Pearl is the second instalment in Ti West’s History of Sexuality, a multi-generational trilogy that explores the way in which cinema has mediated desire over the twentieth century through the lens of a small property in rural Texas. In X, the first film, set in the 70s, a group of twenty-somethings rent a cabin on this farm to make an adult movie. Revelling in the bliss of the high counterculture and the liberation that it produced, these filmmakers remain utterly oblivious to the seething resentment of the farm’s owners, who unleash their rage at missing out on the benefits of the post-war relaxation of sexual mores by brutally murdering the entire cast and crew except for Mia Goth’s Maxine, who flees the property after killing Pearl, also played by Goth, the old woman at the heart of it all. Pearl, as the title suggests, jumps back fifty years to Pearl’s own coming-of-age story, in the final year of World War I. Living on the same farm with her German immigrant parents, she dreams of a life on the silver screen, and both dreads and fears the return of her husband Howard from the western front.
Just as X leaned heavily into the gritty exploitation style of the 70s, Pearl opts for a more classical approach, and accordingly plays more like psychodrama than straight horror. Pearl’s touches of madness feel especially indebted to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, much as her 70s self drew on the hagsploitation that awaited these actresses in their later years. The film also draws on the pacing of classical Hollywood, largely eschewing jump scares, and even overt acts of violence, to evoke a gradual descent into madness that culminates with Pearl delivering a ten-minute monologue during the climactic scene. Rather than ratcheting up the suspense, West opts for a steady sense of decay – of food, of bodies, of Pearl’s mental health, and finally of the manic smile that she holds as the final credits roll over the top of it. That’s not to say that there aren’t suspenseful scenes, but the dominant note is one of melancholy desuetude, of a vision so ripe and lurid that it already contains the traces of its eventual rot.
Along with the characterisation and pacing, X also draws heavily on the visuals of classical Hollywood, recalling the first flourishing of Technicolor in particular. Every shot is a jewel, suffused with delicate tones and exquisite sightlines that often recall The Wizard of Oz, since Pearl, like Dorothy, is waiting in the middle of nowhere for a fantasy world to arrive. Yet if Pearl is more idyllic and pastoral than X in its exterior scenes, then the darkness inside the farm house is also more absolute, both recalling the sound stages and chamber dramas of the studio system, and reflecting Pearl’s crushing sense of containment and despair. This intensified movement from inky blackness to lurid colourism also reflects the hold that cinema had on fantasy at this moment in time. Like X, Pearl opens with a pan through a barn to an establishing-shot of the farm house, except now we spend much longer in the darkness, and the house is much more vividly and beautifully etched, conjuring up a world still reeling from the revelatory moment when the lights dim and the first images flash up on the screen.
For that reason, Pearl is even more attuned than X to the eroticism of cinema, to the ways in which cinema fantasy mediates sexual fantasy and vice versa. We meet Pearl as she is coming of age as both a filmgoer and young woman, and discovering the big screen of her body, whether in private or projected in the theatre of her local town. She’s introduced in the midst of a languorous dance, twirling and spinning in a film of her own creation, gathering the proprioceptive flow of her body into an imaginary audience that somehow also includes herself. As a result, she doesn’t simply sneak into films depicting dancing, but inhabits them, feels them in and through her own body, developing a romance with a projectionist who becomes her direct conduit into the eroticism of these images – first, by giving her a single frame of film as a memento of his attraction; then, by showing her a stag film after hours; finally, by sleeping with her in the makeshift apartment he occupies in the projection booth.
Pearl’s dancing thus allows her to occupy the threshold between world and screen, and to carve out an erotic space for herself – not simply a sexualised erotic space, but a broader haptic fluidity in which her body can settle into its maximal rhythms, a fluid cusp at which she can imagine herself watching herself, as star and adoring audience in one. This fantasy is as fragile as it is fluid, and is initially undone by the two main spectators in her life, who force her to deflect it in a darker and eerier direction. For Pearl’s mother (Tandi Wright) scrutinises and judges her every move, waiting for her to disclose herself as a monster, while her father (Matthew Sunderland) can only gaze on on mutely and remotely, debilitated by the Spanish Flu sweeping through the community, as a pair of eyes with no clear intention or agency behind them. With her mother always watching her to establish control, and her father always watching her but powerless to intervene, Pearl has to look elsewhere for the gazes she needs to maintain her her tenuous hold on the cusp between onscreen and offscreen life.
The first of these is a scarecrow she comes across on her way home, and the second is a crocodile that lives in a local pond, presumably the distant ancestor of the beast we see in X. Together, these affirm Pearl’s corporeality and ethereality, testifying both to her body and her ability to transcend her body on the silver screen. Upon spying the scarecrow across a field of corn, she tears it from its post, dances with it maniacally, slams it to ground, and mounts it to achieve what appears to be her first orgasm. Similarly, the crocodile permits her to give birth vicariously when she steals an egg, takes it to the barn, and crushes it with her bare hands to let the yolk run free. The crocodile also absorbs both Pearl’s father and husband into a more stable but also more abstracted male gaze, a pair of eyes that can be reliably depended upon to emerge from the fluid contingencies of her fantasy life. Early on, she almost feeds her father to the crocodile, while she imagines her husband exploding when she crushes the egg, and so gives symbolic birth to a crocodile at the moment she destroys him.
With the scarecrow and crocodile subsumed into Pearl’s fantasy life, her story starts to resemble the morbid visions of Hollywood fantasy that typified the studio era, such as The Red Shoes, Sunset Boulevard and (at the end of that era) Peeping Tom. With each new fusion of erotic and filmic fantasy, the film becomes more volatile and violent, and seems to seep closer to the cinematic present. That’s bolstered by the fact of the storybeing set during the Spanish Influenza, which only really resonates for the first time when Pearl puts on a cloth mask for her first trip to the theatre, and surreptitiously removes it to eat during the feature. So uncannily does this vision of cinematic risk correlate with the conditions in which many audiences might still be watching the film that it makes Pearl’s fantasies feel peculiarly open, and peculiarly potent in the present, not least because all the characters are in some degree in lockdown, while Pearl’s father’s gaze, the most traumatised in the entire film, is a direct result of the pandemic, which has crippled his body and left him with nothing to do but look.
As the third act arrives, this volatile fantasy threshold constellates around a travelling audition for a dance troupe, which Pearl assumes will be her stepping stone to Hollywood. In her performance, she imagines herself in front of a vast WWI expanse that is peppered with exploding shells but also celebratory fireworks, as if the western front and the imminent armistice had been fused into a super-spectacle coterminous with the medium of cinema itself. Finally, Pearl’s husband enters this fantasy, not as a reminder of their love, or as a resumption of a normality they once shared, but as a conduit for bringing this catastrophe-fantasy back to her deadeningly dull life. It feels like Pearl’s husband ceases to exist at this moment, reduced to her fantasy of him as a widescreen spectacle that is both constructed for her benefit but also constructed to showcase her as the star attraction, whether it’s through a dream of him returning over the hills like a long-awaited romantic reunion in a melodramatic weepie, or a vision of him exploding into smithereens for her horrified benefit.
When Pearl fails the audition, she retreats entirely into her morbid fantasy life, killing her parents, killing her sister-in-law, and arranging them in a series of Norman Rockwell poses in preparation for her husband’s eventual return from the front. When he does finally walk in the door, Pearl’s need to be in the scene, to be watching the scene, and to be watching him eatch the scene, all coalesce into an insane smile, a smile that is designed to be a spectacle in itself, but also to model the way in which she imagines greeting her own big screen image, and the way she wants her husband to respond as well. In this smile lies the dissociation of self that lies at the core of fantasising your own big screen image, as Pearl’s features gradually decay, deform, and disintegrate, growing more forced, contorted and tormented, until they collapse the space between audience and film, and our own residual fantasies of cinema, leaving us with the cumulative dissonance of West’s vision to haunt us as the lights come up.