Clock had its world première at the Overlook Film Festival
Clock opens with a distraught woman standing alone on a swing in an otherwise abandoned children’s playground at night, with a pool of blood forming on the sand beneath – and between – her legs. She looks at something in her bloody hand, whimpers, pulls herself with effort to the top of the swing’s frame, and lets herself drop so that she hangs by the chain that she has wrapped around her neck, in a grotesque parody of the swing – or indeed of a clock’s pendulum. It looks at first as though a miscarriage has led her to this suicide, but the sequence ends with not a foetus, but a strange metal cog – a sort of clockwork IUD – falling into the puddle of blood. Then the film’s title appears, with the ‘o’ in its middle also fashioned to look like a cog.
This prologue immediately establishes the principal concerns of writer/director Alexis Jacknow’s feature debut: female biology, and the harm that can be caused by artificially intervening in its natural operation. Before we are introduced to the protagonist Ella Patel (Dianna Agron), we see a platter of boiled chickens’ eggs liberally covered in fish roe. Indeed eggs – and questions of female fertility – are in the air, as Ella attends the baby shower of her best friend Shauna (Grace Porter), surrounded by mothers who discuss their various mid- and post-partum troubles and their love of maternity, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction. After all, as Clock makes very clear, pain is just a part of feminine experience: not just the pangs of labour and the bloody ruptures of birth, but also the discomfort of routine gynaecological checkups – all exposed by Jacknow in a rounded examination of the specific horrors of womanhood.
Ella stands out from Shauna’s other female friends. Although she is very happily married to the doctor Aidan (Jay Ali), and has a highly successful career, a great sex life, and plenty of free time for leisure and charitable works (all shown in an idyllic montage), this smart, independent woman has absolutely zero maternal drive or desire to have children of her own – and at age 37 going on 38, the biological clock whose pulse she does not even feel is starting to tick its last, as her procreative potential wanes.
For Ella, childlessness is a blessing rather than a curse, but there are pressures on her to conform, both external and internal. “Children are the best thing that will ever happen to you,” insists one mother (Isabelle Du), even as her words are ironised by the young boy we see falling hard out of a tree behind her. Aidan wants to have children with Ella. More complicatedly, Ella’s widowed father Joseph (Saul Rubinek) wants grandchildren, not least because Ella is the last in a family line that has survived millennia of persecution and even the camps – along with a large grandfather clock that is the only heirloom to have been recovered after the Shoah. Ella’s Jewishness brings a legacy of matrilineal tradition, generational trauma and survivor’s guilt, all of which haunt her consciousness, as she is made to feel that in not having children, she is herself instrumental in dealing the final death blow to a family that so many others have tried to kill off before.
So Ella is starting to see her internal clock as broken, and secretly turns to a new experimental programme designed for women disconnected from the mothering instinct. This is where Clock shifts from pre-menopausal satire to disorienting body horror. For Ella, whose profession is interior design, is about to have her own interior redesigned by Dr Elizabeth Simmons (Melora Hardin) in one of those anonymous corporate medical institutes that feature so prominently in the films of David Cronenberg. There Ella undergoes a ‘multi-pronged’ regime involving a new ‘engineered synthetic hormone’, daily Cognitive Behaviour Therapy sessions, a sensory deprivation tank (à la Ken Russell’s Altered States, 1980) and a mechanical intrauterine implant, all designed, according to Dr Simmonds, to regress Ella to her ‘natural’ state and to kickstart the ‘singular, evolutionary goal’ of women to become mothers.
“I might be a tough case,” Ella warns Dr Simmons. Indeed she responds badly to the treatment, suffering wild hallucinations, losing her previously celebrated professional sense of colour, exhibiting a compulsive craving for eggs and other, increasingly unhinged behaviours, and being repeatedly terrorised by a preternaturally tall woman (Rosa Gilmore) reminiscent of the giant ghost from Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House (2018) – all of which she hides from those around her, in her need to live up to standards that are not her own. Still, what is inside must eventually out, and as these chemical, psychological and physiological ‘cures’ curdle into a toxic brew, Ella starts to engender and externalise her internal conflicts.
By turns funny and upsetting, Clock takes apart and reassembles a woman’s inner workings, showing the constant wear and tear that her mechanism sustains from the everyday tensions of family, biology, marriage and societal gaslighting. For here we see a once happy individual being retooled and made to run to a different beat, and along the way losing to that imposed rhythm her very sense of self. Meanwhile Dr Simmons, playing the not straightforwardly sinister svengali to Ella’s destructive transformation, is also caught in her own contradictions, simultaneously pursuing a vision of a man-free matriarchy, while clinging to a sort of biological essentialism that confines female – and human – nature to questionably narrow definitions.
Jacknow’s film – in which Jacknow herself cameos as a patient a couple of days ahead of Ella in the programme – is ultimately a tragedy: a tale of one woman’s downfall as (self-)punishment for slipping out of, and then back into, step with patriarchal expectations. Here the liberating force of Ella’s tokophobia plummets headlong into the path of her internalised misogyny, and this modern autonomous woman (whose very name marks her as an everywoman) is brought into confrontation with the inherited gravity of evolutionary imperatives. This is a satisfyingly messy and provocative admixture of different ideas about what it means to be a woman in an unequal world – and a very assured calling card for Jacknow, who deftly pushes through a variety of clashing tones in delivering her baby.
strap: Alexis Jacknow’s deft debut starts as pre-menopausal satire before delivering a tragedy of horrors specific to womanhood
© Anton Bitel