from Film Quarterly Summer 2014, Vol. 67, No. 4
I nearly reached the point of believing . . .
About two-thirds of the way through Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014), Princess Aurora—she who will become Sleeping Beauty—stands near a cliff where she meets a magical winged fish that has left the water and floats in the air before her. Guileless, she pets its nose lovingly, as she has earlier held out her hand to a deer and, before that, to the horned Maleficent herself. In that earlier encounter, Maleficent has hidden behind the woods where Aurora dwells, but the young princess calls out to her, “Don’t be afraid.” The powerful fairy laughs, “I am not afraid. But you will be.” Aurora insists she will not, and she is true to her word. And so, not long after her encounter with the fabulous fish, she tells Maleficent that she plans one day to live in the Moors with her forever. “We can take care of one another,” she says. Of course we might have hoped for or even predicted this moment in the story, but it takes a while to get there. So now begin again.
As the film opens, its narrator announces, “Let us tell a story anew, and we will see how well you know it.” In response to the tale of Sleeping Beauty—which, told originally by Charles Perrault, then by the Brothers Grimm, and then again by Disney—Linda Woolverton’s adaptation tells the story instead of Maleficent, the uninvited fairy who cursed the infant princess to fall into her fabled sleep as she reached her sixteenth year.2 Thus it begins with the young Maleficent, a wondrous fairy who lives in the Moors, a land divided from the human world. She meets a human boy, Stefan, who has stolen a jewel from a magical pond in the Moors and who declares to his new friend that one day he will live in the castle in the distance.
Surely his theft and his declaration should have been a warning to Maleficent, but they fall in love, and the divisions between them seem to disappear. However, after the human king, in his imperial desperation to take control of the Moors, is defeated by Maleficent and her army of nature itself, Stefan sets out to avenge the king and thereby win his throne. Though unable to kill her, he does the next-best thing, itself as close to death for the living Maleficent as possible: he wrenches her wings from her body and presents them to the king, for which he is rewarded with the king’s daughter (rather brushed aside in the film) and ascendancy to rule. This act of violent betrayal gives way to other acts of vengeance and sorrow. First Maleficent herself assumes power, creating her own throne out of the natural world, and then, upon the birth of King Stefan’s daughter, she casts her notorious spell on Princess Aurora, tempering it with the promise that her sleep can only be undone by “the kiss of true love.”
Though she avows to “hate” the tiny child, Maleficent, the Protector of the Moors, also becomes the protector of Aurora. She sends her crow Diaval to feed the infant when the hapless three pixies to whom her care has been entrusted fall asleep on the job. She saves her as a toddler when she falls off a cliff while the same aunties wrestle each other in the grass, provoked by Maleficent’s own giddy spells on them. And when the child becomes fifteen, she leads her, in a floating and foreshadowing sleep, into the Moors time and again. Loving this child who calls her “Fairy Godmother,” Maleficent attempts to revoke her curse, but she cannot. And when Aurora falls asleep on her sixteenth birthday, it is—wonderfully predictably—Maleficent’s kiss of true maternal love that awakens her. Following a battle with the king and his men, and with her wings returned to her by Aurora herself, the film ends with the union of the two worlds and Aurora not, as in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959), married to Prince Philip (who remains in the background) but instead named queen at the behest of Maleficent. As the narrator tells us, the worlds are united “not by a hero or a villain” as was predicted, but by “one who was both hero and villain.”
Such complex and intertwined dualities define this film, just as they also define the film’s genre. In his study of the fantastic, Tzvetan Todorov claims one of its elements as the “duration of uncertainty.” As he writes, “In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know . . ., there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either [s]he is the victim of the illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination . . . or else the event has indeed taken place.” He reiterates later: “Either total faith or total incredulity would lead us beyond the fantastic: it is hesitation which sustains its life.”3
Maleficent is concerned with the coexistence of two worlds, set next to one another, divided by beliefs in power and by a great woods. One world is occupied by humans, and it is defined by hierarchy and greed. The other, the Moors, is occupied by fanciful creatures, and it is defined by trust in one another. Todorov himself might call this existence a “co-presence,” one that signifies a duality of both worlds and meanings. In this co-presence lies, too, the duration of uncertainty but also the possibility of the transformation of one’s beliefs through that “uncertainty.” In all of its specificity—its narrative, its images, its performances, and our experience of it—Maleficent transforms even beliefs in the possibility of representation itself. This possibility is lodged in the performing body of Angelina Jolie and in the narrative of the titular character she plays.
When Maleficent awakens to find that her beautiful wings have been ripped from her body, she cries out in agony. The first time I saw this, deeply affected by the depth of her despair, I wondered if the actress Jolie was thinking of her own bodily loss. Was she mourning the loss of her breasts one year ago? In early 2013, Jolie underwent a preventative double mastectomy, a decision she made based on her maternal history; her mother had died at 56 of breast and ovarian cancer, and her grandmother at 45 of ovarian cancer. But on my second viewing I heard the cries differently: was she, in fact, mourning the loss of her mother? Though occurring several years before the filming of Maleficent, this is surely still a visceral loss which, to paraphrase Maleficent herself in relation to the sleeping beauty Aurora, she must feel every day.4
As my viewings followed one after another, so did my wondering at the complexity of these cries and the complexity of Jolie’s loss: the emotional and psychic (and physical) loss of her mother eventually led to the physical (and emotional and psychic) loss of her own breasts, itself an attempt to prevent the loss of her own life, and that loss to her own children. Am I conflating the star-as-performer and the star-as-character? Perhaps. But why not? The star naturally embodies both; one’s performance comes from the very body that is also the character on screen. Her body, in a sense, straddles these two worlds between real life and the screen.
Todorov might cry foul at such a reading. After all, he defines the fantastic also in terms of any reading of it. He writes, “When the reader emerges from the world of the characters and returns to [her] own praxis (that of a reader) a new danger threatens the fantastic: a danger located on the level of the interpretation of the text.”5 Hence, he says, the reader must see the fantastic as neither “poetic” nor “allegorical.” Todorov admits that allegory is often integrated directly into Perrault’s fairy tales, often in the form of a moral that ends the tale.
Allegory, too, is integrated into the form of Maleficent, but I would venture that such duality—the co-presence of two ideas, rather than the supplantation of one by the other—is even more importantly part of the structure of the film. The star as imaginary character and as real person is another part of that duality. The straddling of those worlds, or ways of knowing— which may produce a kind of “hesitation” on the part of the spectator, who sees both character and actress simultaneously before her—is particularly resonant in Jolie-as-Maleficent. (Even the names themselves—wicked wound up with joyful or simply “pretty”—coexist as seeming contradictions, particularly when Angel(ina) is tossed into the mix).
Jolie-as-Maleficent’s face in particular (not to mention her horns and wings) has been physically altered through prosthetic devices, such that her cheekbones resemble wings in the way they seem another extension of her body. Thus, every time I look at her, I see a face that is both natural and technologically remade. That aesthetic and visceral experience is even more profound in the 3D version of the film; take your glasses off and her body blurs into doubles, but with them on, she magically approaches toward and recedes from the screen, blowing golden fairy dust into the faces of the audience, as a kind of reverse direction of the film’s original projection toward the screen.
As a performer, Jolie embodies film history in so many ways, for she not only remakes a Disney villain (and, in effect, a Disney film), but also channels late and great screen actresses. In her verbal enunciation she is Bette Davis of All About Eve (and in the role as “godmother” she is Davis in Now, Voyager). In her posture she is Katherine Hepburn in Christopher Strong. And in the stillness of her fierce poses, she is Marlene Dietrich in almost anything, but perhaps especially Shanghai Express, Morocco, or The Devil Is a Woman.6 In this legacy that she follows and extends, one might recognize the strength of character and, most certainly, of performance that was already present in women on the screen. This film and Jolie’s performance therefore complicate a history of representation; at the very least, they reveal the ambivalence that always undergirded women’s roles in Classical Hollywood Cinema. In fact, I would argue that it is through referencing this implicit legacy of performances that Maleficent explicitly transforms both the classical fairy tale and the contemporary action film itself.
And of course it is Jolie herself who has been remaking these genres—in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001), the first cinematic adaptation of a video game with a woman in the lead. It was Lara Croft that remade Jolie herself—not only as an action star, as she continued to make dramatic films, but also from an adolescent bad girl into an active humanitarian adult on a global scale. Put in the language of Todorov and of Maleficent, Jolie began “to double” as actor and activist after Lara Croft. In many of her subsequent film roles, she doubled as an actor-humanitarian playing character-humanitarians. Films such as Beyond Borders (Martin Campbell, 2003) about international relief workers, and A Mighty Heart (Michael Winterbottom, 2007) concerning the abduction and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl, sought to draw attention to humanitarian causes that Jolie herself championed. In the midst of her continued work as an action and dramatic star, Jolie also became a director of films that narrate violent historical events; her debut was In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) on the Serbian-led genocide in Bosnia, and her second major work as director, Unbroken, about an American POW in a Japanese camp during World War II, will be released in late 2014.
When Todorov argues “total faith or total incredulity would lead us beyond the fantastic,” he allows that faith can lead us into the marvelous. And Jolie is marvelous indeed, not merely as character or actress, but as a person who takes action off-screen as well. She is a woman who moved with her family, at least temporarily, into New Orleans when so many abandoned it after Katrina hit. She is a woman who has traveled to over twenty countries, including Afghanistan, Cambodia, Darfur, Ecuador, and Kosovo as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. Since Lara Croft, she has worked continuously toward education for children, especially girls, in countries where such opportunities are not a given.7 As special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she recently spoke out at a summit concerning Sexual Violence in Conflict, commenting: “It is a myth that rape is an inevitable part of conflict. There is nothing inevitable about it. It is a weapon of war aimed at civilians. It has nothing to do with sex, everything to do with power.”8
Maleficent is and is not an allegory. One might say it is entirely allegorical, but I would say the opposite: it is about love, trust, systems of power and belief. It is demonstrably about the division—and the coexistence—between two worlds: the humans and the Moors. That division, itself a kind of “hesitation,” also reveals the possibility of belief, as if one could step from one land to another, as Maleficent or Stefan or Aurora do. Perhaps its allegorical nature has to do with what the film suggests about movies and their spectators. Just as the characters might step from the land of humans to the land of fairies, a viewer might imagine stepping from theater to screen, from reality to imagination.
Films like Maleficent perform the necessary work of imagining literal and figural systems of possibility: of old and new, of changing structures of representation, of transformations of knowledge, of revised systems of beliefs.9 That work is ideology laid bare—the ideology embedded in movies, in narratives and representational systems. It is work—of ideology and of imagination—that lives and breathes in and with everyone. After all, is it not fantastic that you can remake yourself? That, with access to health care, all might have the possibility to cast out of their own bodies that which endangers them? This is fantastic; this is real life.
Were it not for the other films playing in the theater at the same time and those advertised in the trailers of coming attractions, I might have reached the point of believing. To see this woman as powerful and loving, as vulnerable and protective, as hero and villain: this is marvelous. But to see her amidst the conventional action films inhabiting the same multiplex or the trailers that precede Maleficent, is to see her perhaps as merely “fantastic”—which, in the hesitation it demands, enables both incredulity and skepticism. Upon leaving the movie theater with my assistant Celine, after my third viewing, she said, “I want to believe she is that good.” I agreed with her sentiment. She meant Maleficent. I mean Jolie.
1. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 31.
2.. In Perrault’s original, there are thirteen fairies, rather than four, and she who casts the spell is unnamed and uninvited. Disney named the uninvited—and fourth fairy—Maleficent. In Perrault and Grimm, the curse is made for her fifteenth year; in the 1959 Disney film it becomes the sixteenth. Woolverton’s script draws its dialogue for the scene of the curse quite directly from the 1959 film.
3. Todorov, Fantastic: A Structural Approach, 25, 31.
4.. Jolie and her partner, Brad Pitt, named one of their fraternal twins after Jolie’s mother. This daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, plays the five-year-old Aurora in the film.
5.. Todorov, Fantastic: A Structural Approach, 32.
6.. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950); Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942); Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933); Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932); Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930); The Devil Is a Woman (Josef von Sternberg, 1935).
7. Along with education, Jolie has focused on both responses to sexual violence and access to health care. She was honored with the Global Humanitarian Award in 2005 by the United Nations Association of the US, and in 2013 she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
8. Video with speech, June 14, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10899833/The-remarkable-reinvention-of-Angelina-Jolie.html.
9. Maleficent is a useful companion to Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013), the tale of sisters who come apart in a dramatic conflict and come back together for a happy ending. In this film and in Maleficent, the union/reunion between women is paramount, whereas the heterosexual marriage—that staple of fairy tales and classical Hollywood film—is secondary.