Film still from Shirley (2020), directed by Josephine Decker. Left: Elisabeth Moss; right: Odessa Young (all images courtesy Neon Films)

“In all chaos, there is a cosmos. In all disorder, a secret order. The pendulum of the mind swings between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Quoted about midway through Josephine Decker’s experimental 2018 thriller Madeline’s Madeline, Carl Jung’s words are both a defiant credo on how to make art and an ironic conceit for a film inherently concerned with the morality of storytelling.

A biracial teen named Madeline (stunning newcomer Helena Howard) joins an adult acting troupe in an effort to escape her overbearing mother (Miranda July) and the throes of an unspecified mental illness, but she is forced to battle for her integrity when her story is exploited by a clueless white theater director, Evangeline (Molly Parker). “I’m really interested in people who are out of control of their circumstances,” explains Evangeline of her new play to her Brooklyn in-laws; “Madeline’s the lead.” The extent to which Evangeline resembles Decker — who is also an actor and performance artist — is clearly intentional; the filmmaker wants us to ask what right she, or anyone, has to make another’s story her own.

A seemingly entropic, but ultimately explosive exploration of art as life, and life as art, Decker’s breakthrough feature paved the way for her recent turn directing Shirley (wide release June 5). Like Madeline, Shirley channels the agony and ecstasy of the creative, desirous female subject — this time, iconic horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson (a feral, frumpy Elisabeth Moss), perhaps best known for authoring the 1949 short story “The Lottery.” Based on Susan Scarff Merrill’s novel of the same name, Shirley shirks many facts to imagine Jackson’s interior life during a swing from intense depression into wild productivity, the latter sparked in part by a complicated friendship with Rose (Odessa Young), the young wife of Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), a professor visiting their Vermont home to assist Shirley’s husband, literary critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Film still from Shirley (2020), directed by Josephine Decker. Left: Michael Stuhlbarg; right: Elizabeth Moss.

While the real Shirley Jackson raised four kids, published prolifically in both literary and women’s magazines, and was the family breadwinner, Decker’s Shirley more closely resembles a protagonist from one of her gothic tales: alienated, sad, and more than a little vengeful. “Betty, Debbie, Cathy … you’re all the same to me,” she says when Rose first introduces herself during a departmental party. Glowering at the wide-eyed girl from the top of a stairwell, she scoffs, as if by witchy intuition, “Nobody said you were pregnant.”

Rose’s pregnancy journey becomes intertwined with Shirley’s burgeoning novel, Hangsaman, based on the real-life “missing girl” Paula Jean Welden, a college student who disappeared in the Vermont woods. Trapped in both the Jackson-Hyman house and a newly pregnant body, Rose becomes a foil for Shirley’s imaginative reveries about Paula’s motives. “Maybe disappearing was the only way anyone would notice her,” Rose conjectures to Shirley as they sleuth out possible scenarios. A tortuous turn at the writing desk turns into a Tarot session where three Hanged Man cards appear; Shirley’s imagined Paula and Rose become one, fiction and life fade in and out. Similar to, if more refined than Decker’s earlier films shot by Ashley Connor, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen purposefully distorts our sense of what’s real.

“What happens to all lost girls? They go mad,” Shirley declares as she nears the climax of her novel. The question of how has been of keen interest from the start of Decker’s filmmaking career. From the hallucinatory Butter on the Latch (2013), a low-budget, mostly improvised drama about two friends emotionally tested during a folk music camp set in the woods, and Thou Wast Mild & Lovely (2014), a macabre fever dream of a film about a lusty farmer’s daughter, normative perception — and conventional filmmaking — are jettisoned for shaky cameras, unfocused lenses, and deliberately disjunctive narration. But when Decker dials down the weirdness in favor of willful delirium, the dangers — and delights — of female desire unravel into sensual, psychic marvel, no less so in Shirley for its mainstream appeal.

Decker’s first period drama, Shirley exposes just how maddeningly confining women’s roles were during Jackson’s time, especially in the realms of erotic and creative desire. During a late summer stroll through Fred’s campus, college girls coyly leer in bathing suits and bandeaus. Is this Rose’s imagination? Or an omen of what’s to come? Decker delights in making the viewer question the soundness of such perceptions as we are invited to identify with the women expressing them. In the same vein, Shirley shares with Rose, about the women “in town”: “They’re afraid to brush up against me […] They’re afraid I might infect them.”

Film still from Shirley (2020), directed by Josephine Decker. Right: Michael Stuhlbarg.

The two women’s fascination with each other takes on an erotic edge as Shirley obsesses over Paula’s fate. “This book might kill me,” Shirley admits her husband. “I can’t figure out this girl.” In her attempt to do so, she seduces Rose in her third trimester, straddling her legs from a porch swing on a sunny afternoon, or initiating footsies under the dining room table while their clueless hubbies enjoy a pot roast. Their affair is weird, sexy, and a little bit creepy. It’s also a terribly compelling account of a queer romance that is built on both shared fantasy and suffering, a bit reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994).

“Freud would have a field day,” Shirley jests during a midnight snack with Rose, recounting her dream of a wormy Frigidaire. The two women bond not simply because of their mutually isolating marriages (both husbands are cheating on them, perhaps even with the same undergrads), but because of how frequently their choices are denied them. “Let’s pray for a boy,” whispers Shirley to Rose, caressing her stomach as they lie together at night. “The world is too cruel to girls.” After a nearly literal cliff-hanger of a revelation at the film’s climax, Rose smirks at her husband’s promise that things will “go back to normal.”  “Little wifey? Little Rosie?” she smirks from the back of a yellow taxi as she and Fred move out of the Jackson-Hyman house. “That was madness.”

Part of Decker’s point seems to be that the way we are taught to see and value women — both in film and, more broadly, in American society — is an absurd departure from the real. The director’s women aren’t paper dolls: they snore, bleed, break out, bite nails, and, in Butter, impersonate rodents. They are, in vital ways, refreshingly unpleasant and disruptive. In Madeline’s Madeline, the title character gets drunk at Evangeline’s house and awkwardly propositions her mentor’s husband in the kitchen. In Shirley, after finishing “The Lottery” on a speeding train car, Rose cajoles her husband into a midday quickie (stoning, evidently, is a major turn on).

Film still from Shirley (2020), directed by Josephine Decker. Left: Logan Lerman; right: Odessa Young.

Fans of Hangsaman might be confused that drafts of the novel-in-progress, read by Moss, don’t match the actual novel; screenwriter Sarah Gubbins evidently wrote these passages during an intense shooting schedule. But such departures are of a piece with the film’s insistently subjective vision. Decker revels in the thrilling horror of living inside a story so fully that the line between art and life bleeds like the wine Shirley pours all over a striped sofa at an academic party (“don’t rub, dab!” says the horrified wife of the Dean, one of many sardonic jabs at mid-century domestic doctrine).

“Art is the commerce of intimacy,” Decker told critic David Ehrlich. “You cross your own boundaries, you cross other peoples’ boundaries, and then you cross other boundaries without even realizing that you’ve invaded someone’s privacy or dignity.” With her latest experiment in deliberate transgression, we are challenged to reconsider the roles of women as creative agents, no less relevant now than in Shirley Jackson’s haunting Gothic dreamscape.

Shirley, directed by Josephine Decker, opened to wide release June 5. 

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....

One reply on “The Delirium of Female Desire”

  1. This superbly acted movie takes one back and forth between the story and the reality until you see yourself

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