dir: Natalie Erika James
The horror…of watching a loved one succumb to dementia and impending death…
For many of us, this is not why we watch entertainment, in fact it’s the exact opposite impulse. Yet here we are.
It’s impossible to separate our fear of death and the mortality of the people around us from the wellspring of fears that horror movies prey upon. Relic crafts together what looks like a haunted house story, but, really, come on. It’s not. It’s about something far less supernatural and far more likely for us all to experience, being the decline of the elders in our families.
Kay (Emily Mortimer, putting on a pretty solid Aussie accent) receives a welfare check call from the cops, saying that her mum Edna (the great Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen around the last couple of days, and isn’t answering the door. So Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive to somewhere in rural Victoria to find out if she’s okay.
But before that we watched a naked Edna, presumably, standing stunned in the lounge room, as water overflows the bath, cascades down the stairs and spreads everywhere, both beneath Edna’s feet, and towards someone else that seems to be standing in the room near her.
When Sam and Kay get to the house, they cannot find her. There are post it-notes around, saying mundane things like “take pills” or “shut the door”, maybe indicating that Edna’s having memory problems. Otherwise there’s nothing too much out of the ordinary. That is to say, nothing visually seems that much out of place, but the sound design, and the ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere never let up, never let us think anything will ever be too normal.
And then Edna is back, never explaining where she’s been or why, and not feeling the need to justify herself. Kay expresses both relief, bafflement and frustration, but Sam is just glad to have her back safe. There are tentative stabs at potentially returning to some form of normality. A doctor’s visit makes it seem like Edna hasn’t totally lost her marbles. When Sam offers to move in and look after her, Edna at first seems to welcome the company. She hands over one of her treasured rings, saying it no longer fits her, so Sam should have it.
It’s not long after when she’s forgotten she gave it to Sam, and accuses her of stealing it. This happens at around the same time that Kay travels down to Melbourne to look for a place to whack Edna into, an upmarket old folk’s home that is as depressing as it is sterile.
But would that be so horrible? Edna is clearly not right, and not able to look after herself, and the house itself seems like it is infected and infested with some awful mouldy substance that is spreading everywhere. The house, like all houses, groans and strains at its seems, but this one seems to grow larger and smaller at whim. Is the house alive? Or is it replicating what Edna is going through, what all the women of the house are now going through?
Some of the stuff I’m describing is universal, in that, depending on your circumstances, you have either already lived through similar issues, you remember your parents dealing with your grandparents. We may have seen a treasured oldie slowly wither away and die, or lose all the elements that made them who they are, being their memories. The most heartbreaking scene for me involves Edna desperately eating photos of her family, as if to stave off the deletion of her memories by the dementia, and she plaintively asks where everyone has gone? Not, where are they now, but, why can’t she situate them in her memory. And as she’s saying this, she’s burying a photo album in a forest near her home.
Horror films aren’t meant to be heartbreaking, but I guess that’s why this film sits uneasily within that genre description. A film that captures the frustration of wanting to help someone, genuinely not wanting to fob them off to another family member, or the state, or some facility, but being completely unable to, and in fact being tormented by the decision to try to help, is in itself a unique form of horror.
It's not enough to point out that the performances are exquisite. Robyn Nevin has been a class act for over 60 years in Australian films and television. She’s a national treasure. She’s even in the goddamn Matrix movies (not the good one). She is incredible here, shifting from vulnerable to terrifying in the space of a moment. There is one scene towards the end, which uses no special effects, no make up, which is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen. Kay has just made dinner for the two of them, Sam being elsewhere, and in the casual chitchat of trying to goad her mother into eating, Edna looks at Kay with an expression of such complete alien incomprehension and remove that I genuinely thought Kay was going to die from terror on the spot.
As this is happening, Sam is trapped within the house, which has somehow become an even shrinking labyrinth. Do we take this literally? I’m not sure that we have to.
There is mention made of Edna’s great grandfather, who was left abandoned, to wilt away and die from neglect, in a shed whose door bore a particular stained glass installation, which now sits threatening us on the front door of the house. Kay often dreams of it. It comprises images not of Edna’s dementia, but of decay and death itself spreading as a contagion (which is the last fucking thing I need to see at the moment, let me be honest with you, since the coronavirus confirmed count today in Melbourne is 484 new cases, which is the highest it’s ever been). And it spreads, and it spreads. It has its hooks in Edna, it spreads throughout the house, making the house itself decay, but it’s in Kay’s dreams too, and it won’t stay there for long.
And what is Sam’s fate? Well, she’s young, and she can fight against the house all she wants, but some legacies, I guess the film is saying, are unavoidable.
For much of the film we wonder whether there is another entity within the house, whether the house itself is the entity, whether it’s Edna, or some other malevolence. And we can keep on wondering, really. The central metaphor of dementia stripping away the essence of who someone is, is rendered in a brutal, literal image in the end, after Kay and Sam try to escape through the walls of the labyrinth, and Edna herself becomes a raving, dangerous creature, but in the end, even with what has happened, Kay makes a choice: she cannot abandon her mother, no matter what she has become, no matter how much of her personhood she’s lost.
I have to admit I might not have completely understood the ending, whether it was symbolic or literal, whether allegorical or just a prophecy, but it manages to be both confusing and bittersweet, frightening, comforting and worrying all at the same time, because of what it lays out for the three women at their very different ages.
Relic is not comfortable viewing, though it’s rarely if ever gratuitous. There are some unpleasant images, especially of what it feels like this contagion does to people, the physical depiction of it (that I am pretty sure, but not completely sure, is symbolic rather than literal, like a person trying to save their memories eating their photographs; it’s not going to literally work, but we understand the impulse). Edna’s transformation is hard to watch, but watching someone you love fall apart and die is always hard, whether it’s in a story but especially in real life.
The performances are all perfect for the material, Robyn Nevin is scary in how good she is, Bella Heathcote just has to be young and scared, but she does that fine. Emily Mortimer is particularly great, balancing fear and frustration with a determination not to abandon her difficult mother, but, fucking hell, nothing makes it easy. It’s a great performance which will be ignored because this is a horror film about real life, and that’s easy to ignore.
It's hard to say I enjoyed the film, or enjoyed the experience, since it brings up so many conflicting and unpleasant emotions, but I did feel a lot through watching it, far more so than I usually do watching other horror flicks. Other reviewers have compared this to Hereditary, The Babadook or even I am The Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, and I don’t feel that they’re fair or accurate comparisons. Natalie Erika James is trying to do something completely different here, with a completely different story about loving those who are lost and losing their battle with memory and life, even when they become monsters through no fault of their own other than ageing.
Relic deserves to stand next to them, maybe on the same shelf of a mythical Blockbuster, but they’re not the same thing. As an intelligent and confronting debut film for this young Australian director, it’s pretty strong, and points to a great future, if anyone ever gets to make any new films in this Cowardly, Old World that we now all live in thanks to the plague.
8 times when you get to the stage where you’re looking at old folk’s homes for your aged parent, it’s sometimes the lowest point of your life, and theirs too, out of 10
"How long has it been since you've spoken to her?
- "It's...it's been a while." - guilt, shame, these are just two of many possible emotions - Relic