Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson and scripted with his partner Frances Walsh, is based on the real events leading up to a murder that occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1954. The film follows the developing relationship between the killers, who are two teenage girls, Pauline Rieper and Juliet Hulme. Pauline comes from a respectable but dull lower-middle-class family; Juliet is the cultured British-born daughter of the new rector of the university. The girls meet at Christchurch Girls High School when Juliet joins Pauline’s class, and quickly discover they have many interests in common. Both have experienced a long period of childhood illness, and both share a passion for imaginative stories. The girls form a self-contained couple, as they gush over favourite movie stars and swoon to the songs of Mario Lanza. They create a fictional paradise called the Fourth World, which their imaginations allow them (and only a few other people) to enter; and through writing and model-making, they compose an elaborate saga about a fictional kingdom called Borovnia, in which they act out the relationships between a cast of aristocratic characters. The girls become convinced of their superiority to others: ‘how sad it is for other people,’ Pauline says, ‘that they cannot appreciate our genius’.
However, things take a turn for the worse when Juliet is confined to hospital with tuberculosis. The girls write to each other in the guise of the royal couple of Borovnia; and when Juliet is released, their attachment grows even more intense, causing their parents to worry that things are becoming ‘unhealthy’, and to send them to a psychiatrist. Meanwhile, Juliet’s father loses his job, and subsequently discovers that his wife is having an affair. The parents agree to separate and plan to leave New Zealand, depositing Juliet with an aunt in South Africa. The girls are distraught, and fantasize about running away to Hollywood; but when Pauline’s mother refuses to allow her to accompany Juliet, they hatch a plan to kill her. They are allowed a few last weeks together, during which they have intense nights of sexual passion. The girls eventually take Pauline’s mother on a walk in a local park, and beat her to death with a brick wrapped inside a stocking. The closing titles describe how the girls are quickly arrested, and then tried and convicted of murder. After a period of imprisonment, they are released but forbidden ever to meet again.
Unlike Picnic at Hanging Rock, Heavenly Creatures is based on a real-life case – one that would be very well known at least to viewers in New Zealand. (The case is generally known as the Parker-Hulme case, on the grounds that Pauline was prosecuted under her mother’s maiden name of Parker.) Some aspects of the story remain disputed: Juliet Hulme (now living in Scotland as a successful crime writer, under the name of Anne Perry) has denied that there was ever a sexual relationship between the girls; and others have suggested the girls were not in fact forbidden from ever meeting again. However, the bare facts of the case are well established, and a caption early in the film (after the opening sequences, but before the credits) insists on its authenticity: the film is based on Pauline’s diaries, and ‘all diary entries are in Pauline’s own words’. Even for viewers whose knowledge is confined to the pre-publicity, there is little doubt as to what is going to happen, and hence relatively little suspense: the central questions (as with Picnic at Hanging Rock) are to do with how and why it happens.
On one level, there is actually no great mystery here either. Pauline is shown to be embarrassed and resentful of aspects of her family background (her mother runs a boarding house, while her father is a fishmonger), and this is accentuated by the contrast with the much more affluent and glamorous world of Juliet’s family. When her mother opposes her plan to escape with Juliet – and when Pauline discovers that she will need her parents’ consent if she wants to obtain a passport – the motivation for the murder becomes clear. Nevertheless, the enigma is to do with how the girls’ mental state, and the relationship between them, is to be explained.
Unlike most of the other films I’m discussing, Heavenly Creatures claims to offer us direct access to the girls’ inner mental states. Crucially, it does this not just through the voice-over taken from Pauline’s diaries, but also by allowing us to see and enter into the illusion of the girls’ ‘Fourth World’ and the fictional medieval kingdom of Borovnia. The film takes us inside the girls’ subjective experiences and fantasies – or, as Brian McDonnell argues, it ‘recruits their imaginations’ – in order that they can appear to tell their own story. It does so largely without condescending or apologizing, and indeed without judging; and it is striking how it manages to do this, while still sustaining a degree of sympathy for their victim, who is by no means seen to be deserving of her fate. Pauline’s mother becomes much more punitive when she discovers that her daughter has been having sex with one of the lodgers – an experience that, it must be said, Pauline does not enjoy, and from which she escapes into another Borovnian fantasy. Yet even just before she is finally beaten to a pulp, the mother is far from an unsympathetic figure.
In terms of this emphasis on fantasy, the film can be seen as an important transitional work in Peter Jackson’s career. There are elements of the horrific ‘splatter movies’ he made before this film – works such as Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992). For instance, we see the girls’ violent fantasies, when they imagine that their Borovnian child, Prince Diello, dispatches an intrusive priest who comes to bother Juliet in the hospital, and impales the psychologist who suspects Pauline of ‘homosexuality’. However, there are also elements of the elaborate and fantastical special effects of his later films, most obviously the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies (2001-3 and 2012-14). The girls’ imaginative worlds are clearly marked as fictional – the Borovnians are human-sized versions of the grey plasticene models the girls are seen busily moulding – and yet, as they enter these worlds, the girls themselves remain three-dimensional and ‘real’.
The enigma, then, is what motivates the girls to cross this boundary into fantasy. The initiative here appears to be Juliet’s. In the early stages of their relationship, they share passionate enthusiasms for Mario Lanza, and for a selection of male Hollywood stars whom they name ‘the Saints’, as well as for the masculine world of Biggles stories. Despite her apparent confidence, Juliet appears to have been scarred by her parents’ abandonment of her during her childhood illness; and it is her evident distress when they announce their intention to leave her for several weeks so they can make a trip to England that leads her to reveal a vision of the Fourth World, which she invites Pauline to share. For Pauline herself, the fantasy world is also figured as an escape, albeit perhaps more from her mundane family life, and from her position as somewhat of a misfit in school. The fantasy provides them with an escape, but also a sense of power and superiority to others.
While the film maintains a clear distinction between reality and fantasy, there is one critical detail that appears to cross it: in one of their visits to Borovnia, the girls pick up a gemstone that has come detached from a ring; and it is this gemstone, dropped on the ground in the park, that they use to distract Pauline’s mother’s attention before they kill her. In the final few minutes, as the girls run screaming up the hill in the aftermath of the murder, we also see a black-and-white sequence (glimpsed right at the start of the film) in which Pauline and Juliet are shown leaving on a ship, together with Juliet’s parents. However, this sequence merges into another one, in which Pauline is tearfully watching Juliet depart without her. At this point, it is as if the girls have lost control of the outcome of their fantasy: murder is the only way in which they can reclaim their sense of agency.
This issue of explanation has been key to the critical debate around the film. Alison Laurie has written a great deal about the real Parker-Hulme case, including a book published before the release of Jackson’s film. She argues that Heavenly Creatures perpetuates a view, advanced by the defence lawyers at the trial, of the murder as a ‘folie a deux’ – in other words, as a manifestation of insanity. Laurie argues that the film sensationalises the girls, showing them as hysterical and mad, and also that it objectifies them from an implicitly ‘heterosexist’ perspective – and in this respect, she suggests, it stands in a long cinematic tradition of ‘lethal lesbians’. On the basis of her historical analysis of the case, she argues that the girls were much more introverted, and much less wild or frenzied, than the film depicts them to be, and she disputes the idea that they were involved in extensive fantasies or delusions.
Contrary to Laurie’s argument, I would argue that Jackson almost parodies the idea that the girls were insane. In one scene shortly after the girls have made love, Pauline’s voice-over announces almost gleefully that she has decided that they are ‘raving mad’. This is accompanied by a fantasy scene set in Borovnia, where the word ‘MAD’ is lowered on a large banner from a castle tower (this is subsequently repeated with another banner reading ‘SIN’).
However, Laurie’s argument is not just about historical accuracy, or about any diagnosis of mental illness, but also about the film’s sexual politics. Again, there are alternative views of this. Unlike Laurie, James Bennett accepts that the film has to be an entertainment rather than a wholly correct factual account. Yet he also argues that it questions dominant representations of the 1950s as a period of social stability, and that it challenges the role of psychiatry and medicine as tools to deal with youthful ‘deviance’. This sense of the wider historical context is apparent from the very opening of the film, which presents a fabricated 1950s ‘Look At Life’-style documentary about the placid and orderly city of Christchurch, before cutting to shots of the two blood-spattered girls screaming as they run through the park undergrowth to report the murder. The key scenes in Bennett’s account are those in which Pauline is interviewed by a child psychiatrist – and he relates these scenes to a wider moral panic about juvenile delinquency, which seems to have spread from the United States to New Zealand at the time. A government report, published in 1954, reflected a wider anxiety about female sexuality, and especially about ‘teenage licentiousness’. This climate is clearly reflected in the grotesque portrayal of the psychiatrist, not least in a large close up of his mouth (with chipped teeth) slowly intoning the dread word ‘homosexuality’. He reassures the parents that, while this is a ‘mental disorder’ that can ‘strike at any time’, it is likely that ‘medical science’ will soon be able to solve the problem.
Equally, it’s debatable whether the label ‘homosexual’ (or ‘lesbian’) fully explains what is happening in the girls’ relationship. As I’ve noted, Anne Perry (a.k.a. Juliet Hulme) has disputed the fact that the girls had a sexual relationship; and it seems that there is little direct evidence of this. However, critics such as Andrew Scahill have presented a ‘queer’ reading of the film, in which the girls’ desires are seen to challenge and disrupt official discourses, not only of sexuality and girlhood, but also of family, authority and criminality. While it could be argued that Juliet leads their entry into the fantasy world, it is Pauline who appears more subversive (and of course, largely instigates the murder): it is she, I would argue, who represents the major source of ‘gender trouble’ here. Rather like Sara in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Pauline has dark hair, and is often shown scowling and pouting: she is presented as working-class, or lower-middle-class. Like Sara, she directly resists the authority of her parents and teachers (although she idolizes Juliet’s father), while Juliet appears merely to rise above it, with a kind of upper-class, airy English superiority. The girls’ relationship is thus not only about desire, but also about identification – or at least Pauline’s identification with Juliet, which takes her beyond the apparent limitations of her class background (although this is not to suggest that the film necessarily celebrates this crossing of class boundaries, since Juliet’s family is clearly even more dysfunctional).
There is a gradual progression in the narrative in this respect; and at each stage along the way, the boundary between fantasy and reality becomes steadily more blurred. The girls’ desires are initially expressed through a shared fandom, led by Juliet – although it should be noted that this is entirely directed at male stars. They are carried over into the slightly more fluid world of their Borovnian fantasy – although here too, male and female roles remain fairly clearly demarcated, and it is the ‘super-male’ character of Diello who mainly enacts the girls’ violent resistance to authority. However, in the final stage, it would seem that identification becomes fused with mutual desire; and notably, it is then that the girls ritually burn their Mario Lanza records.
At this point, they do indeed appear to have sex, although the boundary between fantasy and reality in these scenes is quite unclear. After watching The Third Man in the cinema, the girls are ‘pursued’ by a demonic black-and-white image of Orson Welles – an actor whom Pauline describes as ‘hideous’, yet also clearly finds fascinating. In the voice-over, Pauline describes how the girls went on to play out the various ways in which their favoured male ‘Saints’ would make love. Pauline mutates into Welles as she lies on top of Juliet, while both girls also mutate both into Borovnian plasticene figures and other black-and-white male film stars. This is by no means a matter of the girls coming to recognize who (or what) they ‘really are’: on the contrary, it is a sequence in which the boundaries between male and female, lesbian and heterosexual, intimate friendship and sex, and reality and fantasy, all become extremely fluid.
As Corinn Columpar suggests, this is rather more than a narrative of ‘coming out’ as lesbian. In some respects, placing this label on the girls’ relationship somehow reduces it to a matter of physical desire. In their fantasies, both girls appear to play both male and female roles: Pauline is more consistently marked as male, and Juliet as female (not least in the scene where she ‘gives birth’ to their imaginary son Diello), but the names they give themselves are inconsistently gendered. Pauline, for example, is ‘Yvonne’ to her parents, ‘Paul’ or ‘Charles’ to Juliet, while for much of the latter part of the film, she is referred to as ‘Gina’. As this implies, the girls shift between multiple identities, and between identification and desire, in ways that would seem to move beyond fixed sexual identities; and here again, it seems that the film positively refuses any straightforward attempt at explanation.