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Gender Bashing: Feminine Fantasy in BRAID

I like to think that, when writing her film Braid, director Mitzi Peirone was listening to the Stones’ timeless maxim: “You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes, you might find/you get what you need.”

Peirone’s debut tags along with two drug-dealing besties Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay) as they go on the run from the cops and their supplier, to whom the pair owes recuperation costs for the cache of drugs lost during a raid, to the tune of $85,000. The young women flee to a secluded mansion, that of their childhood friend Daphne Peters (Madeline Brewer). Daphne inherited the sprawling domicile from her grandparents, along with a considerable amount of cash. She keeps the cash in a safe. Where? How much? That’s what Petula and Tilda are trying to find out. But this isn’t Grey Gardens (despite the decay), and Daphne isn’t Little Edie (despite the oddly glamorous aura about her). The lady of the house is a recluse and has some strange rules for her guests, all part of a fanciful delusion.

Daphne’s guests must abide by a “Let’s play house” structure from the moment they step onto the property. Daphne is “Mother”, Tilda the “Daughter,” and Petula plays “Doctor.” Once the game begins, everyone must play, no one leaves, and no outsiders may enter. The bulk of the film sees the trio playing the game. Everyone is dressed the part, straight out of Mommie Dearest. It seems simple enough until Doctor comes in to evaluate Daughter’s “cough” and has to test her reflexes. Tilda nervously sits atop the kitchen table as Petula pulls open a bag full of ominous-looking tools. She takes out a benign reflex hammer and lightly taps Tilda’s knee, to which Daphne briefly becomes enraged. Recovering, Mother settles back into her role and sweetly croons, “Everyone must play.” A regretful Petula retrieves a gleaming meat tenderizer and proceeds to deliver a crushing blow to her patient’s kneecap, pleasing Mother. Such is the way the game is to be played at all times. A modest supply of leftover psychedelics throws fuel onto the fire. Colors become vivid. Gruesome violence unfolds, and its scars vanish. Time becomes more of a suggestion than a fixed construct. What begins as a Don’t Breathe-esque “You broke into the wrong damn house today” plot quickly descends down the rabbit hole as the very fabric of reality bends for all players involved.

From the film’s beginning, Tilda and Petula are lost lambs. The pair left tens of thousands of dollars worth of drugs behind in a desperate attempt to save their skins and avoid capture. On the train from New York to Montpelier (where Daphne’s estate is), each of them demonstrates a flair for the abstract. A run-in with a discreet but amorous train crew member reveals that Petula has an online persona as a dominatrix, while Tilda flips through a book (presumably her own) of surrealist sketches and poetry. Petula, in particular, begrudgingly plays the hypersexual role she has to in order to get a free ride to her destination. These are two young women who are already intimate with role-playing.

Upon arrival at the house, an immediate change occurs. Cinematographer Todd Banhazl’s lensing shifts to an extreme wide-angle, marking the distorted realm that the ladies have crossed onto. Following the warped “doctor’s visit,” the trio sit down to a dinner table straight out of Better Homes and Gardens. Daphne serves a wildflower soup with gummy bears and the white powdered contents of a vial mixed in. She claims to be thrilled to have the girls home, later telling Petula that she feels “safe” with her there. Even with the suspicion that she is being taken advantage of, Daphne holds the upper hand in every scene simply because she has the home advantage and wants her invaders to stay. Later flashbacks illuminate that a childhood fight between Tilda and Daphne resulted in the latter’s fall from a treehouse, permanently damaging her lower abdomen and rendering her barren for life. Arc-wise, her obsessive need to play “House” and find the familial comfort therein make perfect sense. Mother needs her playmates just as much as they need her (money).

For their part (and with the hefty help of PCP), Tilda and Petula eventually slide into a routine with their victim and captor. The two play by the rules, while searching for clues to the safe anytime they get a moment’s rest. Amid the hallucinatory swells of color and depravity, the would-be robbers slip farther into a fantastical circus of horrors with Daphne as their emcee. She holds her Doctor at knifepoint and forces simulated sex. She threatens to use kitchen scissors on Daughter when her nails aren’t properly clipped. She calls them her “dolls” and whispers, “Reality will never catch up with our dreams.”

There is a wrench in the works. Detective Siegel (Scott Cohen) is the only man figured prominently in the entire story. He knows Daphne is harboring fugitives, but can’t quite prove it. He arrives at the home to question Daphne, but it turns into an interrogation. As he threatens to break the illusion she has created, the hostess starts to slip into further psychosis. She giggles randomly and covers her ears to shield herself from the obvious holes in her own story. The detective character exists functionally within the plot, but he’s also a mental fail-safe. The cop is there to rescue the girls, in more ways than one, and this is subverted in more ways than one.

An aside: Braid is wholly feminine from its opening credits forward. The Bechdel Test doesn’t stand a chance; for all of the tension between Daphne, Tilda, and Petula, none of the conflict is in reference to or over a man. All elements of the womens’ relationships unfold independently. Daphne’s brutality, Tilda’s vulnerability, and Petula’s brazen sexuality are all wholly their own, untethered to any male arc. Peirone ensures that the one man who gets a fair amount of screen time is utilized practically; he’s the static personified in a film that externalizes internal conflict.

The fantasy world that the three women immerse themselves in can be unpacked much further– once you’ve seen the ending. Rather than spoil the entire third act, I’ll direct you to VOD and Amazon Prime, where the film is currently streaming following its successful 2018 festival run. That said, it wouldn’t harm the viewing experience to draw a brief parallel to Peter Jackson’s true-crime drama, Heavenly Creatures. The 1994 New Zealand film is a dramatization of the Parker-Hulme murder case, positioning a heinous act as the end result of an inevitable descent between two unstable girls who couldn’t and wouldn’t be kept apart. Their friendship was so thorough that they created an entire alternate reality, called Borovnia, in which they were the stars and were always together. Both films dream of a past erased before it could reach its full potential. The bond is slightly different in the story of Juliet and Pauline’s intense relationship; the whispered death knell (at least, in its time) of “homosexuality” is enough to encourage the schoolgirls’ respective parents to keep them apart, which has deadly consequences. But like Braid, the female friendship within the frames of Jackson’s movie is one that could only thrive in its constructed fantasy world. In Borovnia, as in Daphne’s “rotten mansion halls,” everyone can live happily ever after.

Braid is a wild feminine fantasy that steeps a rich text of friendship dynamics within fugue-state visuals. Mitzi Peirone’s film runs on a tonal parallel to Mandy: emotions are tightrope-taut from beginning to end. While the range runs from boredom to despair to blood-soaked euphoria, it all plays at a crescendo, never a whisper. It’s the perfect tenor for a story centered on the maddening gulfs between what we have and what we want.