Lobsters and Mermaids: Sexual Frustration in The Lighthouse
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Should pale Death, with arrow dread,
Make the ocean caves our bed,
Though no eye of love might see
Where that shrouded grave shall be-
Christ! Who hears’t the surges roll,
Deign to save the Sailor’s soul...
It is clear, from the very beginning of The Lighthouse, that its keepers’ souls will not be saved. No lucky sea shanty can alter the fates of Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson), not even the propitious drinking hymn which opens every supper of their story. Shrouded in the sticky fumes of the lighthouse’s machinery, the contrived roommates confront their reclusion and sexual frustration head-on: while Thomas escapes towards the blazing light, Ephraim finds refuge in lust. The erect beacon, which gives the cursed tale its name, illuminates as much as it blinds its guardians, wandering like unruly spirits lost in the cramped and foggy Atlantic locale. Set on a narrow island besieged by the ceaseless stream of gelid wind and water, Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his 2015 breakout feature exhibits the flawless progression of a filmmaker who surpasses himself by simplifying his subject matter. After the quiet fragmentation of a 17th century Christian family in The Witch, the American director brings to light the dreadful story of a damned pair of lighthouse keepers, forsaken after the advent of a turbulent storm in their already tempestuous haven. Paranoia and lunacy prevail as the men squander liquor reserves and engage in drunken disputes, from sincere and inebriated exchanges to a Kubrickian axe chase.
The Lighthouse remains focused on its two mystifying characters, and greatly benefits from its narratively and stylistically restrained scope. The box-like 1.19:1 aspect ratio pays homage to black-and-white motion pictures and reflects the grimy 1890s setting of this unholy fable, enclosing Thomas and Ephraim in the stifling lighthouse, while favouring close-ups in the manner of silent films. Indeed, The Lighthouse remains speechless in its opening minutes, which serve to establish a soundscape made up of overwhelming natural sounds, from an omnipresent wind to a recurring foghorn, both unsettling and lulling the viewer with its ominous presence. Among this commotion, the persistent shrieks of an enticing mermaid emerge and bewitch powerless Ephraim, another hallucinating victim of the island’s sorcerous powers and enchanted light; he engages in a memorable sequence of self-gratification crowned by a primitive howl, between pleasure and pain. The original score, composed by Mark Korven, melds brass instruments with experimental sounds conceived on glass surfaces, combining classic orchestration with fluid and airy modulations, like the dramatic echoes of conch shells and water nymphs’ cries. Eggers’ and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s use of 35mm film stock further accommodates the recreation of early century portraits, authentically inhabited by Thomas’ and Ephraim’s sullied faces. The director and his collaborators expertly employ light, overexposing the frame at times to match the guardians’ escalating frenzy, while often using a single natural source to maintain the tale’s genuine visual feel, with impeccably designed shots which painter Georges de La Tour would claim as his own if he had painted monochromatically.
Dafoe’s character, a rough and seasoned sailor with a limp, emerges almost as a parody of Melville’s Captain Ahab – so much so that Ephraim mocks him – with the strongly defined features and physique of Eisenstein’s protagonists, such as Aleksandr Nevsky or Ivan the Terrible. His devilish face, often shown in low-angle shots, exudes severity and dominates the screen for the picture’s first half, before Ephraim starts to assert himself in opposition. Their power struggle is interspersed with lighter comical interactions, often punctuated by homoerotic insinuations, most conspicuously in Thomas’ desperate interrogation: “Ye’re fond of me lobster, ain’t ye?”, an absurd question which acts more as a revelation of their growing frustration than an uncovering of their unconscious queerness. Thomas’ whiskered aide, a former woodsman with a dubious past, is indeed tasked with the more menial efforts required on the islet, plagued by his burdens, notably in charge of feeding coal into the omnivorous lighthouse. With a sooty look and unkempt features, Ephraim recalls Jean Gabin in Renoir’s epic adaptation of La Bête Humaine, his murky figure mirroring the questionable nature of his soul. As Lantier fueled the unstoppable train to his death in the 1938 film, Pattinson’s character supplies the glaring and incandescent tower, obsessed with reaching its summit, undeterred by Thomas’ threats and warnings. Ephraim’s quest for the sovereign light is a primal pursuit, echoing that of Prometheus, a sign of his sinful pride which, as in the ancient myth, never fails to be punished.
The film’s few supernatural components rely on heavy symbolism, adroitly compensated by the artistry of Eggers’ script and direction, which forcefully convey the poetry of maritime lore. Ephraim’s encounter with a mermaid, whom he first believes is a normal woman, ends with his escape, after he looks down at her body and finds gills and a tail where her genitalia should appear. Ephraim not only flees at the sight of this otherworldly creature, but is petrified by the vision of a literally impenetrable woman, with breasts but no vagina, thus unfit and incapable of being the site of his fantasies’ fulfillment. In consequence, the totem of a mermaid, carved from the bone of a sperm whale, absorbs Ephraim’s sexual attention and becomes the single object of his desire. The masturbation scene which seals his descent into madness sees him fixated on the totem, imagining the mermaid with genitalia, an ultimate fantasy serving as an escape from his deplorable situation, confined in a gigantic, glaring phallus. Yet these illusions only worsen his case, as he initially believes that all of Thomas’ cautionary stories are “tall tales”. Ephraim encounters, on several occasions, a belligerent one-eyed seagull, the feathered counterpart of The Witch’s malevolent Black Phillip. The keeper, at first, resists the urge to slay the bird, since Dafoe’s character insists on the sanctity of the winged creatures which, as legends claim, enclose the souls of sailors lost at sea. But Ephraim, as any hubristic anti-hero, rejects superstition and challenges the higher forces at play in The Lighthouse. The sanity of both guardians is questioned, but no definitive answers are given: Eggers succeeds in preserving narrative ambiguity, much more so than in his previous picture, letting each character play on the other’s delusions in an absurd contest, leading to scenes of psychotic dialogue and Shakespearean grandeur. As the veteran keeper asks the other, grinning maniacally: “How long have we been on this rock?”, Ephraim stammers; the audience itself is unsure of who can be trusted. There might be no escape but the light. ▲
Raphaël Duhamel studies Film Aesthetics at Oxford University and was born and raised in Paris.