Fixation (2022)

Fixation had its UK première at Soho Horror Film Festival 2023

In keeping with a psychological preoccupation already implied by its title, Fixation opens both with a vague textual trigger warning, and a primal scene. In the latter, little girl Dora Ann Rollins (Ariella Cannon) dances alone to a song with joyous abandon before a home video camera that she has set up on a tripod, so that we first see her routine as grainy intradiegetic footage complete with battery level indicator and time code. Yet the lens through which we are witnessing all this will zoom out and reveal itself to be extradiegetic after all, taking in Dora’s dance not just on the camcorder’s viewfinder, but in the (fictive) reality of the space beyond – a ‘trophy room’ festooned with the preserved remains of animal prey. 

Here there is a confusion – thematic, as it will turn out – between the interiority of Dora’s private activity and space, and the external views of them that she only partly controls. If the cinematography, with its doubled image of the dance, uncomfortably positions us, even duplicates us, as intrusive voyeurs, then soon there will be a different kind of intruder – someone banging loudly on the door of the room, and driving the terrified Dora to arm herself with a taxidermy pin and to cower in the corner, her nose bleeding with the stress of the situation. Whoever bursts through that door is at the root of Dora’s lasting scars, both physical and mental.

Years later, the adult Dora (Maddie Hasson) is in a straitjacket, having her first consultation with Dr Melanie Zamora (Genesis Rodriguez) at a peculiar psychiatric establishment. Dora knows that she is being subjected to a ‘sanity test’ to determine whether she is fit to stand trial, but she has no recollection of what crime she is supposed to have committed, or how (and when) she came to be in the Northbury Institute, so that her ensuing quest for wellness assumes a Kafka-esque quality. Her treatment is an experimental five-step programme formally demarcated by numbered intertitles (including a sixth, as a coda) that divide the film. Drugged-up Dora will reenact key scenes from her past, work through a complicated relationship with her brother Griffin as both adult (Atticus Mitchell) and child (Davide Fair), become reacquainted with her old psychiatrist Dr Thomas Clark (the ever extraordinary Stephen McHattie), and fall down a stylised Wonderland-like rabbit hole where everyone seems out to get her, where reality is elusive, and where abuse shares a room with madness.

Directed by Mercedes Bryce Morgan (Spoonful of Sugar, 2022), who co-wrote with William Day Frank and Katrina Kudlick, Fixation exposes the psyche of a young woman unraveling through a succession of never-ending interiors that are as much construct as memory. Evoking in different ways Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989), Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and James Marks’ Control (2022), this is the unstable story of a girl who just wants to dance, and of the history hanging, stuffed and mounted, from every wall as a reminder of what holds her back from liberation.

Morgan has crafted a delirious, disorienting psychodrama in which the whole question of what is truth, and what is merely staged (whether by outsiders, or by an unhinged, chemically altered brain), remains just beyond reach, banging insistently at the door with the promise – or is it threat? – of revelation. There is deep damage at its heart – the kind of damage which cannot simply be stitched up – but here the cure proves no less pernicious than the disease, even as all the lies, delusions, hallucinogens and gaslighting, both past and present, serve only to muddy further the film’s already slippery grip on reality. For perhaps we are all, in our quest for happiness, trapped in the cycling traumas of our past. Meanwhile, there are CCTV cameras all over the Institute – which is all at once doll’s house, theatre of the mind, hall of mirrors and panopticon – fixated on Dora’s every move and seeking to capture her inner soul for external eyes.

strap: Mercedes Bryce Morgan’s disorienting psychodrama restages the traumas of a young woman in trouble who just wants to dance

© Anton Bitel