James: Relic (2020)
Directed and co-written by Natalie Erika James, Relic feels like an instant Australian horror classic. Virtually the entire film revolves around three generations of women, and their shared relationship with one house in Creswick, Victoria. Robyn Nevin plays Edna, the matriarch, who has started to descend into the early stages of dementia when the film starts, but is still capable of living alone. Emily Mortimer, sporting a very respectable Australian accent, plays Kay, Edna’s daughter, who rocks up with her own daughter Sam, played by Bella Heathcote, to canvas the town when her mother abruptly disappears. While Edna returns within a few days, she can’t – or won’t – tell Kay and Sam where she’s been, and seems almost unrecognisable to them at moments, so dramatically has her dementia seemed to intensify in her absence. Torn between letting Edna live alone, moving in with her, or sending her to a retirement village, Kay and Sam gradually suspect that there may be something other than dementia going on – something to do with Edna’s mysterious two days away from the house.
Part of what makes Relic so effective is the way it marries two very different periods and styles in Australian cinema. On the one hand, the sombre pacing and focus ties James’ vision to the indie style of the new millennium, and yet the bleakness and starkness that normally accompanies that register is totally absent here, replaced instead with a lush atmospheric approach that harkens back to the Australian genre films of the 1980s – especially Tony Williams’ Next of Kin, released in 1982, which focuses on a similar relationship with a family home. These films are all but lost to contemporary cinematic memory, so there’s a kind of return of the repressed in just seeing James draw on their style and tenor. Since Edna is the only character old enough to fully remember this era, this imbues Nevin’s performance with a peculiar intensity, as does the way her character is written. Nevin’s delivery is so distinctive that it’s doubly powerful to see her fall back upon a role that largely subsists on pregnant silences punctuated by cryptic aphorisms, making for the best film performance of her career.
That focus on portentous silence also forms part of James’ exquisitely textural horror. The opening sequence follows an overflowing bath as it trickles over successive surfaces in Edna’s home, paving the way for a series of other vividly tactile surfaces that unfold over the first few scenes – the candles that Edna sculpts, a basket of rotting fruit, the sagging tennis net in the backyard. All of these textures feel like ciphers for the surface of Edna’s skin, which James frequently pulls into focus once she does return, overlaying everything with a veneer of decreptitude. The dimness and gloominess of the film’s palette throws these aged textures into even more dramatic relief, as does James’ minute attention to the all the slight shifts and sounds of the house, which is always resettling and resetting itself, in the way old houses do.
These textures are also emphasised by the unusual situation that Kay and Sam find themselves in. Since they’re unexpectedly alone in Edna’s house to start with, they’re acutely aware of the textures of her everyday life, all of which appear to have been left in media res before she disappeared. In effect, they inhabit the grooves and ruts normally left by her body – and this is only accentuated when she returns, since the apparent acceleration of her dementia produces the heightened textural availability of the aged body when it can no longer do everything for itself, forcing children, grandchildren and carers into what was previously its personal and prioprioceptive space. In other words, the first part of Relic unfolds in the Gothic space just before a parent is committed to a nursing home – and it’s notable that that home Kay considers is the brightest space in the film, devoid of any genuine texture.
The most suspenseful moments in the film also tend to be ushered in by unusual textures, while the supernatural entity, when it does emerge, is largely a matter of texture as well. We first see it as a vague dark blur in the background, barely visible except as a subliminal shift in background texture – or a slight rearrangement of the mise-en-scene, which is also how Edna sees it, as she recalls to Kay and Sam that she has recently woken up to find her objects in slightly different positions from where she left them. Over time, this subliminal texture turns into a mould that creeps over everything, climbing up walls and curtains, gathering a growing horror around vertical thresholds in particular – the edge of doors and curtains, the space between trees, the back of Edna’s closet. So pervasive is this patina of old age, and this mildewy slick that slides over everything, that the mould appears to be colonising the camera lens, much as Edna starts to eat the family photographs once she’s in the grip of her possession. This is a film, then, that gets progressively darker as it goes, until you really need to be watching it in a pitch black space yourself to fully make out its images and thresholds.
As this mould starts to defamiliarize Edna’s home, all three women are confronted with the residual uncanniness of the sprawling family home as an Australian institution. More and more, property ownership, let alone family property ownership, feels beyond the reach of most Australians – and you sense that this house is also the last glimpse that any of these women will have of that kind of home ownership too. At one point, Edna confides to Sam that “since your grandfather passed, this house seems unfamiliar, bigger somehow – it’s the only thing left,” while Kay is haunted by dreams of an old hut that used to be on the property, and whose windows were used to construct the house Edna now lives in. Between Kay’s distant memories of that hut, and Sam’s immersion in a world where a family home is almost unthinkable, the film evokes the spectrum of Australian dwellings that have defined and contoured middle-class life over the last century, resulting in an ingeniously spatial third act.
This act starts with Sam finding an unexpected space at the back of Edna’s closet, which takes her to a second house-within-the-house that unfolds in the interstitial zone between walls and stairwells. This interstitial house seems to be the source of the mould infesting everything, and grows smaller and tighter as Sam moves through it, eventually trapping her in a series of dank boxes with no clear spatial orientation. The supernatural entity that hangs over the film is collapsed into the process by which the original bush house expands into the family home, and then contracts back into this bizarre space, collapsing contemporary small-scale urban living back into the Gothic structures that preceded the Australian middle-class home. In other words, the entity is nothing more than the original shadows and sightlines of Australian colonial architecture as they close in on themselves – the last gasp of the family home as the cornerstone of the lucky country, and disavowal of the blackness already in that country, as a more inchoate Indigenous Gothic percolates up through the narrative substrate.
While Sam does eventually break back through the walls into the “main” house, this process of expansion and contraction is transplanted back onto Edna’s body in the astonishing final scene. Just as the house converges colonial and contemporary living arrangements onto a single mouldy surface – a single fear of blackness – so the film ends with Kay forcing herself to help Edna make the final transition from white life back to black mould. She starts by gently pulling off the skin off Edna’s back, and then carefully pulls out her hair and scalp, lovingly dismantling her face until all we’re left with is a dark carapace – not quite a skeleton or a corpse, but as close as a body can be to death without actually being dead. In a final twist, it turns out this figure is not just the culmination of all the aged textures of the film, but the creature we’ve seen disrupting the textures of James’ compositions – the last residue of bodily existence, the most fleeting and fragile corporeality before death finally takes control.
In a brilliantly eerie twist on dementia horror, then, Relic isn’t afraid of death so much as it is afraid of the last residues of life, the abject vulnerability of the body just before it gives up. This is the relic of the title and, in James’ vision, constitutes the only moment where the white settler body can fully, whole-heartedly, acknowledge its dependence on and continuity with the black bodies that previously occupied the land where it is laid to rest. This puts the burden on Kay to enact a reliquary for Edna, as she lovingly collects the last fragments of her mother’s body and puts them to (un)rest on the bed. The process is just as intense for Sam, providing her first glimpse, vicariously, of what she will eventually have to go through with her own mother – figured as the first brief hint of mould on Kay’s back as she gently lays Edna down.
Between these three women, James thus fashions a kind of inverted birth narrative. Instead of ushering in the first semblance of life, Kay helps Edna to give birth to her last breath of life, tacitly reminding Sam that she will have to do the same some day. Not only does this beautifully converge the supernatural and allegorical elements of the film, but it’s one of the very best examples I’ve seen of grief horror, which nearly always gets dogged down in dourness, and so refrains from the extravagantly creative morbidity that is Relic’s signature – the morbidity of Australian middle-class life, punctured and illuminated quite brilliantly here.
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