Savina Petkova digs into the title character’s overpowering desire for motion-picture success in Ti West’s disturbing portrait of frustrated stardom.
‘One day you’ll never see me again.’ A young woman lets out a sigh, head resting on a barn’s fence, as she tells a cow her long-held wish. All dreamy-eyed and gullible, Pearl (Mia Goth) hopes to one day become a star and escape her farm-bound existence in rural Texas. Not only that, she’s convinced that life has fame in store for her as a touring Tiller girl, high-kicking her way across the country. The year is 1918: World War I is still rumbling on, the Spanish flu has the world in a chokehold… and, through it all, one girl’s individual dream burns bright, a secret she whispers to livestock. So begins Pearl, the second film of horror master Ti West’s ‘X trilogy’, whose events take place 60 years prior to the bloodbath that was last year’s X (the series’ final chapter MaXXXine is due for release later this year).
X introduced Pearl as an ailing old lady (played by Goth under heavy prosthetics) in 1979, the host to an adult-film crew shooting a skin flick on her property. Soon after their arrival, she sets off on a killing spree, envious of her guests’ youth and freedom, and is particularly triggered by X’s (porn)star Maxine (also Mia Goth). By turning back the clock, Pearl gives insights on the character’s troubled background and contextualises her traumatic bond with being young, being a desiring woman and, most of all, being a star. As presented in the film, stardom is a moving target, both empowering and exploitative.
At the centre of Pearl – and the trilogy as a whole – is Mia Goth in her multiple incarnations. As well as playing all the leads across the series, she also has a writing credit on this film, since she worked with West to further develop the characters. Goth clearly considers her own off-screen image when choosing roles, and is drawn to magnetic and powerful women who boost her star persona. The British actress is known for portraying subversive female characters, such as Charlotte Gainsbourg’s kinky protégée in Nymphomaniac (2013); the naive girl who bathes with eels in A Cure for Wellness (2016); and the trophy wife with a penchant for sadism in the upcoming Infinity Pool (2023). Each of these films – not to mention her appearance in a controversial 2015 Miu Miu ad that was banned for seeming to sexualise a child – have knotty relationships with sex and innocence, which the actress gamely toys with. She always imbues her characters with simmering intensity and conveys their complex inner lives. Her brand is so strong that audiences go into a Mia Goth movie expecting a truly unhinged performance.
Twenty-something Pearl fits neatly into Goth’s established canon of disturbed, desirous women. With her husband at war, she is stuck doing housework in an isolated ranch with her disabled father (Matthew Sunderland) and authoritarian mother (Tandi Wright), but she covets a more fulfilling life. We quickly understand that our protagonist spends every chore-free moment dancing in preparation for the brighter times that lie ahead. She dreamily parades around in her mother Ruth’s old long-sleeve dresses in front of the mirror, and works on her moves in the cowshed wearing dungarees.
Pearl’s head is in the clouds to such an extent that she conjures her future stardom with the power of her imagination. During the film’s enchanting opening-credit sequence – shot in vibrant Technicolor – an unassuming barn transforms into a grand stage, her animals are the audience she bows to, the straw floor is a podium, and a pitchfork a microphone. Her belief, or perhaps delusion, is so strong that it pulls her out of the mundane reality she occupies, helping her cope with the disappointment of today by aligning her with the promise of tomorrow. To cap off her performance, Pearl spears a stray goose and feeds it to a crocodile in one of the film’s surprisingly few violent scenes. The fact that said crocodile is called Theda, in a nod to the silent-film star Theda Bara, offers another hint that, once again, Pearl is imprinting her silver-screen ambitions onto the world around her.
Bara is repeatedly referenced in Pearl, since her likeness appears on posters at the local movie palace Pearl often frequents (taking pains to hide her cinema trips from the disapproving Ruth). This theatre is her sanctuary where she can escape the drudgery of her daily life through dazzling dancing films like Palace Follies. Soon, a young projectionist (David Corenswet) takes a liking to her and adulterates Pearl’s simple film-going pleasure, promising unlimited access to movies from his booth. From there, his seduction takes an unexpected turn. Rather than playing Palace Follies for Pearl, as the striving actress requests, he insists on showing her an imported silent proto-porn film in which he sees the future of cinema. ‘You can even be in pictures like these,’ he says, ‘I know I’d watch you.’
It is his male gaze that sexualises Pearl’s aspirations for stardom. While porn is not exploitation per se, the idea that fame can only mean anything if it’s in a package deal with sex is reductive and dismisses the young woman’s own desires. In fact, Pearl sleeps with the projectionist in the hope that they’ll skip town together to pursue her dream. Like X before it, Pearl asks: can success and desire coexist without exploitation? This exploitation, however, need not only be sexual. Ruth is a symbol of moral rectitude in the film, a condemning figure who enjoys shaming Pearl. With her thick German accent, she reminds her daughter of their immigrant past every time she opens her mouth, and tries to manipulate her into leading a quiet, austere life. Pearl’s rejection of her mother’s wishes is a form of rebellion: by choosing stardom, she simultaneously chooses the American Dream.
Pearl questions the seductive pull of stardom as a means of unpacking female desire: for success, for sex (or even for murder). This lurid horror film delves into Pearl’s traumatised mind and, in doing so, challenges its expectation that because she has put in the work, she will necessarily get what she wants. Pearl insists she’s a star despite everything but, to this farm girl, ‘stardom’ is elusive, a concept that belongs in a darkened cinema. You can’t believe everything you see at the movies. Dreams, they don’t always come true. No matter, though. In Mia Goth’s capable hands, Pearl evolves from a starry-eyed girl to a self-actualised woman.
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