Heavenly Creatures is Peter Jackson’s most ambitious film, stylistically speaking, poised between the gonzo experiments of his earlier splatter features and the more streamlined visions of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit franchises. It’s also his only film based on historical events – the Parker-Hulme murder case. This took place in 1954, in Christchurch, and revolved around two schoolgirls, Pauline Parker, played here by Melanie Lynskey, and Juliet Hulme, played by Kate Winslet. Pauline and Juliet developed an intense friendship and created a complex imaginary universe that Juliet recorded in her diary, which forms the basis for Jackson and Fran Walsh’s screenplay. Faced with the unthinkable possibility of being separated from each other, the two girls murdered Pauline’s mother Honora, played by Sarah Peirse, in Victoria Park. The subsequent trial and conviction became a sensational media event and, in Jackson’s vision, is the point when Christchurch came of age as a modern city.
To that end, Jackson opens with tourist footage of Christchurch from the 1950s – images that evoke a mid-century “city on the move.” No sooner have we settled into this comfortable rhythm, however, than Jackson cuts to the immediate aftermath of the crime – Pauline and Juliet running maniacally from Sarah’s body back to the café at the entrance to Victoria Park. The imagery here is visceral and confronting, but the camera work is positively nauseating – a vortical tracking-shot that suggests a version of the city that is utterly incommensurate with the more staid mobility of the tourist footage. This paves the way for a film that grows increasingly hyperactive to keep up with the sheer pace of Juliet and Pauline’s relationship.
From the outset, Juliet and Pauline conform to two neurotic “types” of private school girls. Pauline is what we might now call “alt,” a Goth before her time, perpetually leering at the camera with a Robert Smith-like scowl. By contrast, Juliet is precocious, arriving at Christchurch Girls’ High School from England and immediately correcting her French teacher about the correct use of the subjunctive. Both girls also exist in a kind of subjunctive state with respect to the school culture too, which is thoroughly middle-class. While Pauline is also middle-class, she’s lower middle-class – her father manages a fish supply chain, and humiliates her in an early scene by singing Mario Lanza to a mackerel. Similarly, Juliet is resolutely upper-class, and not just because of her English accent. Her father is the Rector of Canterbury, and her mother is a marriage counsellor to couples wealthy enough to afford her.
Both Juliet and Pauline thus find themselves caught in the intense cultural cringe and cultural anxiety that animates the relationship between New Zealand and the British Empire. Pauline is unable to live up to the lifestyle that Juliet embodies, while Juliet is also cultured enough to find Christchurch thoroughly parochial. In another kind of story, this might have made the two girls mortal enemies, but here it bonds them into a shared disgust for the middle-class mores that their school represents. This is partly because they are both alienated, in different but equal ways, from their own families and from their own bodies, meaning that they’re even more incapable of conforming to the demands of middle-class feminine respectability.
Whereas Juliet doesn’t really have parents, Pauline doesn’t really want them. We gradually learn that Juliet has been more or less abandoned by her parents, who have also abandoned each other in the marriage. She’s had periods of sickness when they dump her in hospital and travel the globe, and they’re just as disinterested in her when she’s well. Pauline’s parents are more present, but you sense they care for her out of a generic middle-class obligation rather than with any real feeling. Since the nuclear family has effectively failed in both households, both couples have to bring in a fantastic supplement. Pauline’s parents fill their house with lodgers (another testament to their lower middle-class status) and Juliet’s mother takes a lover, who her husband gradually accepts as a necessary third term in their marriage.
These fractured families propel Pauline and Juliet away from the bourgeois hearth even as they testify to the importance of fantasy in surviving the middle-class experiment – a fantasy that the two girls will embody soon enough. In the meantime, they both share a particular hatred for their mothers – or, more accurately, for what their mothers have done, and have to do, to survive within the system. The more that their mothers retreat to these fantastic supplements (a house full of lodgers, an affair), the more that Pauline and Juliet bristle at the sheer paucity of these fantasies, which induce them to construct a fantastic world of their own, one where they can do away with any residual need for husbands, fathers or any men.
At the same time, Pauline and Juliet also bond over their own unruly bodies. In an early scene they are both forced to sit on the sidelines while the other students at Christchurch Girl’s Grammar perform a series of punishing calisthentic exercises. We learn that Pauline and Juliet both have scars, on their legs and lungs, after having spent long periods in hospital with osteomyelitis and respiratory illness respectively. They’ve passed long periods of their life having their bodies drained, and upon discovering each other, reimagine this as the basis for fantasy: “All of the best people have bad lungs and bone diseases – it’s frightfully romantic.”
No surprise, then, that this friendship is highly embodied from the outset, as the two girls commune over their shared bodily traumas, and treat each other as lines of flight from family structures that can’t accommodate them. This is friendship as shared mania, friendship as physical risk – the girls are always running from one spot to another, a dangerous prospect given their weak lungs and legs. They move too fast for middle-class decorum, in a flight from middle-class decorum, accelerating insatiably until it’s almost nauseating to watch, especially since Jackson follows with a series of looping trajectories to evoke this vertiginous space between them. The camera only ever settles to register the seething defiance of Pauline’s gaze, before it’s off again, moving faster than before, carving out an operatic scale of space.
Since these trajectories are retreats into fantasy, they typically propel the girls into uncanny adjuncts between wild and cultivated space. The first time Pauline visits Juliet, she enters her vast property, and catches a glimpse of her dressed as a princess, standing on a bridge above what appears to be a medieval stream. She then chases her through a wild forest, as Jackson reprises the long tracking-shot that started the film, only to break out into the sunlight, and reveal that we are simply in an overgrown part of her garden, rather than a real wilderness.
This cusp between wild and cultivated spaces contours most of the pivotal moments in Pauline and Juliet’s friendship – most notably the first time it segues into an overtly lesbian tableau. This scene starts with a manic bicycle ride, inducing Jackson to track his camera even faster to keep up with the action, and to come in even closer, until we’re presented with a nauseating close-up of wheel spokes, turning round and round like one of the girls’ manic dances. In the same hyperactive trajectory, they dump the bikes, and run into the woods, careening deeper and deeper into what feels like wilderness, until they come up against a farmer erecting a fence, before bouncing off him into a glade where they take off their clothes and caress. In another context, this farmer might register as a threat, but here he’s mainly a spatial boundary – a fleeting indication that this supposed wilderness is indeed cultivated.
Over time, the girls formalise these cusps between wild and cultivated space into a fantasy zone that they describe as “the fourth world – an absolute paradise of music, art and pure enjoyment.” They start to talk about the fourth world around the same time that they caress, suggesting that it’s their way of coming to terms with the burgeoning lesbian desire between them. Since we’re two decades before gay liberation, there’s no vocabulary here for Pauline and Juliet to articulate (or even recognise) their desire for each other. Instead, they register it as an askew relationship to heterosexuality – a lurid over-identification with the kinds of icons that teenage girls were supposed to use to mediate their femininity at this point in time.
In that sense, they engage in a form of fandom that’s quite similar to contemporary fan fiction, which is typically written by heterosexual-identifying women, and reframes heterosexual texts in terms of more emergent queer connections. Pauline and Juliet’s version of fan fiction involves building a cultic mythology around three celebrities – Mario Lanza, James Mason and Orson Welles, who they refer to as “he,” “he” and “it.” They imagine these three men as the harbingers of a post-heterosexual paradise in which everything exists for aesthetic pleasure alone, divorced from the constrictions of conventional sex appeal. This is the “fourth world” – a zone where heterosexual object choices can be reframed as high camp.
However, there is a sharp distinction between Lanza and Mason, who the girls refer to as “he,” and Welles, who they refer to as “it,” since Welles seems to be both an incentive and a limit case to their project. No director at this time was as obsessively auteurist as Welles, which makes him an apt cipher for the patriarchal surveillance that the two girls are trying to escape. However, no director was quite so flamboyant in reshaping perception either, meaning Welles is also a precedent to the girls’ own lines of flight. This also poses a challenge to Jackson, who has to adopt an even more hyperactive and insatiable camera than Welles in order to keep up with the evolution of the fourth world as the girls augment its dimensions.
This all culminates with the last critical cusp between wild and cultivated space, although this takes place against the least promising canvas for fantasy so far – and in doing so propels the girls into full-blown fantasy for the first time. Up to this point, Jackson has used vegetation to mark the passage between wild and cultivated space (in Victoria Park, in Juliet’s garden, during the bike ride) but now he takes us to a place that is almost entirely without vegetation – Port Levy, a remote bay on the Banks Peninsula, where Pauline joins Juliet for her family’s Easter vacation. On the face of it, Port Levy simply consists of three stark surfaces – the sea, the sand and the hills – that are so denuded that they don’t seem capable of gradually revealing the kinds of cusps between wild and cultivated space that we’ve witnessed thus far.
Yet that also makes this the critical moment in Pauline and Juliet’s own fantasy creation, which takes place progressively across each of these three stark surfaces. First, Jackson shoots them running along the jetty and jumping into the blank expanse of the water, as if willing themselves to project their fantasies onto its surface. Then, he tracks his camera long and low across the sand, with the kind of intensity that, in earlier scenes, betokened a sudden shift between wild and cultivated space. The sand is too granular and monotonous for that to happen here – if anything, it exhausts the possibility of a naturalistic shift in space, and yet that very exhaustion also opens up a new fantastic potential, as the camera now takes us into a sandcastle populated with claymation denizens, our first true glimpse of the fourth world.
This sequence in Port Levy culminates with a helicopter shot of the top of a local hill – completely devoid of vegetation, and commanding vantage points that stretch as far as the eye can see. This is the setting that most seems to defy the sudden spatial shifts that have contoured the girls’ relationship, and also represents the peak of their middle-class crisis, since Juliet retreats there (and Pauline follows) after learning her parents are likely to separate. Since there are no thresholds here to a more cultivated space, the girls create one, seizing upon this most desolate of landscapes to discover “the key to the fourth world.” Juliet glimpses the gateway through the clouds, the only part of this vista that recalls the reticulated topographies of their earlier forest runs, and the two become heavenly creatures, over the Easter weekend, remaking the entire paradigm of patriarchal surveillance in their own image.
This is also when the audience enters the fourth world for the first time, with the exception of that brief sandcastle sequence, which Jackson visualises as a lurid colonial fantasy. The landscape is now transformed into an English garden, and decked out with the kinds of campily English flourishes that were often used to assuage the anxieties of first and second generation colonial estates. Juliet and Pauline’s accents seem to merge too, suspending us between English and New Zealand inflections, while they inhabit the fourth world as an alternative royal family – giving birth to a pillow in one scene, and crafting children out of clay in another. Whereas they overidentified with celebrities in the build up to the fourth world, now they overidentify with the royal family as celebrities – and, in doing so, reinstate themselves as a royal family who can can command their domain with absolute dominance.
These fantasy sequences often feel like an effort to envisage the idea of lesbian parenthood, or queer parenthood. This is encapsulated in the way that Pauline and Juliet relate to the claymation figures that make up the fourth world. Sometimes these figures feel like avatars – there is a clay version of both Juliet and Pauline, along with the other major characters in the film. However, these clay figures also feel like discrete objects that Juliet and Pauline are handling in the “real” world. This space between model and avatar makes the fourth world feel like an early version of object-based role-playing games like Warhammer, which encourage queer and alternative ideas of progeny and productivity. These games allow users to build family, empire and lineage through the act of collection, and collaboration-based communities, rather than by way of the reproductive futurity that is so punitive to the girls.
In other words, the fourth world unfolds in a notional space between wild and cultivated land, and between empire and periphery, that corresponds to the expansive campaigns of a certain kind of embodied role-playing game. These queer possibilities only intensify when Juliet has to return to hospital, meaning that she and Pauline can fully retreat into their roles as Charles and Deborah, the royal couple of the fourth world. By this stage, they’re effectively inhabiting an epistolary novel that Pauline records in her diary, meaning Jackson’s camera work shifts from visceral tracking-shots to dissociative cuts that affirm fantasy as both a source of intimacy and gradual distantiation between the two girls. When Juliet’s parents reveal they’re planning to return to Great Britain, it feels like a logical extension of this process – an indication that the fourth world has become so fantastic it has delvoved into mere fantasy.
Pauline and Juliet try to resolve this crisis in three key ways, each of which involves trying to restore the fourth world from the realm of fantasy – either by spilling it out into the real world, or by making it so real that the “real” world disappears. First, they resituate themselves even more emphatically at the cusps between wild and cultivated space that drove the first act of the film. In one particularly pivotal scene, they hover around the fringes of a garden party at Juliet’s house – peeking at the tennis court through a cluster of ferns, throwing a stone into an artificial lake to surprise a couple who are making love, and exploring the temporal threshold of the party too, by lingering around until the last few guests allow the nearby woods to quietly reclaim their hold over the scene. Mapping this threshold becomes even more urgent when they learn that Juliet’s father is returning to Britain for exactly this activity – to take on a role in the forestry service and police the boundaries of cultivated land.
Second, Pauline and Juliet try to incorporate Orson Welles, the “it” of their cultic mythos, into the fourth world. Since Welles’ auteurism is both an incentive and a limit to their own world-building, they attend a screening of The Third Man, the most iconic film to feature Welles that he didn’t direct himself. Watching Welles work his way through Carol Reed’s constricted compositions dramatizes the girls’ inability to embody an auteurist line of flight that was inexorably coded masculine at the time. Earlier in the film, Jackson depicts the girls throwing a photograph of Welles into Juliet’s stream, and that same image of Welles occurs now, but on screen, as Harry Lime flees into the sewers of Vienna. Between these two flowing bodies of water, diegetic and non-diegetic space collapse, as Pauline mirrors Welles’ shilhouette on screen, while also morphing in and out of her claymation self, before eventually kissing Juliet.
The film’s most emphatic lesbian gesture thus occurs at the convergence of the “real” world, the claymated fourth world, and the limit-case in auteurism that Welles embodies. Yet these two preliminary gestures – returning to the cusp of cultivated space, and incorporating Welles into their lesbian mythology – are not ultimately commensurate to Pauline and Juliet’s drive to direct their own fates, which starts to exceed even Jackson’s capacities in the final scenes. Once again, we return to the hyperactive camera movement, as Jackson stretches all his auteurist abilities simply to keep up with the last stages in the girls’ world-building. This is all the more urgent and vivid in that Pauline’s diary is almost occurring in real time by this point: “Next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd and yet how pleasing.” With these cryptic utterances, Pauline, in particular, seems to have discovered a thaumaturgic key to world-building, collapsing speech and actions until words become actions in themselves.
This, then, is the final note of Heavenly Creatures – a kind of sublime awe in the face of the kinds of world-building that queer people have to enact simply to remain in the world, even or especially when that world-building ends up destroying the world for them in the process. While Jackson would go on to bigger and flashier films, he would never quite build a world as primal, as original, or as flamboyant as the fourth world, even as he drew deeply on the kinds of queer fandom communities that Pauline and Juliet represent. That’s not to say that he excuses or glorifies the murder either – the film ends where it begins, with the two girls fleeing the crime scene with the same horror that they fled their parents to begin with. It’s a flight without a destination at this point in time, such a profound flight from the world as they knew it that they had to create an even more self-destructive world just to escape it – and it is the traumatic rigour of that world-building that fascinates and propels Jackson’s singular vision.