I must admit that I came to Mickey Keating's “Darling” with a lot of personal baggage. Being a massive fan of Roman Polanski's “Repulsion”, the film that Keating's is obviously modelled on, and although intrigued by its trailer, I still attacked my viewing of “Darling” with a sense of arrogance that what I was about to witness was a rip-off of Polanski's masterpiece, and would not hold a candle to it, let alone be worthy of being mentioned together in the same breath. However it didn't take me long to realise that I may be wrong and that my arrogance was unfounded as Keating clearly had an understanding of his story he wanted to tell, and although influenced by “Repulsion”, this was not going to be just some carbon copy.
“Darling” is about a young twenty-something girl who accepts a job as a caretaker for a large residential building while its owner is away on holidays. The owner is up front with Darling in regards to the history of the building and the fact that some consider it to be haunted. She also explains that the previous caretaker actually committed suicide by jumping from the third storey balcony. Despite these stories, Darling agrees to the job and is soon left to her own devices, on her own in this huge house. With little to do, Darling's mind is continually wondering, but her mind is not a healthy one, as it becomes pretty clear that she is disturbed and struggling after being victim of a horrific crime. Human interaction is sparse, so Darling's only company are her thoughts, fantasies and memories which could be a lethal cocktail for the young girl as she seems to descend quickly from a mental perspective. This decline reaches fever pitch when she decides to actually go outside for a walk down the streets of New York, only to bump into someone from her past.
Right from the opening minute of “Darling” I was with the film. From the eerie early shots of a foggy New York, to the brief scene with Sean Young as the home owner, I was already buying into a film I was expecting to hate and roll my eyes at for being a soulless copy of one of my all time favourites. I was basically sold by the five minute mark when the actual title came up on screen. Darling has been shown through the house and the camera settles on a sitting room. It is a simple but beautiful room, furnished with class and style but not in a way that looks overdone. It is the picture of perfection, when suddenly this terrifying music plays over the top of the image and the title is emblazoned in the middle of the screen in garish pink font to chilling effect. But it is also the perfect representation of Darling herself; from the outside she looks so pure and innocent, and well put together, but inside is a rotting desperate mind. From this moment, I was pretty sure I was going to like the film.
Even though I was impressed by this opening five minutes, I also was worried by the fact that it looked like an arty student film. By that I mean there was a lot of weird and wild camera angles used in a kind of show-offy way that didn't necessarily suit the story. It had a feeling of someone who wanted to chuck as many cool shots into his film as possible, sort of to prove what he could do. However, these shots seem only to exist at the beginning, as the visual style begins to settle down and exist for the better of the story rather than to draw attention to itself. That said, “Darling” is a stunningly beautiful film to look at. The stark black and white photography is something to behold, and gives the film an other world quality that is paramount to its success (whilst also working as a nodding wink to “Repulsion”). As the visual style settles, Keating is able to amp up the eeriness of his film to the point that it truly does feel “Polanski-esque” whilst at the same time having its own identity as a terrifying paranoid thriller.
Being as this is a film with one character alone by herself in a house for the majority of its running time, it goes without saying that the film lives or dies on the performance of the titular role, and as may be obvious by now, Lauren Ashley Carter knocks this out of the park. She is Darling. You do not see the actress playing the character at all, only the character herself. Whilst watching the film, I didn't even realise that I was familiar with Carter from both “The Woman” and “Jug Face”, even though she obviously looks the same. All I saw in her was Darling. The way Carter plays her is minimalist with a cold approach. Although physically present in every scene, she always comes across as if her mind is elsewhere; that she is forever vacant, like she is looking out into the distance instead of what is right in front of her. Also because she is a damaged soul, it is hard to believe that everything Darling sees is actually the truth, rather it could be her mind's interpretation of the truth which gives the film a real unsettling atmosphere to it all. There are two scenes in the film where I think we see Darling for who she really is, when her psychosis breaks down and we actually see Darling reacting honestly to a situation even if that is in an obviously painful manner. One of these scenes is the acting highlight of the film when Darling meets a man at a bar and invites him back to her place. Before leaving she rushes to the bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror as we see this cold girl transform before our eyes, as she realises the enormity of what she is about to do, and she breaks down in tears, screaming at her reflection, and then composing herself again. Keating shoots the scene in one shot, so it is all up to Carter to make it work and because she nails it so perfectly it is the one time we are allowed in to see the “real” Darling briefly. I was just blown away by this short scene.
With Darling's mind not being entirely healthy, and as good as Carter is at making it look believable, Keating is smart to include other little audio cues to help represent what Darling is going through. Through the use of a loud and always ticking clock, to the rhythmic ringing of a telephone, to the always whispering voices Darling hears, we understand that whilst she may be always alone in the house, in her mind it is a whole other story. The poor girl is slowly losing her mind with the noise drowning out who Darling really is.
It is well known by now that I am a huge fan of cinema that deals with the fracturing of the mind, but I am equally a fan of ambiguity in cinema and Keating lays the framework here to give credence to the idea that Darling may not be in total control of her actions. From the initial stories of the house being haunted, Keating also adds some other details in the film so that you could see this story as one of possession (for lack of a better word). These things include a necklace of an inverted cross, some insidious Latin writing etched into a night dresser beside Darling's bed and a mysterious locked room, not to mention the voices again in Darling's head. All this could be used in evidence that something more of a supernatural order existed within this story, rather than just Darling suffering a complete mental breakdown. Personally though, the film is much stronger to me and resonates more emotionally if the supernatural side of things is nothing but a red herring.
In regards to negatives to the film, I do not have many. I will say that I thought that some of the music choices were a little on the nose in the fact that they were used loudly to scare audiences, which I think this film was above doing, although this happened few and far between and the other thing was that I am not a fan of the flashing strobe light effect that is used a bit in this film. This is a personal thing because it actually messes with my eyes a bit but I will say that this technique is effectively used to help create the eerie atmosphere of the film. There was one major thing that I hated which was the very end of the film, the final scene which takes place mid-credits. Obviously this is going to involve spoilers so for those that do not want to be spoiled, please skip to the next paragraph. The mid-credits sting is of the Sean Young character interviewing another caretaker and telling her the same stories of the house being haunted. It may not seem like much, but to me this pushed the ambiguity of the story towards the supernatural reasoning which I did not like at all and I felt that the scene should have been removed entirely. The other reason is because this is Darling's story so who cares about this other girl. Anyway, it is only thirty seconds of this fantastic film, so I shouldn't let it overcome how I feel about it, but you never want to leave an audience member feeling angry when the movie ends.
Overall, “Darling” turned out to be a massive surprise. I expected it to drown in its own pastiche but it actually rose above it and created its own identity to be a stunningly terrifying and disturbing mental thriller, that I have no problem mentioning in the same breath as Roman Polanski's “Repulsion” or “The Tenant”.