Traumatised and Traumatising Performances: Men and Rose Plays Julie
While from different genres (avant-garde folk horror and drama/thriller, respectively), Men (2022) and Rose Plays Julie (2021) share an emphasis on performance in the wake of physical and sexual abuse. In Rose Plays Julie, the third narrative feature film from Irish filmmaking and life partners Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy – and third to dramatise role reversals and the idea of literally stepping into someone else’s shoes – the protagonist Rose (played by Ann Skelly) tracks down her biological mother’s rapist after her adoptive mother dies and she learns that her birth was the result of a rape. Rose goes by and performs “Julie” as she tracks down her father, which was the real name her biological mother gave her before putting her up for adoption. Meanwhile, in Alex Garland’s third directorial project Men, the performance is not borne out of realism. Rory Kinnear plays a horde of almost identical men of different ages and with slightly varying appearances, who are all connected to a village manor house. These men collectively terrorise the lead character Harper (Jessie Buckley), who is recovering from the death of her manipulative, abusive husband. Garland’s film trades the science-fiction of previous works Ex Machina (2015) and Annihilation (2018) for the surreal and the fantastical despite responding to an urgent, real issue tied to the same fundamental gender inequality centralised in Rose Plays Julie.
So the two central performances in these films are each a direct response to trauma. Rory Kinnear’s men include a vicar, pub landlord, police officer, and schoolchild, but his house owner Geoffrey is at the centre, ostensibly pulling the strings for them all. Geoffrey exacerbates Harper’s trauma rather than resolving it, which she must do herself. Rose/Julie’s trauma, on the other hand, is second-hand and passed down from her mother. The performance in Rose Plays Julie is unequivocally hers, and in this case actively functions to resolve both her and her mother’s trauma. Rose does this by finding out the identity and location of her father, who she learns is called Peter Doyle (Aidan Gillen). The film she anchors is determined by a clear, forward-moving trajectory of building towards revenge against a man who has done unspeakable wrong and caused these women unimaginable pain. This film’s chronological linearity is the antithesis of Men, which crosscuts between Harper arriving at Geoffrey’s countryside house in the present and the reason she needs to go on the trip, which plays out in the past: her husband James Marlowe (Paapa Essiedu) argues with her, threatening suicide if she divorces him. As we see over the course of multiple flashbacks set in their claustrophobic but luxury riverside apartment in London, their argument escalates to the point of James hitting Harper, who then kicks him out. James breaks into the apartment above and attempts to climb down to her from balcony to balcony, but slips and either accidentally falls or allows himself to. He dies, gruesomely, on impact with the ground.
Men’s use of light and colour bolsters the distinction between these timelines and the atmospheres accompanying the events that happen in them. The harsh reds of the flashback scenes recall Dario Argento and David Lynch films; in keeping with these directors’ interests, the effects in Men are phantasmic and ominous, giving Harper’s fragmented memory of what happened to her husband (and what happened to their marriage) a nightmarish quality. The contrasting present tense, despite its stark difference in colour palate, serves to confirm that these nightmares really happened. As Harper drives to (to the soundtrack of Lesley Duncan’s ‘Love Song’) and then familiarises herself with the countryside, Garland’s film emphasises bright green space and clear blue skies, replacing the claustrophobic interior of the film’s opening flashback (and its subsequent ones too) with expansive exteriors. The characteristics of these new spaces put the spectator in the position that Harper wants to be in – and is in, albeit not for long: serenity, tranquillity, the ability to relax, to breathe clear air. But this optimism is impermanent. This is foreshadowed by a disruption of the distinction between the colours green and red. Arriving at Geoffrey’s impressive house – on video call to her sister, she later suggests that “I might have splashed out a little bit too much” – Harper spots an anomalous bright red apple on the tree in the front garden and then eats it. Geoffrey instantly addresses this action in an offhand joke to Harper about eating “forbidden fruit,” not leaving anything to be desired and giving our awareness of what Harper has done an uncertain irony. Men isolates this pronounced use of contradictory colour, highlighting the way that the past tense is already, literally bleeding into the visual language of the present tense; but by immediately addressing our awareness of it through Geoffrey’s confession that he saw Harper eat the apple, we are left wondering if this negates the use of foreboding or if it strengthens it.
Rose Plays Julie, on the other hand, is consistent in terms of colours and lighting. Before Rose begins not turning up to class due to encounters with her biological mother (an actress) in London, then spending time around her mother’s rapist/her father back in Dublin, Lawlor and Molloy’s film gives us dark, dimly lit lecture theatres and laboratories at the university Rose is enrolled on a veterinary course at. In one of the film’s first scenes, the consistent absence of colour and emphasis on washed out, lifeless interiors is matched by the difficult intensity of Rose’s studies. “EUTHANASIA and the HEALTHY ANIMAL” stares at Rose and us in bold letters against a white PowerPoint slide; “How do we deal with ethical dilemmas?” her lecturer then asks the room. Whereas Men played with irony and structure, there are no such games in Rose Plays Julie. Lawlor and Molloy’s film instead clearly indicates that it is headed for an uncomfortable destination, opting for narrative linearity to show that the journey to get there will be a punishingly straightforward one. It differs from the more structurally intricate and more tonally varied Men, but Garland’s film has these attributes to provide a platform for the supernatural, surreal, or fantastical – however we frame the departure from realism. This opens the door for some of the bigger conceptual ideas in Men, which it uses for ultimately similar means to the motivation of Rose Plays Julie: an uncompromising, perilous narrative situation of urgent danger towards women. For the majority of Men’s runtime, Harper is subjected to masculine violence, first her husband’s and then that of Geoffrey’s male clones. This differs from Rose’s immediate subversion of the violence inflicted on her mother prior to the film (resulting in inheritance of her trauma), which Rose does by meticulously planning how to violently exact revenge on Peter, the man responsible for the violence towards her mother.
In terms of space, Rose Plays Julie sustains its claustrophobic interiors throughout rather than restricting them to flashbacks in favour of a more open, expansive present tense, like Men does, even if Garland’s film does then go full circle by trapping Harper in Geoffrey’s house as she fends off his shape-shifting singular man (the film’s final act development from the horde of clones). Rose Plays Julie specifically elects the car as a setting for pivotal, often lifechanging conversations. Firstly, after tracking down her mother in London, Rose cries in her car as Stephen McKeon’s musical score blares, before a shift to diegetic sound as Rose is regaining her composure. Later, Rose is with her mother (Ellen – played by Ann Skelly), telling her of her plans to find her father next. Ellen asks what Rose will do if she tells her his name, to which Rose responds (lies) “Nothing.” Ellen insists that she cannot say her rapist’s name, that she can only write it down. The film cuts and moves forward to Rose lying awake in bed as she delivers voiceover dialogue discussing the possibilities she has imagined to explain why she was adopted. As she says, holding back tears: she had always clung to the belief that she was wanted, that it was not her fault, no matter which of the possibilities is the truth. But mid-way through this next scene we jump back to the car scene and see Ellen type “Peter Doyle” into Rose’s phone keyboard. Later, we return to this car scene again, and witness more of the conversation between Rose and Ellen. Ellen explains that she kept Rose rather than terminating the pregnancy so that she could think about her and not him – “I thought I could salvage something,” she confesses.
These exchanges culminate with the film’s penultimate scene, which again employs the car seat as a stage for high drama expressed in words. After a long, cathartic interrogation demanding answers and closure from Peter, Ellen stabs him in the leg with a syringe filled with drugs used to put down animals (stolen by her daughter from her university). Ellen does this after Rose herself planned, then tried but could not kill her biological father. As she tells her mother, “If the syringe hadn’t broken, I would’ve put him down. I wanted to.” Rose’s attempt is carried out when she turns up to Peter’s house, leading him on until the point where (in a horrifying twist of fate) he tries to rape her. This comes after days or weeks of turning up to her father’s archaeology site under her “Julie” alias: an actress who is researching her role in a fake play called The Archaeologist. Instead of injecting him, Rose hits Peter over the head with one of his archaeology trophies. In similar fashion to the film’s transitions in and out of diegetic sound mentioned earlier, we only hear muffled shouting from Rose as Peter clutches his bleeding head. Again, we return to this scene when the next one has begun, now hearing what Rose said in full, which was an unequivocal command, an order for Peter (and people like him) to stop doing the sickening, harmful, criminal things that they do: “When someone says stop you stop. And one more thing: you are my father.” The use of sound here – like before but also to the same effect as the accumulation of confined car scenes – underlines how Rose’s traumatised performance is a process of tirelessly trying to break out of entrapment, literally and figuratively (psychologically). She does so to experience spaces and sounds in full rather than limited versions of them. This is the opposite of Harper’s performative process in Men. Instead of liberatingly moving outward, Harper rejects the dangerous potential of boundless space and returns to interiors in order to resolve problems conclusively – problems which, for her, are the result of a traumatising performance against her.
In Men, the transition from past interior spaces to the expansive outside (then to an entrapping interior within that outdoors) is signposted throughout the film. Prior to the unrelenting, showstopping final thirty minutes or so (which builds until the point that Geoffrey is cyclically giving birth to his clones over and over), Harper is first getting to know the green space surrounding Geoffrey’s house and encounters an Andrei Tarkovsky-esque zone. Harper shouts from one end of an empty underpass, hearing her shout bounce off its walls and echo. She moves forward, shouting with slightly different pitches and tempos, creating a cacophony of noise. Harper smiles as she does this, enjoying a rare moment of childish glee in the wake of a very adult tragedy; but the enjoyment is cut short when she notices someone at the opposite end of the long underpass, who notices her and starts running towards her. Alarmed, Harper turns around and runs out of the underpass from the way she came in, and wanders back into the fields ostensibly away from the underpass. Quickly getting lost, Harper finds herself back at the underpass soon after, but it is now sealed off and covered up with stone. Peculiarities like this begin to occur more often, such as on her way back from this underpass episode, when Harper takes a photograph of the scenery and only notices through her phone camera that a man has appeared in the corner of the frame. As we later learn, both of these men are likely part of Geoffrey’s horde, and probably the same naked man Harper meets multiple times who seems to embody the natural earth in some way. Whether she is literally walled off from free space or harassed to the point that her confinement becomes psychological, Harper is only presented with the opportunity of expansive open space for that invitation to be qualified, conditioned, then completely taken retracted. The situation accentuates the stifling, suffocating, traumatic experience she is going through.
Harper does not have access to space and freedom, ultimately, and this is determined by first the human being (her dead husband) and then the supernatural being (Geoffrey’s shapeshifting/cloning monster) occupying space with her. Geoffrey’s presence is a traumatising performance, played at times for absurdist humour, such as in the scene where his clones appear in the village pub with him and Harper one-by-one, as if in a comedy sketch. Fundamentally, though, his performance is tied to a very troubling, real escalation of Harper’s physical and psychological abuse. Like Rose Plays Julie, Men builds towards a deeply unsettling attempted rape scene, though this scene does not close an ironic full circle trajectory of history repeating itself as it does in Rose Plays Julie, with Peter trying to rape the daughter he did not know he had (who is the product of his rape of Ellen all those years ago). Geoffrey attempts to rape Harper when appearing as the priest character, and Harper fends him off, but as we see throughout the film’s final thirty minutes: Geoffrey will keep coming back. This manifests in the scene where Geoffrey’s arm tries to find the lock through the letterbox. Harper aggressively stabs it, but Geoffrey simply slides his arm back until the knife has completely severed it and drops to the floor, as he pulls his arm back through the letterbox from the other side of the door. Geoffrey next appears as the schoolboy, with his wrist and hand in two pieces, wanting to play “hide ‘n’ seek” again as he did when Harper met him outside the village church earlier in the film. The change of narrative circumstances amplifies how the games of performance in Men – here a childish game, at one point an innocuous joke from Geoffrey about pretentiously owning a piano, despite not knowing how to play – are only a platform for something far more consequential and damaging.
The cyclical nature of these traumatising games continues to the point that Harper pushes off Geoffrey as he tries to rape her, and seems to successfully leave the house. Like in Rose Plays Julie, the approach to an individual scene structure captures this vicious circle effect. Garland’s film jumps forward slightly and crosscuts between Harper finally driving away from the house and different possibilities for specifically how she ran out and slammed the front door. It is a variation on Lawlor and Molloy’s approach, which returns to the previous scene during the next in order to fill in specific informational gaps, not to offer potential alternatives of the necessary information. The distinction shows how these films differently communicate uncomfortable realities about the difficulties women face in overcoming trauma in the wake of abuse – that is, there is no single, straightforward way to go through this experience. The universality of Harper’s struggle underpins Men’s forays into the avant-garde and the surreal. After leaving the pub full of Geoffrey’s clones – like throughout the film, Harper not registering this emphasises the extent to her struggle – she walks home alone at night and despite being in the middle of nowhere must frantically look over her shoulder and pick up pace as she walks, feeling that she is being watched or followed. At another point, Harper’s sister is prevented from maintaining her support for Harper in her time of crisis when Geoffrey inexplicably possesses her sister’s phone, sending Harper an abusive text that hides behind the anonymity facilitated by messenger and social media services for dangerous men. “I ALREADY KNOW WHERE YOU ARE. U STUPID BITCH,” Geoffrey sends, after Harper has given her sister her location because she is scared that something bad is about to happen. The relatable situation Harper is subjected to, underneath the elements of fantasy and the framework of a horror film, can be summarised by how persistently she is gaslighted by each of Geoffrey’s clones, but also by how she is silenced for almost the entire final half hour of the film. As Geoffrey’s performance drifts further away from reality, Harper’s experience as victim only exposes further truths about how women are treated during and after abuse.
Rose’s traumatised performance, on the other hand, is constantly grounded by reality, so her authentic response to abuse does not need to contend with something surreal or otherworldly because both performance and response are hers (and are in this case the same thing). As well as performing Julie, when she arranges a viewing to see Ellen and her second daughter Eva’s house, Rose books the appointment under the name “Valerie” and claims to be looking at the house on “behalf of a client.” At another point in the film, the university friend who has been covering for Rose’s absences despite not knowing why she is skipping class finds Rose’s black wig (which Rose has been wearing to the archaeology dig and other times she meets Peter) and tries it on, suggesting that “it’s not really you.” Like Harper’s experience, Rose’s is unrelenting; like Geoffrey’s undefeatable performance, Rose’s is necessarily persistent, not stopping until it achieves its goal (which is where it differs from Geoffrey’s, which fails). Peter does not perform because he is naturally and impulsively a monster. It is hard-wired, something he unconvincingly confesses to Ellen before she kills him as being a disease. Like Geoffrey, he creates a vicious circle for himself. Whereas Geoffrey’s characterisation literalises this when he begins to incessantly give birth to himself in the final moments of Men, Rose Plays Julies monster has no supernatural powers. Peter’s self-inflicted vicious circle – of less pain than he is causing for others – is comparatively powerless and pathetic. After Rose gives him a head wound and reveals her true identity when he tries to rape her, Peter sustains his lie, explaining the events away by deceiving his wife and saying that the bleeding head is the result of false claims from a girl telling Peter that he is her father. He neglects to mention the attempted rape and insists that he has always been faithful to his wife, so she could not possibly be his daughter.
Peter will never stop hurting people, so it takes the final action of Ellen to make him stop, which comes from Rose passing on the performative reigns to her mother and letting her adopt the role of murderer. Equally, Geoffrey is eventually stopped and Harper is able to successfully drive away from his house a second time, now with her sister. Harper’s victory is consolidated just before the arrival of her sister, when the final appearance of Geoffrey is not as one of his clones, but as her dead husband. “What is it you want from me?” she asks, sensing that he is somehow responsible for Geoffrey and his army, in the end. “Your love,” James replies. Rather than really giving him an answer to this impossible desire, Harper defiantly sighs a “Yeah.” Garland’s film ends with a degree of resolution but an indication that the universal struggle Harper embodies in Men is far from over. In this way, despite its litany of stylistic and narrative differences to Lawlor and Molloy’s film, it arrives at the same destination to Rose Plays Julie. This destination is a reset button, reminding us of the particular journeys these films have taken us on while simultaneously starting new ones, which will need to cover a lot more distance.