Clicca qui per la versione in italiano

The opening image of William Oldroyd’s Eileen (2023) is of a forest in winter seen through the windshield of a car, while smoke slowly consumes the dashboard. The image suggests a theme present in Oldroyd’s previous film Lady Macbeth (2016) that his latest film will also explore, being at once the protagonist’s desire for flight from her current life and the flawed mechanizations —social, physical, or otherwise— by which to do so put before her: an aging country manor in Lady Macbeth, an aging automobile in Eileen.

The film is set primarily in a Massachusetts juvenile detention center in 1964, where Eileen (Thomasin Mackenzie) works in a clerical capacity, though she spends much of her time spying on couples in cars and daydreaming about a dalliance with a young baliff. Enter Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a Harvard-educated psychiatrist beginning a job at the prison. The two begin a friendship, with Eileen developing something of a crush on Rebecca, not one borne necessarily out of sexual attraction but out of admiration —of Rebecca’s confidence, style, and so on. The film later reveals, however, that Rebecca is secretly up to something, which intrigues Eileen further. Narratively, the film is a faithful adaptation of a novel of the same name by Ottessa Moshfegh, which accentuates the melancholy aspects of feeling trapped in a small town and being charmed by an educated and exciting outsider.

The protagonist of Lady Macbeth, Katherine, used the late-nineteenth-century social and racial hierarchies of a Northumberland manor house in order to conceal a murder and ultimately escape an arranged marriage. Not dissimilar is the plight of Eileen’s eponymous character, as she longs to escape living with a terminally alcoholic father. Both films present circumstances for their protagonists that drive them to careless decisions, which in turn reveal a silent ruthlessness. As well, both address to a lesser extent how voyeurism and socioeconomic class in a rural setting inform those circumstances. Katherine liberates herself, though at the expense of characters who are trapped in a lower social station, while Eileen represents the inverse, as she attempts to emulate Rebecca’s cosmopolitan air. Consider the scene that introduces Rebecca, where Eileen throws trash bags into a bin in the foreground while Rebecca’s bright red Thunderbird convertible rolls up behind her. It is in that moment where a bag breaks, spilling organic waste. Curious, Eileen, feet literally immersed in garbage, sees Rebecca exit the car from a distance as an idealized figure: plaid coat, pillbox hat, sunglasses.

eileen

eileen anne hathaway

I have a sort of strange love affair with New England,” Rebecca later confides to Eileen at a local tavern. “I love it but I also hate it. Things feel very real here, don’t they? There’s no imagination. There’s no sentimentality or fantasy. There’s nowhere to hide.” It is with this monologue that the film, in its way, reveals its aesthetic motives. Though the critical establishment has accepted Moshfegh as a significant literary author in recent years, the structure of her novel suggests an American pulp serial or melodrama from the 1930s or 1940s —a sequence of “cliffhanger” chapters recalled in Eileen’s narration— and one of the common criticisms of the novel characterizes it as a series of “teaser trailers” that ultimately leads the reader to nowhere. This is fitting, perhaps, given the story’s labor-class setting, evoked by another monologue delivered by Eileen’s father about the “other people” that one sees in a film: “…they’re just there, filling the space. You take them for granted. […] That’s you, Eileen. You’re one of them.” Despite this, Oldroyd adaptation —believed by Moshfegh herself to be superior to her novel— reimagines the story as a midcentury film noir, the kind that was made in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when noir as a genre was slowly falling out of favor with American audiences and beginning to cross-pollinate with melodrama. Thus Eileen is perhaps best seen in the same light as Quentin Tarantino’s film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch (1992), which reimagined the exploits of its protagonist Jackie Burke as a 1970s blaxploitation film, Jackie Brown (1997).

Modern conceptions of “neo-noir” (and by extension its antecedent “film noir”), to quote John Shearman, “have the apparent virtue of making tidy something that is in reality untidy,” though upon scrutiny, a disparity emerges between a filmmaker’s intention in a certain moment and how the actual film is regarded otherwise. Works of fiction after a long enough time will indirectly reveal more about the cultural circumstances that produced the artist than it necessarily will about the actual artist. This would seem to be necessarily true of works that emulate genres that have gone in and out of fashion, given that the Bildungsroman, Pronkstilleven, and Mazurka —or for the medium at hand, the western, musical, or film noir— are themselves each the product of a specific time and place. As well, genres as they are defined in the popular imagination change over time: the ancient Greeks defined a comedy as any work that could not be categorized as a tragedy, for instance. Upon their initial release, Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1977) were received as quaint throwbacks to the noir films of the 1940s and 1950s, while half a century later they have been canonized alongside Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947).

Yet Eileen is also distinguished in the same as way as the Wachowski sisters’s Bound (1996) as a standalone genre work, specifically in its portrayal of homosexuality. Whereas preceding noirs tended to posit homosexuals —coded or implied— in supporting roles meant to imply an overall “seedy” landscape (Wilmer Cook and Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon or Baron Kurtz and Dr. Winkel in The Third Man, for instance), a romance between two women supplants what one would typically see between Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer half a century earlier, and provides the subjects’ motivations to some degree (noir’s Italian cousin, the giallo, historically has had a more progressive record in that regard).

the third man

Baron Kurtz and Dr. Winkel in The Third Man.

eileen anne hathaway thomasin mckenzie

The goodnight kiss in Eileen.

What Shearman referred to originally was the historical notion of Mannerism with regard to Italian painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: specifically the Italian maniera, meaning “style” in the absolute sense (a person or thing either “has style” or does not). Neo-noir is simply an umbrella term one might use to describe a film made in emulation, in the manner of what had come to be known as film noir. Oldroyd’s film exudes the maniera of late-period American noir, but by doing so relies on inherently artificial and recognizable visual cues, for those familiar with the genre’s style. At first glance, Eileen has the appearance not just of having been shot on film, but on seemingly older film stock, though this was not the case. Ari Wegner shot the film digitally but used an Angénieux 250mm zoom lens, recreating the appearance of a low-budget production from midcentury. Though filmed in color, numerous scenes boast a high-contrast, monochrome graininess recalling the lighting setups of midcentury noir. With that in mind, one possible way to parse neo-noir photography from that of its predecessor (at least in this case) is in how the former is a conscious stylistic choice, whereas the original post-war noirs of the 1940s and 1950s opted for such dramatic lighting out of necessity: it was merely faster and more cost-effective to use “noir” set-ups, and it is from this that the visual “style” of American noir evolved. One might compare Wegner’s photography here, then, to hers for In Fabric (2018), which to some extent sought to recreate the look of European fantastique of the 1970s.

eileen ari wegner

eileen thomasin mckenzie

Various story elements in Eileen will mirror those from earlier films featuring noir-adjacent narrative conventions. Rebecca’s arc is comparable to that of Kelly in Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964), who works as a nurse in a suburban hospital but conceals a former life as a prostitute, while Eileen’s suggests that of Diane in Preminger’s Angel Face (1953), whose circumstances —though vastly different from Eileen’s— involve a troubled relationship to the paternal and a longing to escape. In both past and present, fathers and father figures pose an antagonistic element. Mrs. Polk’s confession in the film’s climax is reminiscent of what one sees at the conclusion of Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), revealing a much darker dimension to a surface melodrama with a variation of Evelyns confession in Chinatown.

angel face

Diane in Angel Face.

eileen

Eileen in the car.

marnie alfred hitchcock tippi hadren

Confessions in Marnie.

eileen marin ireland william oldroyd

Confessions in Eileen.

Yet plot points turn largely on Oldroyd routinely drawing attention to the film’s self-awareness as a genre work. It is in the previous scene where Rebecca and Eileen rehearse” how to be threatening with a revolver, and it is during Mrs. Polk’s confession that Eileen rejoices in her ability to coerce her into speaking under the threat of violence, as if she were imitating the mannerisms of a femme fatale or gun moll that she herself perhaps saw once in a movie.

eileen noir

eileen noir

Most high-profile neo-noirs since the turn of the millennium have often been adaptations of later-generation roman noir —particularly the authors James Ellroy and Dennis Lehane. Eileen is something of an outlier in how it demonstrates the diverse applicability of a genre template, in the same way Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) and Johnson’s Brick (2005) applied the plotting and style of neo-noir to science fiction and gothic murder mystery, respectively. Demonstrated as well in Eileen is how film adaptation can easily exploit the divide between the inherently un-cinematic novel and the self-conscious nature of genre filmmaking.