Chloë Sevigny. Kristen Stewart. In 19th-century dresses. In love.
Didn't catch Lizzie at Sundance? Here's the lowdown, in a complete sentence: The new flick explores the "real" motive behind Lizzie Borden's supposed murder of her parents in 1892 — the ability to her be with her lesbian love.
"I’m from right outside Fall River, Mass., and I grew up haunted by tales of Lizzie Borden," Craig William Macneill, who directed the movie, tells The Advocate, "My brother and I would tease each other, and scare each other, talking about Lizzie. I even wrote an essay about her in elementary school, and my mother drove me out to their house and we walked around the property."
Macneill's re-creation of what occurred at Lizzie's home dangles between genres; it's a period thriller, a murder mystery, a story of a forbidden love. The immense chemistry between Sevigny, who plays the titular character (and also was the driving force behind its production) and Stewart will make you squeal.
"Lizzie was always a very mysterious figure for me, and I wanted to keep her as a mystery throughout the film. We’re sort of looking in on her, as opposed to seeing the world through her eyes as you watch the film," Macneill asserts, determined not to depict Lizzie as a warm, helpless victim.
"There’s this intentional detachment from her, so you’re watching it and you’re sort of sympathizing for her, or I hope you’re sympathizing for her and caring for her, but at the same time, you’re questioning her: Do you know her? Is she a sociopath? Or is she someone who’s just pushed so far up to that breaking point?"
The complicated depiction of Borden as both a resilient and harsh antihero is what drew Sevigny to the script, says Macneill. "Chloe, she found the project, and she was drawn toward this very strong powerful woman smashing the patriarchy."
In Lizzie's case, power comes from distance and limited voyeurism.
"There’s that sort of intentional detachment of shooting her from behind, and the idea of us kind of just being in the house, looking through a window; we’re spying on her, kind of like uncomfortable feeling that we’re not supposed to be watching some of these things we’re seeing."
Viewers become part of the family, heightened to a feeling of chaos bubbling under the surface. Macneill used editing and cinematography to force us to look where no one normally does through "uninterrupted pans of the room," "measured zooms," and "composing people at the edge of the frames and embracing that negative space around them."
"That sort of awareness lives in those long, uninterrupted takes sometimes, where your eyes just go to one part of the frame, and pick up details you might not have otherwise noticed," he says.
This concept goes hand in hand with the retelling of Borden's story, which challenges the public to notice a growing theory that she was a lesbian who murdered her parents for a chance to live freely with her maid.
In the film, the two connect over their powerlessness. Sevigny's Lizzie is an unmarried New England woman past her perceived prime, forced to live under her father's possessive abuse. Borden suffered from epilepsy. In the film, her father manipulates her disability to prevent her from leaving their dark home and wields it as a weapon against her voice. Lizzie is forceful, so he threatens her agency by planning to send her to an asylum for her spells.
Lizzie has all the money in the world and no means to inherit it. Her powerful last name does not really belong to her. In contrast, Stewart disappears into the role of an impoverished Irish maid. She is barely literate, and survival means working as a wage slave for the Borden family and having to survive sexual abuse from Lizzie's father.
Together, the two empower and hear each other in the face of ruin. The film is deeply sensitive and erotic, and there is a deep authenticity to Stewart's performance. Lizzie asks the question, What do you do when love simply is not enough?