[Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers for “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” but they don’t take the fun out of this movie.]
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Otto Preminger’s “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” aside from introducing The Zombies to the moviegoing world, is probably most famous for its final 20 minutes, a cascade of nonsensical psychological hairpin turns that merge to become a quite stunning pile-up car-crash of “is this really happening?” moments. That’s the ghoulish fun of this unhinged movie, which provides the most toxic brother-sister codependency plot this side of Shakespeare or Hitchcock’s darkest nightmares.
While Preminger has at least a couple of masterpieces under his belt, he’s now most notorious for setting Jean Seberg literally on fire on the set of 1957’s “Saint Joan.” To many, this dude is canceled, but it doesn’t mean his work doesn’t still merit consideration.
Clearly, “Bunny Lake Is Missing” is another case of Preminger driving a woman into madness, here in the form of the film’s main character, an American expat in London named Anne Lake (Carol Lynley) who is spiraling over a daughter she’s lost at a boarding school, where no one believes her: “What if they think there never really was a Bunny?” This movie is a textbook study in the perils of not believing a woman who is, rightfully, crawling up and down the walls of her mind as men point, scoff, and laugh. In other words, “Bunny Lake Is Missing” is a modern-day story of gaslighting, where a woman is made to feel crazy by everyone else. Everywhere she goes, oblivious men dismiss her frantic concerns, including Laurence Olivier as a wary police detective who greets doom with a shrug. But women are trouble as well. (There’s a psychic up in the attic who babbles on about feeding off children’s nightmares.)
But the most eyebrow-cocking kink in “Bunny Lake Is Missing” — and there are so many — is the twisted dynamic between Anne and her brother Steven, played by a gorgeous Keir Dullea, whose cold, dead stare could clear a town. These two are sick to the bone, a pair of siblings that thrive off of the various sadomasochistic push-pulls afforded by a too-close relationship that would send Freud screaming into the streets.
Preminger’s aesthetic point-of-view becomes increasingly chaotic to match the characters’ fraying states of mind, and ergo the viewers’. It’s jarring to see moments of shaky handheld virtuosity in a black-and-white, English-language ‘60s movie, and especially so in the movie’s final moments as Lynley/Anne goes totally out to pasture with manic abandon and begins to frantically pivot on a seesawing swing. “Higher! Higher!” she screams to her brother, who has also just kidnapped her child and burned said child’s doll to smithereens in something called a “doll hospital” — no joke — that’s basically a repair-shop for broken toys. Bunny, by the way, as played by Suky Appleby, is just about the least-directed child in all of movie history. Preminger did not know where to put her, how to stage her, despite having three children of his own.
“Bunny Lake Is Missing” is a profound demonstration of the kinds of sick shit you could shoehorn into a movie in the 1960s without really ever explicitly spelling it out. And so it is a giddy thrill to revisit this film with today’s headgear. At this movie’s rotting center is a borderline-offensive and skin-crawling brother-sister story, wrapped in a true-crime, missing-child package, inside of a parable of a woman being silenced into insanity. It is all so crazy.
As this was made in 1965, Preminger must have still been high off the fumes of “Psycho” and its freaky portrait of an Oedipal complex gone out of control, and not to mention its violent defamation of what a movie is structurally supposed to look like. But Preminger, here, didn’t quite have Alfred Hitchcock’s precision, losing his way on the road to a story of warring, sickening psyches that just ends up coming across as bafflingly, unforgettably weird.
Which is exactly the reason to watch this, quite frankly, fucked film. From the set design to the cinematography to the performances, there is a general air of madness permeating every nook and cranny of “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” so it becomes a fun, evil little game to play “I spy” with all the ways director Otto Preminger tried to paint a breakdown into all the corners.
“Bunny Lake Is Missing” is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.