October 25, 2015

Portrait of a Gothic Lady/Gothic Portrait of a Lady

Can you do the Gothic in the 21st century without it being overpoweringly about the Gothic? (Westerns have a similar problem.) Early on, Guillermo Del Toro’s Gothic ghosts-and-romance melodrama Crimson Peak is up against that challenge: everything seems obvious (ghosts are metaphors of the past, our heroine explains) and there is little sense of mystery and fear. Yet, slowly and subtly, it shifts gears, and an almost stifling reverence about tradition and overt nods at predecessors – the surname Cushing, anyone? – fade like ghosts in sunlight and the story takes more natural and brutal turns, as though Del Toro has finally dug deep into the red clay of his unconscious. Within the beautifully imagined boundaries of this beautifully acted film, there is some highly emotional and maybe even personal material about parental absence and damage – parents are either violently battered or disfigured by disease – and as in a dream, a crimson tide of blood soaks everything, before the artistic impulse turns it all back into a story. If it ultimately seems like the weakest of Del Toro’s three “personal” films – behind The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both masterpieces – that could be because the film’s world and the material in general is more familiar, to viewers outside Spain at least.