My last two film posts have been about children and the errors they make in gauging the distances of adulthood. Winter’s Bone tracks the mismatch between the child’s and adult’s understanding of time. Pacific Rim gives us the monstrous difference in scale between child’s and adult’s world. The tragedy of fitting oneself to the procrustean bed of the grownup world’s expectations is at each film’s heart. Each is a different angle on the inexorable last scene of the adolescent drama. We drop our child’s take on the world into the memory hole, the cost of admission to autonomy and maturity.
Let the Right One In is different. Its core message about the spaces and reaches of adolescence stunned me on first viewing, and I still can’t look away.
I should not have been surprised, maybe. What better primer for holding onto youth into age than a vampire film? Vampires explore plenty of archetypes by upending them, but none so powerfully as their defiance of the Faustian punishment. The vampire’s (frequently unwilling) deal with the devil renders him immortal but alone. Anne Rice helped us see how he’s afforded a view of time and scale that no human can know, and is therefore intensely lonely in all the most human aspects. His appetites must be sated furtively, in violation of human mores, and therefore the only real intimacy he can know is with others who share the twilight.
Keith Richards (perhaps part-vampire) famously sneered at the judge who held him for drug use, “We are not old men, and we are not subject to your petty morals.” That’s why we watch them, the night creatures – what would you do if you could do anything? The power of the Buffyverse to hold our popular and critical attention was always rooted in the relationship between Buffy and Angel, if and how their twinned statuses (neither fully human, neither fully monstrous) would allow them to find each other on the threshold. He drinks from the blood bank, not real people; she kicks lethal ass, and kind of likes it. He’s from the morning side of the mountain, she’s from the twilight side of the hill: how can they love each other? But then, how can they not?
Let the Right One In adds itself to a long exploration of vampires as category-crossers. What could this frame offer to those of us who seek to understand and empower regular human children as they navigate the crossing point between immaturity and adulthood? Plenty, it turns out.
The most startling aspect of Let the Right One In on first viewing is how it plays with our cultured expectations of distance and its supposed role in discretion. Eight minutes in, we inexplicably watch a middle-aged man trick a stranger into inhaling something that knocks him out, and in no time the victim is strung up like a kosher pig, bleeding out from his slit throat. The horror comes from the banality of the event: the killer must be a psychopath, because who else is familiar enough with the rhythms of death to know how little effort and time it takes to accost a stranger and kill them? It’s the last thing anyone would expect to happen – and so it can happen in minutes, if done by someone who lives outside of the rhythms of regular life.
But the deepest horror comes from where this all goes down: a suburban path in the woods, maybe fifty feet from a busy road. We see the headlights passing in the middle distance as the murder unfolds before us. Despite ourselves, we feel fear for the murderer. Can’t he see how close he is to civilization? Doesn’t he know such practices must be furtive, hidden away from the real world’s eyes? But apparently he doesn’t, and not knowing (or caring) gives him license to escalate the horror through his violation of our expectations not just of what one should do but, if one must do it, then where one should do it. The killer is interrupted mid-murder by a dog running ahead of two civilians out for a stroll. His surprise at the fact that others might be using this busy suburban path cues us to wonder if he is too engrossed in his task to notice his location, or if he is simply inept – a bad psychopath who hasn’t seen enough movies, maybe.
But when we first meet Eli, our vampire, her boundary crossing is clearly not out of ineptitude. The first scene bears rewatch over and over. Something like forty-five scenes in this supremely naturalistic film use CGI, usually subtly, to give the sickening impression of things being just a little out of joint. She interrupts Oskar, our protagonist, in a private moment of acting out a violent Travis Bickle revenge fantasy against his bully. She gets the drop on him, literally. Their first, halting conversation follows the awkward terror of any adolescent encounter between boy and girl, with sarcasm and denial snaking through.
But we are also ticking off everything else that is wrong, that disturbs our expectations, in a cavalcade of dawning horror. We barely hear the door squeak open, but there wasn’t time between the squeak and her appearance for her to have traveled that distance. She doesn’t quite move right. She is wearing a mens’ shirt, wrinkled and carelessly thrown on. She doesn’t have a coat against the cold – though her breath steams, confusingly (don’t we even know what a vampire is? Doesn’t even that rule hold here?). When she drops to the ground, she seems to have no weight; it’s a dancer’s drop, if the dancer weighed seventeen pounds. And her voice is off as it echoes over the snow in the empty courtyard. It is a young voice, but too low, lower than his, and not the sound someone who looks like her is supposed to make. (This, we discover on the internet, achieved by dubbing her lines with a boy’s voice, meant to hint at a subplot in the source material that she is a eunuch – another border crossing, another twilight status.)
The combined effect is supremely disquieting, discontinuous with a dozen expectations we have come to have of meet-cutes in movies in ways that are subliminal at first watch, managing only to put us off-center for what comes next. There has been no horror depicted in these two minutes, other than the horror of being spied upon by a girl in a private moment, and the stammering and futile effort to recover one’s sangfroid. But we are bent by the encounter, and shall remain so.
Except when we aren’t. Their third meeting (always at night, always on the jungle gym) is the closest we get to something unfolding the way its supposed to – “developmentally appropriate,” as we educators like to say. She’s dressed in something more like what a twelve year-old girl might wear. “Do I smell better?” she wonders, referencing his comment at the last meeting that she smelled funny (because she hadn’t fed, maybe, or because she is ancient, and hygiene concerns drop away over the centuries). We wonder what is going on – why this attachment, gentle looks and connections? In this scene we are given some of what we hope time’s march will give us: dawning love, stirring feelings (a bud in the snow lovingly depicted just before, natch), even a quiet piano motif rising behind. We know this isn’t right, and that whatever designs she has on him can’t be for his best interest. But we want them to find each other. We want what we can’t not want – the bargain none can escape, time holding us green and dying as we sing in our chains like the sea.
I’ll leave some of the film for your to discover on your own. Suffice it to say here that the adult world is shown to be incapable of truly reaching Oskar. The scenes of him losing himself in the spaces of the school really only show us the incapacity of overdetermined, grown-up structures to hold youth. We tick off the usual signs: the inelegance of the curriculum and its ill fit to his life; the hiding in the “negligently private” spaces of the restroom to escape his bully; the slipping out of the flat he shares with his Mom (where she never looks him full-on but rather glimpses him in mirrors, around corners), his happily agreeing to “stay in the courtyard where he’ll be safe” because that’s where he’ll find her. The boy pulls down his baseball cap, and covers up his eyes. Adulthood remains what it always has been: distant, dull, drunk, concerned with dinners and radio news and who the new neighbor is, whatever. The spaces of adulthood are too big to connect in, even when they are tiny and dingy and overheated as a Swedish apartment in winter.
The only space with proportions that make sense and feel right to him are the ones that, to us, are terrifyingly wrong: the ones he inhabits when he is with her. Of course, we witness the inevitable undoing of her former handler, and do the math on what led to his fate beneath the spell of his Lamia, but we do it at a remove. Our hearts are with the young lovers, as they always are. And Eli’s final deliverance of Oskar from his bullies is formal, Grand-Guignol, a set piece that reassures with its inevitability more than it shocks with its gore. We knew where we were heading: we only wondered how and when. The last scene is the deepest terror, as we see Oskar remit to his fate in thrall to his new master. But it’s simultaneously sweet and reassuring, love messages tapped through walls. We applaud Oskar even as we mourn him. We hope he’ll escape the clutches of development too. Even though we know he won’t, we thrill to his intention to. He’ll get to be something other than a grownup. Not immortal…but something else.
Adults cannot hold on to the proportions of youth. We can’t remember the way things looked when we first saw them. As adults, we can’t, given to the exigencies of a life where we need to recognize more than see, because we need to make the donuts and get to the church on time. And teachers, perhaps, even less so. We hold responsibility for fitting the child to the adult world, and school inexorably means disabusing the child of the notion that his version of the world is the one the rest of us hold, through the thousand natural shocks that school is heir to.
But we who teach perhaps must work to stay within touching distance of that world. We must maintain our capacity to see the world’s proportions as a child, even if we need to squint and strain to do it. Maybe so we can better translate those adult exigencies to their scale in ways that nurture rather than constrain. And those of us who are most skilled at that sleight-of-hand must respect the gift, because when children will follow you your responsibility of where to lead them is awesome. (Vampires are border-crossers too. Where do they lead those in thrall to them?)
Or maybe it’s the other way round: perhaps its better for us to maintain that contact with a child world in order to disabuse ourselves of our own.
There’s a scene early in the film of Oskar in his underwear, lying on his bed at night, gazing into the distance. Hands behind his head, naked in the indoor heat, his thoughts are his alone. We see him through the window. We feel the overwhelming cold of a Nordic winter pressing on the glass, and we wonder how he can be so vulnerable, so confident, with the threat of freezing right outside the window. We are outside the window too. We are in the threat; we understand it and wish to protect him from it.
But maybe we ARE the threat. We ARE the cold we wish to bundle our students against. There’s the teacher’s challenge: to know what we know and prepare our students for that knowledge too, while not becoming part of what would freeze them, chill them to the bone. Perhaps we are the vampires. We age in ageless teacherness, while our consorts come and go, always young. Our breath steams, even knowing what we know. May we connect benignly with those we nurture, and who nurture us. May we remain students of their energies and concerns and senses of scale, lest we, unwittingly, end up draining them of what they most need to survive.
Image from hackedofffilms.com, with thanks.