Ruben: Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

Sleeping with the Enemy begins with an almost impossibly immaculate mise-en-scene – Julia Roberts against a burnished beach backdrop, poised midway between Mystic Pizza and Notting Hill, in one of the most radiant tableaux of her entire career. She’s probably never been better positioned against a setting, and as a result the setting seems to emanate out of her presence – and her hair in particular, which casts its sheen across the landscape. This is the perfect opening, then, for a film that is peculiarly preoccupied with mise-en-scene,  with the way actresses are positioned in a scene, and the types of violence that this might enable.

This first scene is Roberts playing her own star image, which is never quite contained by her actual character in the film – Laura Burney, the wife of Martin Burney, played by Patrick Bergin. Martin seems to sense this too, intuiting that something about his wife remains forever beyond his reach, and transcends any scenario he could possibly construct around her. We find this out gradually, though, since the second scene shifts to what appears to be a relatively healthy marriage, in a more recognisably realistic space – the priciest point of Cape Cod, where Burney, an investment banker, abuts properties with a famous neurosurgeon.

The Burneys live in a postmodern house right on the beach – a serenely glassy expanse of vistas and sightlines that must have been an influence on Leigh Whannell’s recent remake of The Invisible Man. It’s not clear what Laura does, exactly, in this space, except keep house, since she’s curiously passive from the moment she returns from this sublime opening tableaux to her husband’s domestic purview. Soon enough, we realise that Laura’s passivity stems from an abusive relationship – Martin beats her periodically, and brutally, in fits of maniacal rage.

This violence is especially confronting against the architectural and spatial serenity, and yet this serenity is part of the reason for the violence in the first place. Martin’s abuse is literal domestic violence, violence on behalf of domestic space, since he doesn’t assault Laura because of regular infidelity, but as a result of his obsessive attention to décor, design and mise-en-scene. If she leaves an object out of place, or doesn’t close a door, or changes any part of his tableau without consulting him, he savagely beats her – he’s jealous of mise-en-scene, like an anal retentive director who can only envisage the scene in one particular way.

The first sign we get of this impending violence is also the most languorous moment, at this point, in the film. After noticing that a towel has been hung up out of pattern with the others, Martin calmly walks Laura into the bathroom. He decelerates as he approaches, anxious not to disrupt the perfectly appointed atmosphere of it all – a tacit indication, to her, that she’s done enough damage, and that she’ll be punished presently for daring to disrupt his scheme. Just as Martin senses Laura’s star image somewhere beyond the film, he also seems to apprehend that this was never a real house at all, but a set built for the film – a temporary structure, removed when the film wrapped, that he can only temporarily command by traversing as delicately as possible.

These opening scenes thus evoke a deep violence subtending the immaculate sheen of 90s cinema – an atavistic impulse at the core of 90s chic. As she imagines an escape, Laura drifts her hand over an ancient sculpture that Martin gave her on their wedding night – the same sculpture that he rubs to try and conjure her back when she disappears at the end of the first act. This sculpture was the first of many objects that Martin has given Laura over the years to make up for his violence – jewellery, clothes, objets d’art. Yet these presents are quickly collapsed into the pleasure he takes in hitting her – hitting her becomes a pretext or even a prerequisite for acquiring these new domestic features, which are thereby congealed into his mise-en-scenes through sacrificial violence. It’s not that dissimilar to directors like Kubrick or Tarantino who would terrorise or demean their female stars to cement their mise-en-scenes.

Just as the opening tableau seems to emanate from Laura’s hair, it feels like Martin has to anchor his own tableaux in Laura’s hair as well. He’s always buying her red objects, and seems to relish the way the blood on her face draws out her hair, and sets off the cooler backdrop. Red is the only colour anchor in this house, and Martin infuses it with Laura’s blood and hair to give his tableaux a particularly propulsive punch. Later on, when Laura meets Ben, her love interest, she demonstrates her trust by allowing him to offer her an array of hats that bunch, crumple and manipulate her hair in different ways. Here, as in so many of her early films, Roberts’ hair is at once her most flamboyant feature and her point of maximum vulnerability.

These early scenes evoke a synergy between the regressive gender politics of the 50s and the (supposedly) progressive gender politics of the 90s. Like an Eisenhower-era husband, Martin doesn’t want Laura to work full-time, and seeks to make a clean break with her family, refusing to let her mother live with them and not even permitting her to attend her mother’s funeral. Yet Sleeping with the Enemy also evokes a regression beyond 50s gender politics, since Martin doesn’t even value Laura as a mother (they are conspicuously childless) but instead reduces her to part of the furniture, part of the domestic sheen, a unit of ambience.

There is, however, one hitch in Martin’s plan – Laura is terrified of water, and can’t swim, meaning she hates sailing. That doesn’t tally with the immaculate Cape Cod lifestyle, which is defined by the water, so it’s no coincidence that Martin beats her up after a discussion with his neighbour about a potential yacht trip. Martin claims that he assaulted Laura because he caught her peeking out the window at his neighbour, but it seems more likely that the talk with his neighbour has reminded him that Laura’s hatred of sailing means that she can never quite fit into his Cape Cod tableau. Sure enough, he asks her to go sailing after beating her, when she’s at her most vulnerable – and you have to wonder whether he beats her into sailing each time, since we learn that she only agrees to go out on the water once or twice a season.

As soon as we head out on the water, however, everything changes. The perfectly appointed spatial scheme of the film – Martin’s scheme – falls apart, as an enormous storm befalls the boat. Laura is tossed overboard, and appears to be dead, so Martin holds a funeral for her a week later. This blurring of space continues as we discover that Laura, now going as Sara Williams, has spent the last few years secretly learning to swim, in prepation for faking her death in precisely this way. She deliberately leaped off the boat, clung to a buoy, and then swam to shore, before ending up the indeterminate space where we first meet her again – an all-night bus trip against back-projected scenes that continue the dark chaos of the storm.

When day breaks, we learn that Laura has moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa, as the film retreats from 90 postmodernism to 80s small-town nostalgia. This is tantamount to trying to restore “real” space from the hyperreal fixtures of Martin’s Cape Cod home, and yet Cedar Falls is shot in the same lush style as the Massachussetts coastline, suggesting Martin is never too far away. As a result, nothing seems quite real in Cedar Falls – or everything seems too real. When Laura meets Ben, her new love interest, played by Kevin Anderson, he’s singing “Jet Song,” the opening number from West Side Story, prefacing the town by framing it as a theatrical contrivance. Sure enough, Ben isn’t an “authentic” small town figure either – he’s also returned from the east coast, after failing to make it big on Broadway. For him, as for Laura, small town life is just another performance that he’s attempting to plausibly maintain.

This creates an uneasy continuity between Ben and Martin that’s encapsulated in a sequence that sees Ben take Laura to the drama theatre at the school where he works as a teacher. Asking her to sit on the stage, he creates a literal mise-en-scene around her, before they muck around backstage, in the film’s single montage sequence, against a series of Boomer classics that seem to remove us far from Martin’s paranoid gaze. This is the first time in the film that Laura allows herself to relax in the presence of another person, and open her personal space.

This scene is all the more cathartic in that it’s preceded by a series of stalker-like POV shots of Laura’s house that initially seem to betoken Martin’s presence but instead turn out to be Ben. Yet these also presage a different and more sinister valency to this theatre scene. After all, Ben’s staging paints the small town as palpably artificial – a series of theatrical elements (stars, swings, snow) that he adds just as strategically as Joseph Ruben himself. Ben’s position here is also eerily close to Martin’s – situating Laura in the midst of an even more emphatic and literal mise-en-scene, watching approvingly from a control deck deep in the audience. No surprise, then, that this whole sequence ends with Ben momentarily appearing to become Martin, at least to Laura, who has to forcibly ask him to stop coming onto her several times.

Yet these interactions with Ben are ultimately a bit beside the point, just as Ben himself seems almost deliberately devoid of charisma. There are no other big names in the film apart from Roberts, and really no characters who exist quite as emphatically as Laura, who always centres every space, starting with that spectacular opening scene, which is precisely Martin’s paranoid trauma. Laura might start a romance with Ben, but the film is driven libidinally by her erotic pleasure in space itself, along with Martin’s efforts to thwart it, and Ben’s attempt to contour it. This produces a remarkably baroque sense of space, driven by flamboyant trajectories across and within scenes that stand in for conventional character development.

This is especially clear when Laura first arrives in Cedar Falls, and relaxes into the luxury of unconstrained space. Most of the film, from this point on, is Laura alone in space, or trying to be alone in space, which imbues personal space itself with an immense sensuality. Laura embraces having her own space as the most sensuous and cathartic experience imaginable, making this one of Roberts’ most erotic roles, as she relishes every moment, every passage, every space. Exuding a sublime calm, she basks in every iota of ambience, capturing the incredible poise she achieved in Mystic Pizza, and would recover again in Notting Hill – the poise of an actor who somehow manages to channel and feel every part of their surroundings.

This, in turn, suffuses the entire film with an incredible hush – a preternatural awareness of the spaces between characters, and the dialogue drifting and falling across those spaces. We see this especially acutely in the case of Laura’s mother Chloe Williams, played by Elizabeth Murdoch, who turns out to be alive, and living in a home close to Cedar Falls. As the only blind character in the film, Chloe is both Martin’s ideal partner, and his point of greatest access to Laura, since our awareness of space, sight and silence is so heightened in her presence. To forestall that syngery between Martin and her mother, Laura dresses up as Martin when she decides to visit Chloe, pre-emptively and apotropaically displacing Martin’s spatial command, only for Martin to turn up in person at the very moment that Laura first tries out her disguise.  

Since Martin’s gaze is partly that of the director himself, Laura’s attempt to impersonate him, and take control of his gaze, momentarily schisms the spatial scheme of the film as well, producing a short period when it’s genuinely indiscernible whether Laura or Martin is in control of the mise-en-scene that is unfolding before us. This indeterminacy continues when Laura returns home, except that it’s now unclear whether Ben or Martin has a more omniscient vantage point on her house. Ruben repeats the same stalker POV shot that ended up collapsing into Ben’s perspective earlier on, and also includes a few jump scares that culminate with Ben arriving, but also attaches a new malicious intensity and opacity to Ben too – as if Martin’s misogyny is already emergent and implicit within Ben’s nice-guy persona.

This produces an extraordinary concluding set piece, in which Laura first registers Martin’s presence through a series of subliminal shifts in décor, the first of which is also the first glitch we saw in the film – hand towels slightly out of place. The shot of her registering this shift, while in the bath, is the pivotal moment in the film, and became the main image on film posters and VHS covers when the film was released. In a beautiful twist on the slasher film, the home invader is now the husband, while suspense is driven by mercurial echoes of Laura’s shared domestic life with her husband. As she moves from room to room, she seems to drift into a trance, trying to dissociate real signs of danger in the present with memories of her married life, while the film sinks into its most sublime stillness yet. This stillness mirrors Martin’s signature stare – his effort to bend space to his will just by staring hard enough at it.

During this final sequence, Martin’s stare is entirely absorbed and abstracted into space, allowing him to manifest himself purely as décor – become décor – thereby collapsing any house that Laura inhabits into his psychopathic presence. This is the end goal of Martin’s trajectory – to become mise-en-scene so absolutely that Laura can’t ever hope to disrupt or depart it. His final touch is setting up a stereo in front of the door and blasting out Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which has become so iconic in film circles as the opening to The Shining that it’s a remarkably bold move for Ruben to incorporate it here. Yet the very convergence of this piece with The Shining makes Martin’s ritualistic conversion of himself with the house even more primal, forcing Laura to take on the role of Jack Torrance and Wendy Torrance in the same breath, in order to finally exorcise her husband’s undead spirit.

This takes place in a direct citation of The Shining, as Laura now becomes the figure screaming out the open door, leading us into a more sobering ending, as Martin promises her that no restraining order will ever work, forcing her to shoot him point blank before collapsing to her knees. While the film ostensibly has a happy ending, Ben never saves the day, Laura is forced to resort to violence, and we don’t see much of a mise-en-scene beyond this conclusion – certainly not enough to stabilise or secure Laura’s hold over space. Instead, Sleeping with the Enemy ends precisely before a standard 90s mise-en-scene can restore itself, presenting us instead with a mise-en-abyme in which every cinematic tableau imaginable partakes of Martin’s psychopathic misogyny, leaving us in an almost-space, just on the cusp of the film.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: