choices. The films that get it right often do so through indirection or inference. Many film noirs are suffused with palpable “wakeful anguish.” Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit, starring Olivia de Havilland in a rightfully Oscar-nominated performance, shows great sympathy for the people who suffer, and anger at the barbaric “treatment” offered in the mental hospital. Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter provides an apt metaphor for mental suffering: the lead character Curtis (Michael Shannon) has nightmares and visions of funnel clouds in a clear blue sky. There’s a wonderfully “lurid” quality in Shannon’s performance (the look in his eyes during his freakout at the church potlock), and the lurid-ness is not pumped-up, but deeply felt and terrifying. In Melancholia, when Kirsten Dunst lies naked by the river, bathed in the glow of the rogue planet, Lars von Trier shows madness’s dangerous siren call. These are all important additions to the canon of madness on film. Only through truthfulness in portrayal can understanding be born.
Mike Nichols said that before every scene he directed, he would ask himself the question: “What is this situation really like?” Michael Rymer spent months attending group meetings at a clinic. He wanted to express the experiences of people who either can’t explain what they’re going through, or who, when they do explain, are greeted with incomprehension and judgment. In one painful scene, Lynch falls to his knees in a men’s bathroom, pounding his fists against his head, wailing in agony about the chaos in there. It’s heartwrenching. In another, McKenzie crouches in the bathtub, and the look of pure terror in her eyes is reminiscent of Gena Rowlands’s psychosis scene in A Woman Under the Influence. McKenzie knows that Kate understands her illness: Kate knows exactly what is happening to her, even as she can’t stop its progression.
Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton wrote of Christopher Marlowe:
his raptures were
All air and fire…
Angel Baby captures that rapture. And Angel Baby captures, too, the opposite, the darkness, the fear, which poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed so painfully in his series of sonnets known as “the dark sonnets” or “the desolation sonnets.” One reads:
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw, ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life.
There are compensations for such “wakeful anguish”, the compensations of all those “raptures” of “air and fire,” raptures of feeling life’s intense beauty. Harry and Kate running hand in hand through the twilight, racing home in time for Wheel of Fortune, laughing in excitement … this is compensation, too. But God, it’s not an equal trade.
Angel Baby knows what it’s really like.
Angel Baby is streaming on Vimeo on Demand.
Sheila O’Malley is a regular film critic for Rogerebert.com and other outlets including The Criterion Collection. Her blog is The Sheila Variations.