The Girl In The Park (Auburn, 2007. US)
This is a recurring phenomena and a recent viewing of The Girl In The Park set me trying to define it. I’ll outline my understanding of the characters and their relationship, to try and replicate the effect the dénouement had for me.
From the moment Louise (Kate Bosworth) breezes into Julia’s (Sigourney Weaver) life, we know Julia is being set up for a fall. The ambiguity over whether Louise really could be the long lost Maggie doesn’t make us hopeful, it just means the cataclysm, when it comes, could just be even more painful. To lose the same daughter twice would be more than Julia could withstand.
A sense of foreboding shoots through the scenes of domestic harmony, not from the moment Julia takes Louise in, nor when Julia casually deposits a key and leaves her home and possessions to the disposal of a self-confessed conwoman. No, these events are ostentatiously disquieting, it is the joyful equilibrium that is riddled with jangling apprehension. We wait with baited breath for it all to come crashing down, for a great confrontation; perhaps most anxiously for poor, stoic, Chris’s reaction. Of course at the family wedding, this is the classic setting for simmering familial tension to come to a head. An uninvited guest, estranged parents, alcohol, a stranger apparently more privy to a mother’s affections than her own son: all the strings are taut on Chris’s bow and as Julia stands to make her speech there is an almost audible clanging of The Bell of Doom. Then she says some heartfelt things and sits back down. For a couple of seconds we reel with the sense of narrowly averted catastrophe the, without warning or preamble, the other shoe drops.
The final scene, after familial reconciliation, after Chris finally says the dreadful words that Julia had perhaps never heard aloud, Maggie/Louise reappears begging sanctuary and offering (again), finally the truth and what does Julia say? ‘I don’t care.’ Such a loaded statement. Louise hears it as rejection, until she sees the open door [*ahem* METAPHOR] and suddenly they become words that surely we all want to hear. To offer up our past sins and failings, to be told ‘no matter, I accept you as you are, without judgement, censure or condition.’
Before, in the park, Julia had stared at Louise’s bare legs, then forced herself to look away before she could see whether the feted birthmark was there or not. She didn’t want to know, she wanted to leave herself with hope. Hope is an infinitely better feeling than Certainty. If this truly was her Maggie then that would create as much pain as it cured. Her next attempt at verifying her speculation ends in both women fully subscribing to the fantasy, each using the other to fill a void in her own life.
At the last though, when she and we both know for certain that this is not, and could never really have been, her Maggie, that revelation isn’t crushing. Julia realises that the relationship she has forged with this lost young woman is mutually beneficial and that she leads to let little Maggie go, to let her rest. In an instant, she makes her peace and the two sit down to dinner, entirely at ease. The end. There is reconciliation with Chris and Celeste, joy at the new baby, the prospect of a loving and uncomplicated relationship with boss man. No great cataclysm, but no great resolution either. It almost doesn’t matter that the core question- what happened to Maggie?- was never answered. It was almost a MacGuffin to get us to this point. I was surprised that the whole precarious zephyr didn’t go down in a ball of flames, but glad that Julia found some peace, even that lonely, amoral Louise found some rest. Not what I was anticipating, but this fragile equilibrium is as much as we could ask for.
So this set me to thinking about other acceptably ambiguous endings, with no great or final resolution. Thus far my list comprises:
My Summer of Love (Pawlikowski, 2004. UK)
Plenty of people were frustrated by this ending, but I think I get it. Dissenting voices said ‘why didn’t Mona just kill Tamsin?’ But 16/17 year olds fall in and out of love all the time, teenagers betray each other and get their hearts broken and, crucially, get over it. Your average adolescent girl does not commit murder with her bare hands every time she gets dumped.
The thing is, it was all a game for Tamsin; she’s spoilt, lonely and deprived of emotionally valid relationships, especially with people her own age. Plus, potentially she is actually gay, which could well be worse in a boarding school than it is at a normal school I suspect. All of this compounds into an irrepressible desire to fabricate a world to inhabit and a lack of social and emotional empathy. She’s not evil.
Mona, however, is a practical girl. She was seduced by Tamsin, her self-assurance, her knowledge and exoticism; so different from the salty, working class Yorkshire villagers she’s used to, but she has her head on her shoulders really. She’s hurt, more deeply than she could have imagined, by the betrayals of first her brother, then her manipulative lover, but she will roll up her sleeves and carry on. This is a girl who bought a moped with no engine because it was going cheap. ‘Drowning’ Tamsin was the end of the game, the line underneath their sundrenched fantasy. It couldn’t really end any other way, there was no happy ever after that could be attained here, and murder-suicide-tabloid frenzy? Too Hollywood, too dramatic. Here things just fizzle out, that fire and drive of youth just fades away and we settle into nothing. So I didn’t mind this ending.
I think most people’s displeasure at this conclusion, or absence thereof, stems from the lack of catharsis, the dearth of dramatic resolution. Much like unsatisfactory old life- it just keeps on, with nothing much of anything to draw a line under each phase as it passes.
Julia (Erick Zonca, 2008. UK)
Well this film just kept surprising me. For the first hour I just hated this character, I could not abide her; even the way she breathed grated on me. Then, as the situation escalated way beyond her control, I inexorably found myself rooting for her to succeed. I kept hoping each double blind and bluff would pay off, whilst constantly bracing myself for a bloody, tragic dénouement or ignominious capture. The little boy was bestowed with so little character that I didn’t really care whether he ended up with his authoritarian grandfather or loco addict mother, as long as he didn’t die at the hands of Mexican gangsters.
As each machination unfolded I found myself thinking ‘do it, do it!’ So when Julia ends up with no money, no car, escalating debts, wanted by the FBI, stood on the central reservation of a foreign motorway clutching another woman’s child and sobbing with relief, it wasn’t what I thought was going to happen, and it isn’t really the outcome I’d hoped for, but it was okay. She had, in some oblique way, found redemption. The boy was safe (as safe as he could be in the circumstances) and no one had, at that moment, been shot or arrested. Apart from people earlier in the film. An uneasy equilibrium is reached and it’s alright. The palpable relief as the child is released, the genuine human emotion that oases between the two at their reunion, despite the circumstances of their acquaintance, those are valuable emotions; this is a stirring moment, though we may be left unsure what it means.
There should be a word for this type of ending. Is there? Tell me. Feel free to pitch in with other films that end in an unexpected but ultimately acceptable, if not entirely satisfactory fashion.