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The life is in the eyes: viewing A Monster Calls (dir. J. A. Bayona, 2016)



Having earlier this year received counselling for mental health issues, I found the many topics raised in A Monster Calls deeply affecting and cathartic. Like Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), I was a child who lost a parent to illness and at around the same time experienced extremes of either being bullied or being ignored at school. The other kids either didn’t know how to treat me, or thought I was an easy target. I was placid, and big for my age. Aligning this with hardwired gender constructs, they decided I was ‘manly’, stoic and strong, never once considering that I was breaking inside and needed my pain to be treated as normal. It was easier to shut me down and confuse me about my gender identity than to dare disrupt their safe assumptions that parents lived to old age.

At 32 years old, I was still getting bullied, this time in a bigger playground by people who could exert even more power over me. Like my childhood experience, when I defied their expectations and stood up for myself, I was the one who got in trouble. When I explained to my counsellor that I didn’t want to be a victim, she introduced me to the concept of the drama triangle, consisting of a perpetrator, their victim, and a hero. If the hero victimizes the perpetrator on behalf of the victim, the identities shift around. This useful video explains the triangle and how the identities can be more positively re-framed:

In A Monster Calls, rather than be the hero Conor wishes would fix all his problems by victimizing his bullies, the Monster (Liam Neeson) enables him to make considered decisions for himself about the person he will become based on how he responds to his circumstances. To do so, Conor must become brave enough to be true to himself. While Conor is twelve years old, this discovery is one many of us make throughout life, often repeatedly. In presenting the monster as an enabler, the film offers a reminder, not unlike the Universal ‘creature feature’ classics it channels so consciously, that creatures we label as monsters are not necessarily monstrous. They can represent the elephant in the room that we refuse to confront and offer a starting point to resolve our problems.

Upon further reflection and enlightening conversation about A Monster Calls with my good friend and scholar of Hispanic studies Francesca Sánchez Ortiz, I rekindled my forgotten interest in Geraldine Chaplin. Chaplin’s performance as Conor O’Malley’s head teacher acts as an intertextual reference to Bayona’s other films while embodying a nostalgic familial connection with early cinema. Indeed, her father’s films often explore approaches to dealing with the complexities of life and survival. I was first drawn to her acting work when as a teenager I saw her playing her grandmother, Hannah Chaplin, in Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic of her father. I was completely absorbed while viewing A Monster Calls, and it was only while watching the credits (under-appreciated goldmines of information) that I remembered Chaplin was in it. It took a moment to recall who she played, then I suddenly realized: ‘the life is in the eyes’ – those distinctive, inescapable Chaplin eyes inherited from a man not unlike the easily misunderstood characters in the yew tree creature’s moral fables.

When I watch Attenborough’s Chaplin, I take little interest in its bothersome leering camera and reductive representations of the scandals and politics surrounding Charles Chaplin. Instead, I could endlessly watch the film’s recreations of how, looking back from the 1990s, films at the early end of the century were made. Regardless of its cheesiness, I love the slapstick ‘Chaplin-esque’ sequence that imaginatively retells Chaplin’s account of the covert editing of The Kid (dir. Charles Chaplin, 1921). Like Chaplin’s silent comedies, it still makes me laugh while poignantly making a point. 

Geraldine Chaplin’s multilingualism and internationality channel her father’s appreciation for the ability of non-‘talkie’ cinema to transcend borders, cultures and language barriers. Her appearance in A Monster Calls is more meaningful when put in the context of her previous collaborations with Bayona. His debut, El orfanato/The Orphanage (2007), is the first of his loose triptych of films depicting children in difficult or horrific circumstances which culminates with A Monster Calls. If the latter evokes films such as Victor Erice’s El espíritu de la colmena/The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), this is likely no accident. In the films emerging in Spain during the early post-Franco years in the 1970s, the child figure can often represent a new and uncertain Spain haunted by the spectral presence of past violence. By channelling this and the ‘loose trilogy’ approach to exploring such issues, films produced in/about Spain or by Hispanic directors in the 2000s suggest that post-dictatorship issues are far from resolved. (My pal Fiona Noble is much more of an authority on these ideas than me as shown in one of her vintage blog posts.) This is reinforced by utilizing an actor such as Chaplin who starred in successful Spanish films from the earlier era, for example Ana y los lobos/Anna and the Wolves (dir. Carlos Saura, 1973).

The three-point cycle seems doomed to repeat itself unless one (usually the last of the chain – the enabler in place of the hero) steps out and breaks the chain. Given the current political climate, it is imperative that each of us, as fully as we can, lives and faces our truth even if it means admitting our faults and taking self-responsibility. If we deny what we are, the monsters inside and out can only thrive. For many it is easier said than done. Those of us privileged enough to be able to live our truths without fear or oppression have a duty to become enablers for those whose rights and experiences are denied. In the case of A Monster Calls, it is a grieving child being encouraged to admit and work through his anger at the loss of his mother to cancer lest he risk ruining his life through his negative actions. This message is transferable to the pain felt by all of us about just about anything, even nothing. Showing anger and emotion is human; it is our truth, and working though it together with honesty and compassion instead of expecting a hero to do it for us makes us function better as humans.

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