It’s hard to write reasonably and responsibly about Olivia Wilde’s new movie, “Don’t Worry Darling” (opening Friday), because the movie gets so much of its meaning from a plot twist, which It happens half way through, which I was pleasantly surprised by and don’t want to spoil. (I’ll be careful, but readers be warned.) The film, set largely in California in what appears to be the late 1950s, makes extraordinary use of production design, dramatic staging, and narrative detail, to sully its character. own realism and make the action creepy, mysterious, elusive. What’s more, the film’s self-defeating subtleties and its dramatic reveal serve a larger purpose: its portrayal of oppression in an out-of-control, past-tense America recalls the country’s current political pathologies. “Don’t Worry Darling” serves that purpose with a shrewdness that matches its focused sense of outrage.
Florence Pugh plays Alice Chambers, one of a group of women who live in Victory, a planned community set up in a remote stretch of the California desert. Her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), like all the husbands of all the women she knows, works for the ostensibly defense-related Project Victory, which, like the city itself, is built and run by a cheerful, charismatic named Frank (Cris Pine). But something seems to be wrong, starting with the chilling uniformity of the town. In the cul-de-sac where the Chamberses and their neighbors live, Jack and the other men, including Dean (Nick Kroll) and Pete (Asif Ali), emerge from their driveways at exactly the same time every morning, seen identically. by their wives, Alice, Bunny (Olivia Wilde), and Peg (Kate Berlant), and then flow into the desert with other men’s cars driving to the same workplace, somewhere in the nearby mountains.
That uniformity suggests authoritarianism. The women do not work; they are not allowed to drive and instead have free use of a trolleybus (the “Victory Bus Link”) decorated with slogans urging passengers to secrecy. (“What you hear here… let it stay here.”) He takes them all to a ballet class led by Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan), who chants soothing mantras about “control,” “symmetry.” ” and ” order.” At home during the day, Alice listens to a radio buzzing with the voice of a male announcer who encourages “sacrifice” and “loyalty” from listeners and promises to “protect” them. The optimistic Frank warmly gathers his employees and their families at a garden party in his luxurious home, where he offers “progress” to end “chaos,” refuses to return to society at large (“We stand firm! !”) and gets his acolytes to state their purpose in Victory: “Change the world!”
Part of Victory’s charm is her brilliant sense of style. Its residents live to the rhythm of the falling needles of the time, surrounded by a carefully selected set of design elements that have eliminated both the crude and the kitsch that seems instant retro: a living museum of the moment. If “Don’t Worry Darling” offered nothing more than its design sense and its performances, especially those of Pugh, Wilde, Berlant and Chan, which are delicately calibrated between serious expression and parodic gestures and diction, it would still be a sensory experience. Delight, especially as Wilde, in collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, embodies the film’s physical world in similarly stylized and inflected images. (Among the most tempting are a pair of combined circular tracking shots, one around a group of husbands and the other around wives.) Yet Victory’s graceful beauty is inseparable from her unrelentingly gendered and rigid social order. Like the other women, Alice spends her days scrubbing the house (which, in architecture and furnishings, has a bright, sharp style that would then have been avant-garde commercial modern), shopping (clothes with similarly sharp lines, in a departments where women have bottomless charge accounts that never expire), and prepares for her husband’s return home by cooking a lavish multi-course dinner daily and getting ready to welcome him. Unlike their neighbors, Alice and Jack don’t have children and they like it that way, because they have a carefree marriage, as shown in a quick sexual encounter (the famous one on the internet), in which Jack fucks her between the dishes. of the table. dining room table, moments after getting home from work.
However, there are problems in this candy-colored Formica paradise. Her Cassandra is Margaret Watkins (KiKi Layne), one of the few black people in Victory, who, after time away, has returned there with her husband, Ted (Ari’el Stachel), an employee of the Project. . At Frank’s company garden party, Margaret interrupts the team building festivities: “Why are we here? We shouldn’t be here,” and Ted takes her away. At the department store, Alice’s friends gossip about Margaret’s breaking of company rules and the consequences that followed. Margaret approaches Alice to express doubts about the order of the town; Shortly after, Alice witnesses a tragic incident. Victory’s men, in red uniforms (the local equivalent of men in white coats), become involved, while Alice is enlightened by Jack and a notoriously evil doctor (Timothy Simons), who then begins to investigate on her own, defying the Frank’s authority and the official histories. that goes with that. By doing so, he puts Jack’s career at risk and much more; her fearless pursuit turns the drama into a thriller.
Some of Victory’s positive qualities, such as her anachronistic racial and ethnic integration and her lack of inhibitions about sex, suggest little more than a mask for her control schemes. Yet even before being shaken by Margaret’s existential question about this isolated community, Alice seems, by her very nature, out of step with her rigid command. He seems to compulsively interrupt the routine of programmed happiness: benignly, as when he cracks egg after egg on the floor, and terrifyingly, as when he tests his mortality by tightly wrapping his head in plastic wrap and gasping for breath as he sits. rips it up. (At times the film veers into the grotesquely shocking imagery of horror movies.) She has gloomy hallucinations and allusive inner visions which the film shows in detail.
These visions, which link Alicia’s own corporeal confusion with a clearly audiovisual one, evoke an inner disorder or, rather, a questioning of the drive for order. They link bodily functions, such as the flow of blood and the contractions and expansions of the iris of the eye, with black-and-white dance scenes that mimic the geometric, symmetrical imagery of the production numbers of 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals. I am a Berkeley obsessive and have long felt that his intensely rhythmic dance formations are a cinematic vision of the biological functions and social conditions that give rise to the anarchic individuation of personality and desire. But Alice’s visions involve only the first side of the Berkeley equation: her display of the underlying order. Her premonition is that Victoria’s scheduled and disciplined order will hardly allow for her personal expression and freedom of desire. Although Frank, with her extravagantly manipulative behavior, seems to be the main culprit in restraining her, Jack also, whether intentionally or not, also seems to have a hand in it.
Cut to the red carpet. Reviews of the film’s premiere, at the Venice Film Festival, were markedly—unduly, I think—negative. They arose in the wake of a torrent of reports discussing the celebrity drama surrounding the film’s production and release, in particular the apparent conflicts between Pugh and Wilde. This wouldn’t be the first time critical responses have been skewed by controversy, but in the case of “Don’t Worry Darling,” the discord is particularly telling with regard to on-screen results, because the conflict seems entrenched. in the cast.
Wilde initially cast Shia LaBeouf as Jack before replacing him with Styles. wild claim (it is that he fired LaBeouf to “protect” his cast, and in particular Pugh, from his (unspecified) behavior. In a recent vanity fair ArticleWilde says Pugh told him she was uneasy about LaBeouf. LaBeouf claim (it is that he was not fired but resigned due to lack of time to rehearse; she released a video that Wilde sent her in which she expressed her hope that he could return and Pugh could be persuaded to work with him. (Reportedly, Wilde shot the video before Pugh’s discomfort with LaBeouf became clear.) Adding to the intrigue, Wilde and Styles began dating during filming. Though Wilde may have shown poor judgment in this episode, his directorial instincts did not fail him: Styles shines in the film’s few brief musical and choreographic moments, delivers flowing dialogue and carries himself with a seductive glide. The air of aggression, of menace, of uneasiness in his own skin that LaBeouf brings to his on-screen character would have highlighted the film’s harbingers of disorder and danger. On the other hand, even the best of directors’ intentions are often at odds with a resulting good movie: Styles’ light-hearted performance keeps those undercurrents so far below the surface that when they finally do surface, it’s a big surprise, the kind that it would be irresponsible to disclose in a review. ♦