Wild women with steak knives: DOROTHY MILLS (Agnès Merlet, 2008)
The babysitter figure sits in a liminal, transformational, and often quite unstable space between being a surrogate / caregiver figure and being a child himself. Childcare is a typically gendered role, the stereotypical image presented in screen culture with adolescent girls or young women. In horror, the role of the babysitter is often busy, ranging from the Final Girls played by Carol Kane to Fred Walton When a stranger calls (1979) or Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter Halloween (1978) to the other extreme of the “evil” babysitter, such as the recent popular protests including Joseph McGinty Nichol The babysitter (2017) with Samara Weaving and Emelie (2015), with Sarah Bolger.
The title character of Agnès Merlet Dorothy Mills is played by Jenn Murray – who won an Irish Academy of Film and Television award for her performance – and explicit riffs on this subsequent event; the figure of the corrupt / violent / malicious babysitter. The action of the film begins very early with a painstakingly and carefully shot scene showing young Dorothy’s violence against the baby in her care. Even before the movie begins and we properly meet Dorothy, the nature of this particular crime remains deliberately ambiguous, characterized as both ‘abuse’ and ‘molestation’. There is an implication that there is a sexual nature to the crime, but we never get the details of what they might be. However, what is more evident is that everything Dorothy has done is very, very serious. We hear the baby’s screams and we see the shocked look on the child’s parents’ faces as they grab hold of Dorothy’s swaddled baby, looking at what is in the blanket in undisguised horror.
The film follows Jane (Carice van Houten), a visit from a visiting psychiatrist to the small, dark island community where this action took place to investigate the case and form a report on Dorothy for official purposes as authorities decide what to do with it. Jane has to deal with her own traumatic background, but a lot of our bond with Jane is based on our shared predicament in that neither of us really felt like we knew Dorothy well until the movie. unfolds, revealing the secrets of the girl. But the secrets don’t belong only to Dorothy; the community the film takes place in is superficially a god-fearing person, but the deeper Jane (and we) immerse ourselves in this world, the more we find that the levels of piety in deeds as well as words leave a lot to be desired. .
Merlet is a French filmmaker who has both written and directed Dorothy Mills. To date, this is one of four feature films that she has directed as a director, including her award-winning coming of age film about two struggling young French boys in Son of the shark (1993), his loose “biopic” on the famous 19th century Italian woman painter Artemisia Gentileschi, Mugwort (1997) and, more recently, the supernatural thriller Hiding places with Rachel Hurd-Wood (2011). Dorothy Mills highlights a variety of threads that we can see elsewhere in Merlet’s work; distressed youth, dysfunctional societies, and a tendency to experiment with different genres, weaving them together to bring her own unique vision to life.
In the case of Dorothée Moulins, how this manifests itself is hard to miss; whenever you think you can lock this movie into a singular, recognizable subgenre, it shifts gears in a way some critics have called fickle, but for me it was really exciting. This indicates a real agility in the filmmaker’s understanding of the mechanical workings of genres. The thrill of this movie is how these different sub-generic threads almost freeze into a totally uncomfortable bad vibe jelly; naming these subgenres would actually enter spoiler country, however, as part of Dorothy Mills is the emotional and intellectual boost we undergo when we’re about to dismiss Merlet as predictable, and it takes a sharp turn to a place we might never have thought of.
The different sub-generic threads in Dorothy Mills made it a slippery film for critics to feel they could get on with it, which unfortunately (and in my mind, quite unfairly) saw it turn into descriptors that were totally unrepresentative of what Merlet was seeking to do with the film. . The most famous, perhaps, is a quote from Variety which featured at the top of the 2009 DVD release, calling the film a “contemporary take on The Exorcist. “Being generous, although I can see how there could be some really thin links that hold up, this is less of a case of an appropriate descriptor as it is more likely a desperate publicist trying to understand how the hell to sell a movie with so many different moving parts. At the very least, this quote is far from representative of that movie, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t concrete references to great movies in there – I won’t name them because it’ll give that far, but one is a cult 1962 film and the other an Oscar-winning psychological thriller from 1957.
Beautifully shot by the prolific Greek director of photography Giorgos Arvanitis (a regular collaborator of Catherine Breillat, the DP behind her films Romance, Fat girl, Anatomy hell, and The last mistress), Dorothy Mills is all about secrets, long buried things, and the inability to “see” people for who they really are. This is, in formal terms, often communicated visually in relation to women who cannot see or are unable to see, where vision is consciously obstructed. A small but curious figure is an older blind woman, and there are numerous shots of women behind glass that somehow distorts both the ability of women to see through those windows, while simultaneously corrupting the image of them that we see through the glass:
The most opaque, of course, is the image of Dorothy herself. For much of the first part of the movie, we literally barely see her at all. When we finally do, with Jane’s role as an evaluating psychiatrist, the challenge is how to build a conceptual framework for “seeing” (or at least understanding) Dorothy when she is – for reasons the film is slowly revealing. – becomes more and more complex. We are introduced to a doll-like little girl who lives in a dollhouse-like house in her very bedroom, and like Jane, our challenge is to discover the human being inside.
After having watched Dorothée Mills, you will find that the film has a lot more themes than I went into detail here, out of respect for your experience of uncovering the secrets of the film for yourself. But the film is about secrets; it’s not just a film about what Jane is aware of seeing and knowing, but about who we are, both as viewers of the film and as human beings. The movie is called Dorothy Mills, but it might be a misnomer to simply understand this as indicating on a simplistic level that the film is “about” the character of Dorothy Mills. Merlet has much more important things in view and uses a range of tropes, codes, and genre conventions to ask us critical questions about the assumptions we make not only of others, but of ourselves as well.
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