Eileen is a sensual adaptation of the first novel by pop culture icon Ottessa Moshfegh

4 out of 5 stars

Eyes closed, body still, metal encompassing the surfaces of your skin. Wet, cold, cold, and wet. Dreams of connection and touch warm the fingertips. Blood pulses and sweat begins to pool when suddenly, a buzzer goes off, shocking you awake. 

Masturbating at her desk again, Eileen snaps into position as she escorts the families visiting their fathers, sons and husbands out of the visiting area at the prison where she works. Depressing? Well, maybe, but for Eileen, the day-to-day just seems to pass her by as she fantasizes about something — nothing particularly, but something more. 

Pop culture icon Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel Eileen (2015) has been adapted by director William Oldroyd into a dazzling new feature film with a creative cast, including New Zealand’s Thomasin McKenzie (Last Night in Soho) and Anne Hathaway. Set in the icy cold Massachusetts winter, sometime in the 1960s, the film follows Eileen as she teeters through life in her small town — driving, working as support staff at the men’s prison in town, masturbating, taking care of her alcoholic father and dreaming about a life that is not her own. In the cells of the prison or the walls of her family home, Eileen is trapped by her life and the people surrounding her who beat her down and judge her dazed approach to the world around her.

Eileen (now in theatres)

The character Eileen is reminiscent of Casey (Anna Cobb) from the 2021 coming-of-age horror film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, as both characters share the unique screen quality of commanding attention through their sheepish, pensive approach to internal dialogue and aestheticization of a seemingly simple, remote setting. The aesthetic approach to both films also feels quite similar, where the cold, snowy landscape is not made to be romantic but rather plain, desolate and also somehow fascinating. 

Beyond driving, staring longingly at prisoners and listening to her father’s hurtful criticisms, Eileen’s most liberating activity is when she daydreams about murder, especially killing her father. That is until Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) is introduced to the narrative. The commanding, sensual, blonde psychiatrist who drives a red car begins working at the same prison and occupying Eileen’s attention. Rebecca is the complete opposite of Eileen; she is explicit, confident and pretentious. Her presence shifts the film’s initial focus from Eileen’s monotonous life to her growing hyperfixation on the potential for a new world: Rebecca’s. 

The dynamic of these two characters reminds me of the passion and craze between Juliet and Pauline from Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994) and the struggle for self-determination and care between Kata and Anna in Adoption (Márta Mészáros, 1975). The intertextual connections from Eileen feel so important because of how special the relationship between the two leading women on screen can be, especially when their dynamics grapple with lust, friendship and motherhood all at once — especially when these women are allowed to be crazy and horny, too. 

Rebecca is everything Eileen wants: she is beautiful, sexual, confident, and most of all, a friend. She is an obvious representation of second wave feminism, commanding Eileen to take charge of her life and live freely. The film hints at psychedelic experimentation yet never fully commits. Rebecca makes snarky remarks at traditional women, yet hides behind her pretentious academic background. Eileen falls short when it comes to commentary on these women’s lives, but it succeeds in setting a mood.

Many scenes focus on combining cold, sterile landscapes with a booming score composed by Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire). Christmas marks the climax of the film, which is well incorporated into the setting by the instrumental, jazzy soundtrack. Reminiscent of the original Twin Peaks series, the film’s focus on melodrama allows the viewer to forget and be shocked back into place by the mysterious thriller at hand. Creeping into Eileen’s view on the world around her, each musical interlude adds to the looming moral anxiety the film creates. 

Anyone who has read the book knows what lies ahead. To avoid spoilers but prepare a potential viewer, every possible trigger warning is needed for this film. Brace yourself accordingly.

While you may know Moshfegh better for her second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), the film adaptation of Eileen shows new potential for the author’s growing star status. For those who like to watch the least Christmassy Christmas movies, Eileen will surely be a great new addition to your list, and the soundtrack on vinyl may be an even better gift than what you’ve asked for. ■

Eileen (directed by William Oldroyd)

Eileen opens exclusively at Cinéma du Parc on Friday, Dec. 8.

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