Just three features in to his filmography, it’s safe to say that director Mitchell Lichtenstein is never happier than when, how shall we put it, frolicking in the lady garden. Even his least gynecological film, 2010’s “Happy Tears,” had Parker Posey analyzing her vaginal discharge. And his debut, 2007’s “Teeth,” positively gloried in its vaginality: grotesquely, graphically, and with uneven black humor telling the exploitation-style story of a young woman’s journey to empowerment via her vagina dentata — or, if you prefer a more euphemistic take, the choppers in her ham wallet.
It’s to this literally fertile territory he returns in his third, and most well-crafted film, “Angelica,” albeit dressed up in corsets and bustles and adapted from an Arthur Phillips novel. While it may look and sound a little like a ghost story in the “Turn of the Screw” mould, and while there are a multitude of subplots and side themes that should add nuance and ambience, Lichtenstein’s preoccupation with matters sexual tends to overwhelm subtlety, surprise, and spookiness — the things a great ghost story thrives on. In fact, were Jena Malone not so watchable and committed in the central role, its really a tale whose psychology could be reduced to hand gestures: pointing at your poontang with one hand and making the universal sign for crazy with the other.
Framed by unnecessary bookends (is there any other type?) the film begins and ends with Angelica, now a famous actress, summoned to the room of her dying mother who wishes to make a confession to her about the fate of her father. In this scene Angelica, the daughter, is played by Jena Malone, while her aged mother, Constance, is played by Glynis O’Connor. This becomes confusing when we jump back in time and watch the events of the deathbed confession transpire — here it is Malone who plays Constance, yet Janet McTeer and Tovah Feldshuh glimpsed at the beginning in unconvincing old-person makeup, are still the same characters. Anyway, we follow the story of naive, innocent, sweet Constance and the handsome, lusty Dr. Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard), as they meet cute, fall in love, get married, and have sex for the first time.
All is well, even frisky, as Constance, despite her innocence, finds she takes pleasure in sex, until she becomes pregnant and nearly dies in the process of giving birth to her daughter. Warned gravely by her doctors that another pregnancy would certainly kill her, and with no viable form of contraception available, she is told to abstain from sex altogether, much to her loving husband’s dismay — such enforced chastity being much more difficult for him than for an “ordinary man” as she says later, because “he’s Italian.”
But the trauma of the childbirth only adds to the ferocity of her protectiveness toward Angelica, and causes in Constance a kind of schism in which post partum anxiety coupled with sudden sexual abstinence, and a holy fear that she may have brought it all on herself with her wicked lust, conspire to induce hallucinations and conjure a threatening presence that attempts to prey on her precious daughter.
One of the issues here is that hallucinations are obviously tricks of the mind — there is never any of that knife-edge ambivalence, of the “is it real is is it all imagined?” nature that when achieved can make a supernatural story feel so uncanny. Constance is a character over-psychoanalyzed by Lichtenstein’s script — every element of the phantasm she sees is explained as having its root in something we witness being lodged in her subconscious: the germs her husband works to eradicate; her own sexual guilt; the gruesome discovery that Joseph is a vivisectionist; even, at one point, a visit to a travelling carnival early on in their relationship. The absolute rationality of all this, the way the totality of Constance’s delusion can be divided out into its constituent parts with no remainder, makes for a slightly deflating watch. In fact, despite luxuriant photography (from Oscar-nominated Dick Pope) and well-achieved set design and costuming, “Angelica,” though it tries for gothic texture, suffers from a strange lack of atmosphere. There is no lingering mood, and this is not helped by the clinical artificiality of the infrequent CG.
Malone, however, can count the film as a success. Suddenly so ubiquitous as part of various ensembles, she embraces her lead role here, becoming the centerpiece of every scene, and manages Constance’s changes from innocent to fearful to fearsome well. But with everything she’s going through so painstakingly overexplained, there is no room for her to characterization to breathe, and for the actress to truly transcend a script that oddly underserves her, by rendering Constance so unmysterious.
There are better, more interesting, and unusual notes here that could have used some development — the grotesque scene in Barton’s vivisection lab (reminiscent of “The Knick“) teases a fascinating moment in medical history, and the introduction of Janet McTeer’s fraudulent spiritualist tickles an undercurrent of lesbian attraction and adds a little commentary on the operations of patriarchy during that era. But the juicier subplots, even Constance’s evident but unexplored religiosity, are only really there for what they can contribute to her break from sanity, as if we cannot sympathize with her, unless it is explained with some rationality. In a genre that is best served heavy with mood, Lichtenstein ultimately favors a tidy view of things where everything is explicable, if not necessarily preventable, and so “Angelica” is too much on the side of the real world, when it should, at least a little, be on the side of the ghosts. [C+]