Angelica first published by SciFiNow
Writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s dazzling feature debut Teeth (2007) was a feminist coming-of-age horror which updated the vagina dentata mythos to the nuclear era. Now, after a brief foray into family dramedy with Happy Tears (2009), Lichtenstein has adapted Arthur Phillips’ gothic novel Angelica (2007) into a period film, shifting the anatomical horror and family dysfunction of his previous films to Victorian London.
Told in a deathbed flashback by Constance to her adult daughter Angelica (Jena Malone), and set in an era when religion was in conflict with science, medicine vied with quackery, and sexual and class prejudice were ingrained, Angelica follows the relationship between virginal Constance (also Jena Malone), orphaned by disease, and Darwinian biologist Dr Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard). At first their ‘fairytale’ marriage is mutually satisfying – but then, when both Constance and her baby Angelica nearly die in childbirth, doctors prescribe permanent sexual abstinence, and a chill air of repression and frustration wafts through the house.
Meanwhile, a ghostly masculine presence starts visiting young Angelica’s room at night, embodying all Constance’s anxieties about moist appetites, bestial behaviours and the invisible ravages of sickness. Constance turns to charlatan spiritualist Anne Montague (Janet McTeer) to dispel the evil, and a strong feminine bond develops between housewife and medium that transgresses all societal norms, leading to a tragic act born all at once out of desperation, desire and rebellion against patriarchy.
Combining (aptly) stuffy domestic drama with the psychological ambiguities of a ghost story, Angelica leaves us unsure whether Constance’s actions are a product of delusion or enlightenment. “There are cracks all over the house,” she tells Anne, opening up her domain to psychosexual approaches. For amid all Constance’s confused, contained concupiscence, this narrative offers gaping holes which are left for the viewer to fill.
Strap: Mitchell Teeth Lichtenstein’s third film conjures a spectre of conflicted feminine desire.
© Anton Bitel