“I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been told I’m not sexy.”
Yep, those are real words that once came out of Anne Hathaway’s mouth (via Harper’s Bazaar). The same Anne who wore that leather catsuit in The Dark Knight Rises. The same Anne who bared it all to Jake Gyllenhaal in Love & Other Drugs. And yes, the same Anne who just made a puffer coat red-carpet worthy at the Sundance premiere for Eileen, her alluring new sapphic thriller.
With all due respect, we’re here to tell 2014 Anne that she was wrong. If anything, the success of Eileen depends on said sexiness being an immutable fact, like “water is wet” or “Carol saved lives.”
That wasn’t just a random Carol reference either: Like Carol, Eileen also tells the story of a striking blonde woman who befriends a much younger brunette against a gorgeous yet stifling period backdrop. But where the two films diverge is how they approach the nature of this somewhat dangerous “friendship”.
Hathaway herself picked up on these similarities when she described Eileen as “Carol meets Reservoir Dogs,” during a recent chat with Vanity Fair. And therein lies the problem. Just when you start thinking it could be a spiritual successor to the Todd Haynes classic, those Tarantino influences begin to derail Eileen’s queer energy — and the entire film as a result.
Eileen’s life is a grim one, at first. Bored of her thankless secretary job and resentful of her cruel alcoholic father, Thomasin McKenzie’s character escapes into sexual fantasies that inspire semi-public bouts of masturbation. Just your average 24-year-old in 1964 Massachusetts then.
The juvenile prison where Eileen works is just as oppressive as the time period itself. Sure, the fashion pops off, but that’s about it. Everything else in Eileen’s world is as dreary as the grey slush that lines the streets on her way to work. And then she appears.
With her retro blond coif and cigarette poised elegantly in hand, Dr. Rebecca Saint John instantly captivates Eileen and all the men too as she strides into that suffocating prison environment. She’s like that burst of technicolor from The Wizard of Oz, except it’s her big sapphic energy that radiates throughout the frame, transforming Eileen’s grey, drab world into something brighter and significantly gayer.
The entire film hinges on this moment — nothing that follows would work without it — but rest assured, you’ll end up being as obsessed with Rebecca as Eileen is from the get-go.
Part of that is down to the air of mystery that envelops her like Marlboro smoke, pulling you into the glamor of her seductively dangerous world. But there’s also a power to behold in Hathaway’s cooly confident flirtations with the camera and fellow cast members alike. This is a woman who’s fully aware of her allure, able to disarm anyone with just a mere smolder.
Like Eileen, you too might need to stuff snow down your pants to cool down once Rebecca arrives on screen.
It’s not queer-baiting exactly, because queerness simmers in Eileen’s every frame, but it does feel like a tease nonetheless.
Our fascination with Anne Hathaway’s character is mirrored by her own obsession with Eileen, which leads to a bond that gradually develops between the pair. But what kind of relationship is this? The film’s most intriguing scenes are the ones that tease something more in the quieter moments, in a look or a glance or even just a hand that rests ever so gently on a shoulder.
There’s an ambiguous pull between them that many queer people watching will relate to. Does Eileen want to be with Rebecca or does she want to be Rebecca? Does Rebecca feel the same way or is she simply using Eileen for attention, or perhaps for something even more sinister? Like in Carol, the forbidden nature of what lies just out of reach shifts the power dynamic in favor of the older, more worldly woman.
But that’s not to say Eileen is helpless. Not by any means. Without spoiling what’s to come, the dangerous undercurrent of this bond explodes with a twist that tilts the film fully into pulp. And in that lies a queer sensibility, this idea of upending everything you thought you knew with such brazen defiance. But what about the tangible queerness we felt in those lingering pauses between the pair? What about that one goodbye kiss that lasted a bit longer than it should?
After all that buildup, sidelining the queer themes that comprise the bulk of this film is an obvious misfire. It’s not queer-baiting exactly, because queerness simmers in Eileen’s every frame still, but it does feel like a tease, nonetheless. And not a welcome one at that.
Without that sorely needed follow-through, everything that made Eileen stand out as odd and defiant becomes muted and far less compelling. Well, everything except Anne Hathaway’s performance.
It’s her best in years, perhaps her best ever, and yes, Anne’s hotness is key to the role, but that alone isn’t why Rebecca’s so beguiling. It’s because Hathaway ignored everyone who told her she can’t play certain roles, that she can’t be sexy. Instead, Anne throws everything she has into this character, every wattage of star power at her command, to craft a queer Hollywood fantasy distilled into human form.
It’s risky, it’s daring, and its sheer ballsiness even feels kind of queer in ways that the film could have taken a few notes from.♦