Goth is back. I’m not talking funereal clothes, skull-shaped candles and Sisters of Mercy albums but the more thrilling prospect of Mia Goth. In her short career, the elfin 29-year-old actor, born in London to Brazilian and Canadian parents, has already worked with Lars von Trier, Claire Denis and Luca Guadagnino. It is in two horror movies with Ti West, however, that she proves herself to be a kind of one-woman version of The Shining. Her wide-eyed, wobble-headed manner is pure Shelley Duvall but the rage of Jack Nicholson lurks within her, too. She swings an axe as though she was born clutching it.
West first directed Goth in X, about a group of friends shooting a porn film on a remote Texas farm. She played the dual roles of Maxine, the young star of the amateur skin flick, and Pearl, the farm’s elderly owner, whose apparent decrepitude hides carnal and carnivorous yearnings. Having flown to New Zealand to make X during the pandemic under quarantine regulations, West channelled Roger Corman, who often shot consecutive “quickies” in one location, on the same set.
Actor and director cooked up a history for the older of Goth’s two characters, then wrote a prequel together while still shooting the first picture. The result, which requires no familiarity with its predecessor, is Pearl. Both are retro-flavoured but whereas X was a 1970s-style slasher horror, the new movie has the sweep, scale and gusto of a 1950s melodrama, from the lush orchestral score and ornate opening credits to the over-ripe colour palette. It’s set in 1918, amid mounting cases of Spanish flu, but it is the film itself that is running a fever.
While Pearl’s husband is away in the war, she is stuck on the family farm with her cruel, domineering mother and catatonic father. She skips around the barn, talking to the animals and dreaming of becoming a star like the ones at her local picture palace. If that sounds very Judy Garland, it is worth noting that she also bathes naked in front of her father, slaughters a passing goose and writhes around passionately with a scarecrow. “I’m worried there may be something wrong with me,” she says in a tremulous voice. You think?
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Pearl is shamelessly over-the-top, but it also peels back the skin of classical melodrama just as Far from Heaven did, exposing its musculature and analysing how the splendour of Hollywood feeds into the characters’ perceptions. No matter how wretched things get, Pearl sees her world in gleaming Technicolour – a dissonant choice given that she is living nearly 20 years before it was perfected, even if it does match her febrile personality. Camp the film undoubtedly is, but Goth launches herself into her role without any protective layers of irony. In a final close-up, her quivering features express elation, heartbreak, shame and mania; she’s like a washing machine speeding through all its cycles at once. Pearl wants so badly to be a star. Part of the film’s pleasure lies in realising that Goth already is.
She and West are now planning MaXXXine, the final part of their trilogy. But first, she returns to her naturally prim, squeaky voice to play another irredeemable outlaw in Infinity Pool. This hallucinatory shocker from Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, is set in a luxury resort where guests are forbidden from venturing beyond the gates. The pampered novelist James (Alexander Skarsgård), who has come on holiday to find inspiration, breaks that rule after falling under the spell of Gabi (Goth), who takes him in hand in both senses. (The money shot, trimmed for the US release, is left intact here.)
Infinity Pool starts out as another superficial attack on the vacationing 1 per cent, in the vein of Triangle of Sadness and The White Lotus, then segues into a holiday-hell thriller that hinges on a moral quandary not unlike last year’s The Forgiven, before making vague stabs at dissecting modern masculinity. Most ingenious is a science-fiction strand involving a cloning procedure for the elite, but that gets rather crowded out by everything else, with its moral implications and possibilities barely addressed. Even when this noisy, gory film sags under the weight of its own relentlessness, there is always Goth, who is crisply and reliably unhinged. Whether wielding an axe in Pearl, or taunting James by reading aloud his worst reviews, she cuts deep and draws blood.
“Pearl” is out now. “Infinity Pool” is released on 24 March
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