CW: Content warning for discussion and mention of abuse, intimate partner violence and rape. If those are subjects that mean you will feel uncomfortable, please be advised they are throughout.
Also, spoilers for the film all the way through.
I have been arrogant. I am guilty of thinking that someone younger than me could not possibly create art that speaks to my experience as a woman. Intellectually I know it’s not true. But the thought crosses my mind, and I don’t allow myself the joy of certain art because I assume it has nothing of interest to say to me.
This is where I lay that thought to rest.
I had yet to listen to any of Halsey’s music when I came across their poetry book “I Would Leave Me If I Could”. It quietly blew me away. The stunning sharp jabs at my own feelings. It was the title that initially drew me in. Who doesn’t feel that way sometimes? Isn’t it universal, feeling like you’re unloveable, unbeautiful and unfuckable? It’s profoundly uncomfortable when an artist takes thoughts and feelings you believed were yours alone and exposes them to the world. You haven’t said these things to anyone but it’s as if they’ve just taken away the flimsy stage flat you were hiding behind and the spotlight is on you with the whole audience staring mutely.
Like Bart Simpson says, “it wasn’t me.”
Oh yes, yes it was.
It was with excited anticipation that I bought a ticket for Halsey’s next release, the film If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power, the accompaniment to the album of the same name. I certainly wasn’t the youngest person there, but it was hard to deny how much younger the audience skewed. The excited chatter of groups of friends. Peaks of laughter, bated breath as the film started. None of us knew exactly what to expect. And an hour later as the credits rolled, we marched out, the buzz of conversation now on the film itself.
I went home. My mind was not blown. I enjoyed it. I had no regrets. But I came away thinking that apart from one plot point nothing I saw was a surprise.
Intimate partner violence, women being silenced and having their power taken away, these are all to be expected from a story about a woman in a period piece. Set in a stylised 17th Century monarchy, unless it’s a romance or a comedy it’s going to include all of the above and sometimes even then!
As my friends casually enquired if I’d had a good evening I found myself sending longer and longer messages about the visuals, the story, the themes and the conclusion. My brain wouldn’t let it go, it was like an earworm, except for film. Thought after thought after thought. Messages and conversations that began with “another thing crossed my mind” or “I was also thinking about.”
I decided to spare my friends further navel gazey messages and put it here instead.
Let’s start at the end. The part that did give me a slight surprise.
Queen Lila dies.
So many stories about female empowerment and fighting against systematic misogyny would end with the woman succeeding. In a different telling of this story Lila would rally the people and the other nobles, forcing out her old-rule-following enemies, embodied here by The Aristocrat and The Matriarch as the poe faced twin pillars Patriarchy and Complicity. Lila would finish the tale on the throne, a new regime of her making about to unfold. Have you ever noticed that in many of those stories that’s where it ends? The promise of a better tomorrow but without showing you what that is. In its own way this film does show us.
The linear start point here is when the King dies and from Lila’s reaction this is not unwelcome news. Again, in other stories this would be the happy ending. But as the lyrics in “Tradition” say: this is not a happy ending. This song here at the start of the film, not just forewarning but possibly also telling us that a traditional happy ending isn’t coming.
We watch as rather than being able to celebrate her freedom from violence she is subjected to the tyranny of disgust at daring to show evidence of that violence, criticised for her drunken behaviour with friends and being told she doesn’t matter. That the child she carries, if it’s a boy, is important.
We see those good time girl friends abandon her once she becomes a mother: no solace to be found there. And no matter what she does including running away, Lila is always at the mercy of those with the power. She is trapped, recaptured, and then killed. Pessimistically that’s the real coda to those stories I mentioned before. Because one climactic defiant act doesn’t topple the whole system. For every Happy Ever After hovers the dark cloud of what comes next. It reminds me of Schmendrick’s words in The Last Unicorn: “There are no happy endings. Because nothing ever ends.”
And so it is with systematic oppression. It’s like a Whack-A-Mole. You smack it down here and it pops up again over there. The myriad ways it expresses itself are baked into If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power. I’ve already mentioned Queen Lila’s playmates abandoning her once she is known to be pregnant. One of the main themes Halsey has said is represented is the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. The inability for society to accept that women can be anything else but one extreme or the other. I feel it is important to note here that the only time Queen Lila wears an extremely lowcut complete cleavage-baring dress is when she is dressed for the King. She dresses in eye catching but much less revealing outfits the rest of the time. Presumably if she’s dressed like that for his pleasure then it’s different, isn’t it?
The Aristocrat outright states that she will not go quietly. Constantly watching her and policing her movements. In this world once her husband is dead her title means nothing and whatever power it bestowed is removed. Her two bids for freedom see her chased and dragged back to the castle, one with her behind actually bars. She begins and ends the film in shackles and a choker. Beautiful, bejewelled and diamond encrusted but merely gilding on a cage. Dressed up for show but leashed. Is it a little on the nose to show the maidens who serve Queen Lila bathing and dressing her for her execution in a “other women helped get her here” way? Maybe.
This film doesn’t give us an easy alternative either. On the flip side of all of this misogyny is a supposedly unwelcome form of femininity. The Seer is the only consistent safe haven and non-judgemental force in her life. Living alone in the deep woods, in the stereotypical trappings of an outcast woman, whose power of intuition predicts the pregnancy. Naming her The Seer neatly sidesteps the offensive use of witch or wiccan and instead gives her something specifically dangerous to power. The ability to see. See through it and see where things are going, because blindly following those in power can and does lead down the truly dark paths. But seeing and questioning are not tolerated. When The Aristocrat catches up with Queen Lila, he removes the safe place she escaped to, burning the wood and thatch cottage down and presumably killing The Seer. Cutting her off from the only connection he cannot control.
Except Queen Lila has never been alone. From the moment the Kings body is discovered Lila has been visited by the spectre of a darker sister. Lilith, a shadowed and terrifying counterpart she glimpses in mirrors and half waking moments. When Lila retreats to her now private bed chamber Lilith visits her and appears to help the Queen enjoy her own body. Lilith then attacks her, a replica of the betrayal when a bed mate brings violence into such a vulnerable place. We find out towards the end of the film that Lila poisoned the King and we are left to wonder, is this a part of her? Is there something evil inside Lila? She goes to the bath house to “cleanse” herself all to the song “Lilith” which includes the words “I’ve been corrupted.” But Lilith is still there in her reflection.
Lilith is the only other person present at the birth of Queen Lila’s child and it coincides with the flashback to the murder of the King after he beats and probably rapes her. Intercutting the King’s death throes with the birthing pains highlights the mirroring of the two parts of the life cycle of every human. Birth and death.
That was what I realised about this piece. Everything Queen Lila, and by extension all women, go through is just a part of our lives. There is a moment when Lila is shown lying down, a blank dead-eyed expression on her face as she is rhythmically moved by an external force. Immediately the audience is supposed to connect what we are seeing with rape. It turns out to be Lila’s handmaidens, attempting to manipulate her arms and legs into or out of a dress. It’s a fairly mundane moment, servants helping dress a member of royalty. But we now see the direct link between violence and the everyday.
It’s a snapshot of the whole film. It’s not about just individual traumatic events it’s about the constant wash of them.
The montage in the middle that marks time using Lila’s pregnancy isn’t of a woman plotting reprisal and consolidating power. It’s the mundanity of existing without hope of change. The real horror story is realising you cannot change it yourself.
Writing this piece has been tough. The more time I spent thinking about the film, listening to the album (and eventually rewatching the film) I thought of more and more things I wanted to point out and say isn’t that cool and clever? I told friends that the film was so full of ideas and themes that the one hour running time couldn’t do them justice and would love to see Halsey write something using fewer ideas but explored thoroughly.
Upon reflection I was wrong. The strength of this film is reining in the impulse to linger on every idea. It’s not necessary to go over every tiny detail like I was bent on doing. As I said before, none of these things are a surprise, I’m familiar with them and have been taught about them from a young age either explicitly (my mum teaching me about consent when I was 7) or by experience (hello, I’m a human woman).
Since the films debut we have had, in the UK alone, the needle jab drugging’s in Birmingham, the trial of Sarah Everards killer and the murder of Sabina Nessa. Every time the news was chock full of “what can women do to make themselves safer?” queries and the blowhard attempts to definitively answer them. I think an article by Bethan Bell for BBC News put it best: “if a woman is murdered by a man she doesn’t know, it is because he wanted to murder her. There is no other reason.”
Then on the heels of that the worn out but true fact that murder by a stranger is rare. A woman is more likely to be murdered in her home. Lovely.
The “safety work” which becomes known as “common sense”. As Bethan Bell writes in the same article, “We all make sure we have a fully-charged phone and do that spikey weapon-grip with our door keys at the same time as checking nobody is following us inside. We text when we are “home safe” and wait up until we hear the same from our companions. This is normal. This is accepted. This is part of being a woman.”
The threat of powerlessness is something over half the population lives with everyday. So why not overwhelm the audience to give them a taste of the sheer weight of all this trash we have to put up with? When Halsey told Zane Lowe during their Apple Music interview that “this is not a girl power album” what are we left with if not a nihilistic certainty this is all there is?
Because Queen Lila dies.
At the beginning of the film Queen Lila being in shackles was out of context and allowed for ambiguity but now we know. In black with fierce make up she strides out and stares down the crowd from the balcony. She refuses to look ashamed and places herself in the guillotine. Because she knows that this is the worst thing they can do to her. The Aristocrat and the rest of the nobles and people expect, and perhaps want, her to fight back. But she doesn’t currently have the power they hold. Fighting back on their terms, words against words did nothing for her, no one was persuaded by her arguments. It is turned against her, look how emotional she is, look how out of control. So once she dies and Lilith meets her, they become more powerful together. Lila accepting all parts of herself and the darkness she originally feared has led to more power. The credits of the film show this new version of them making their way through a castle now littered with the bodies of Lila’s enemies. At one point they even pick up the crown that this has all been about before putting it back down. They don’t need it. And rather than endlessly haunt the castle, they leave, met by the words Halsey wrote to their partner: For Alev Aydin, and our greatest ERA of all.
Lila chooses to walk away rather than allow herself to become either what they wanted her to be or turn into that which she hates.
There are no definitive answers from this film. Halsey has said this album was about “taking my life back” and it feels like someone getting everything off their chest specifically so they can box it up and put it away. It’s left up to the interpretation of the viewer what to think. To me it is that at some point everyone has to have a reckoning with the systems in place over us, in this instance the Patriarchal system we exist in. Each of us has to decide whether to give in to it, fight it using its own tools or choose a third option, reject it and live your own way. Sometimes the real power move is walking away. Nothing was a surprise to me in the film, not because it was trying to show me something new and failed, but because it was holding up a mirror to the life I already live. And rather than trying to create answers for it or pat itself on the back for pointing it out the film simply says, it’s shit and it’s all the time. But it doesn’t have to be everything.
My favourite part of the premiere evening, film aside, was while waiting in a queue afterwards. A young woman was recounting to her friend how a different friend, who lives in Texas, had seen the film the night before and told her “I wasn’t ready for it. And then I saw it. And even though I’ve seen it I’m still not ready for it.” The pair of them laughed breathlessly in that way you do when you cannot agree more and are delighted someone else understands.
And you know what? Same girl, same.
Image from pixabay.