In 2009, I went to a “Mommy & Me” screening of New Moon, the first installment of the Twilight Saga. “Mommy & Me” is where you try to watch a movie in the theater with your infant. Needless to say, one doesn’t retain much from such screenings. All I really remember from the first film was that I kept waiting for the story to start, and hey! Vampire baseball! Also: Vampires now sparkle in the sun.
When The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 came out, I figured I would skip it. After all, my child is now old enough to see the screen, but far too young for sex and vampires. But then my friend Sarah made a very convincing case that as someone who cares about pop culture and what girls are into, I should see the movie. Off we went.
In this wonderful essay, another Sarah (Blackwood) writes eloquently about Twilight and how complicated it is to demand strong female characters without asking that they simply be more like men:
“If, as feminists, we believe in girls’ and womens’ autonomy, how do we understand the autonomy-shattering power of desire? Do we determine that some desires (to be dominated? to be beautiful? to get married?) are bad and others good?”
She gets at many of the profoundly interesting questions raised by the gender politics of the cultural phenomenon that is the Twilight Saga.
I can’t really get at those questions, in part, because I haven’t read the books. And seeing this latest movie without having read the books was like seeing a movie translated from the Chinese, in China. The film is unapologetically free of exposition. Its millions of fans know the source material. But… do all of their mothers? Countless parents across the country must relate to my mystified reaction.
What follows is intended as an experiential summary of what it was like to try and make sense of Breaking Dawn. I don’t pretend that this is particularly incisive cultural criticism, and I intend no disrespect to Twilight. But I’m telling you: Watching this movie was intensely, intensely weird. Some of that weird has got to mean something.
***Total and complete spoiler alert.***
Bella is getting ready to marry the vampire! The vampire family is very, very pasty. Some very strange race dynamics, here. Powder-white aristocratic vampires. Native American werewolf tribe. Damn, the décor is lovely.
Edward comes to say hi to his bride the night before the wedding. Bella crawls suggestively on her bed, butt in the air. She wants to marry him. Yes, she does. But he has an important confession to make: Once upon a time, in days of period dress, he ate some people. In the flashback, it looks like he is about to eat a girl in red. But no! He eats the man following her, instead! The implication: Edward ate rapists. We see him biting a couple of men in the neck. Mmmm. Human blood.
But there’s no time to discuss the moral niceties of murdering rapists and murderers. His buddies wait outside. One of them climb / flies to the window. Let’s go! It’s time for a vampire bachelor party! Bella asks him, “Are there going to be strippers?” No. Just some mountain lions. “And maybe some bears.” Then he goes outside and wrestles with unusual exuberance with his male friends. (I say unusual, because Edward’s main affect is a pained, longing gaze from beneath his well-sculpted hair. People joke about his hair at the wedding.)
Let me reiterate: Edward admits, just before his wedding, to some intimate biting of men. Then he talks about how instead of strippers, he’s going to have “bears” at his bachelor party. Okey doke.
The wedding is gorgeous. The camera pans slowly down the translucent back of Bella’s gown. This makes clear: Bella will be married entirely free of undergarments.
Bella’s ex-boyfriend turned into a wolf and ran in the forest upon receiving her wedding invitation. (Which he got in the mail. The mail! Everything is so old-fashioned. Who actually learns information through the USPS?) He was upset. But he shows up at the wedding anyway. Bella is incredibly and openly glad to see him. He is incredibly and openly still in love with her. Edward is remarkably calm.
Jacob and Bella have great chemistry, and he kisses her neck, kind of, and then they talk about sex and death. Will she be turned into a vampire tonight? She says no. She will have a regular honeymoon, because she doesn’t want to spend it “writhing in pain.” Jacob gets even more upset. And I don’t know why. Clearly, this is about sex. Did he think there would be no sex? Does human-on-vampire sex kill you? Jacob seems to think so. Or is it the possibility of vampire pregnancy? Do vampires have sperm? I mean, if they sparkle in the sun…?
Jacob runs off, wolf-mad, into the lush woods of the Pacific Northwest.
After this… lifestyle porn. The wedding is breathtakingly well-designed. So is the private island in Brazil where the honeymoon takes place. A long, lingering shot shows Bella fingering the curtains around the canopy bed. Is this about the sex? Or about the lovely stitching on the taupe linen? The moderne tropique fantasy-fulfillment here is so unsubtle, I find it almost embarrassing. At the same time: I get it. Whisked off, through Rio, via speedboat, to a paradise for two, with dedicated staff? Hells yeah.
Kristin Stewart, who plays Bella, is beautiful in an intriguing and ambiguous way. She does tortured introspection and worry with great magnetism. While Edward plunges into the ocean for a swim, Bella unzips a lot of bags, looks at some lingerie and brushes her teeth. She is in a kind of anxious tizzy. This must be about the sex. “Don’t be a coward,” she tells herself. Is she worried that human-on-vampire sex will hurt more than normal sex? What was it, exactly, that Jacob thought would kill her? Maybe she’s worried about joining the living dead, as a metaphor for marriage more generally. I’m not sure. But I like watching her worry.
They have sex. It’s remarkably tame, and much too short. He does break the bed, though.
And then: Bam. She’s pregnant. It’s been, like, a day, and she can feel the baby moving inside her. The honeymoon is over.
Guess what’s better than vampire baseball? Vampire suitcase-packing.
The next third of the movie is boring. Indie rock plays during the montages. Wolves and people run through the Pacific Northwest forest. There’s plot involving werewolves who want to kill either Bella, or Edward, or Bella’s vampire baby. Vampires debate the use of the word “fetus.” That’s right: The undead do earnest pro-life dialogue.
People and wolves say exactly what they are thinking. All of the time. (That’s really Leigh’s observation.) There is a series of shots where no less than six people turn and look meaningfully into the camera. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
Then suddenly, the movie takes its gothic turn. And it’s no longer boring. The vampire baby is eating Bella from the inside out. The solution? She has to drink her own blood out of a styrofoam cup. The camera lingers on her bloody teeth.
Bella looks like a holocaust victim. It’s gruesome. She decides to name the baby Renesme, which is a combination of René and Esme. Jacob’s smirk allows that this name might be humorous… And then Bella’s body gives out. She goes into labor.
Everything that happens next is horrific, intense and wildly confusing.
An untrained vampire lady is going to cut Bella open with no anesthesia? The vampire lady is licking the razor! She’s losing it! This vampire is going to eat the birth! OK, she’s gone.
Bella looks awful. She says the baby is suffocating! Wait a second, why is Edward biting her? And down there? Is he eating her? I blurt out: “What’s going on?!?!” I’m told he’s biting the baby out of her!! So much blood!!! Does she have to drink Edward’s blood to become a vampire? Evidently not, Edward has a big syringe. He says it’s his venom. Vampires have venom?
Jacob gives Bella CPR. She is so gaunt it’s terrible to see anyone touching her at all. Edward takes the big syringe and plunges it into her. He pumps a milky, pearly substance into her sternum. What the hell is vampire venom? Did he milk it out of his teeth? Did he masturbate?
Holy shit, now Edward is biting her wrist. And her leg. Why is he biting her? I thought the venom was supposed to do the trick? He bites her ankle. Her thigh. That’s it. Edward has finally lost his marbles. He’s trying to merge their souls by eating her, or something. She is so skeletal, when he bites her it’s like watching a junkie hunting for the last vein. Please stop.
The vampire lady demands that Edward give her the baby, who is still covered in blood. Is she going to eat that baby?
Meanwhile, there are werewolves outside fighting with the other vampires. The fighting looks like wrestling. Totally unclear who is bigger, who is stronger, and who can fly.
It seems like Bella isn’t going to make it. Jacob goes outside to be with the woods and cry.
More fighting. Jacob is pissed. He goes back inside and glowers at the baby. The baby is clean now, and weirdly alert and chubby. Oh, my G-d, maybe Jacob is going to kill the baby.
Nope. Jacob looks deep into the baby’s eyes. He falls to his knees. A montage emerges from the baby’s face and shows us: A future baby Renesme as a hot teenager. Jacob, a voice-over tells me, has “imprinted” on Renesme. This means he will be “whatever she needs, a protector, a brother…”
We saw “imprinted” werewolves, earlier in the film. They were making out. So… Jacob just fell in love, with some kind of spiritual pheremonal finality, with the half-vampire daughter of his ex, who happens to be about four minutes old.
Jacob goes back outside. The “imprint” means that the werewolves can’t kill Renesme. Someone says, “It is their most absolute law.”
The wolves leave.
A long, horrifying shot of lifeless Bella on the operating table. Her bones spike up like they’re going to pierce her skin. Bite marks and bruises up and down her limbs. A bloody swath across the sheet at her crotch.
And then… a beautification montage. She heals and gets a blue dress. Her cheeks fill out. Close-up on her eyes. Where did that eyeshadow come from? And then: Bam. Her eyes fly open. They’re vampire red.
She’s a vampire!!!
My friends and I walked across the street to have a cocktail. They had all read the books. And yet, not everything about the movie became clear, even with their deeper knowledge. I did find out that Edward first bit the baby out of his wife, but that his further biting was meant to circulate his venom. Like, to suck it around through her body. Okey doke.
There was a lot of enthusiastic conversation, at the restaurant, with a lot of real curiosity about what had just happened. We came up with a wonderful little hand gesture to indicate, “I am milking my fangs.” At one point, the waiter came over and said, “Are you ladies still talking about Twilight?”
I never really got into Sex and the City, but when I saw it, I always felt like the main draw was a fantasy of endless time and money to spend poring over every detail of everything with your girls. I wished that Bella seemed more able to talk with girlfriends, in Twilight. I’m not sure if it’s like this in the books, but she didn’t seem to have much supportive feminine energy around. The wedding preparations barely registered.
Nonetheless, I have to thank Bella, and Stephanie Meyers, for providing a fascinating excuse for a truly top-notch ladies night. Yes, my waiter friend, we are still talking about it. And no, you’re not invited. Do you have venom? I didn’t think so.