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Alice Lowe and the Burden of Domesticity in Sightseers and Prevenge

In feminist theory, there are two distinct outcomes that stems from the pressures of domesticity. As Susan Fraiman notes in her work Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins, literary characters

are driven to various extremes by too much house, by interior spaces too cushioned or confining. In contrast to those made desperate by an excess of domesticity, the figures […are otherwise…] driven to domesticity. The refuge of four walls, the consolation of a table—by desperate circumstances (25).

In other words, people are driven to either conform to be domestic, or, alternatively, they are driven to embrace the mirage of domesticity.  You are either in, wanting to be out, or you are out, wanting to be in. Neither of these socially driven impulses can be considered completely ideal, and Alice Lowe’s most recent films take these opposing poles to their extremity, interrogating the very notion of domesticity in each.

When the song “Tainted Love” plays over the opening credits in Sightseers (2012), which was  co-written by Lowe, the viewer is led to assume that the song is an encapsulation of Tina’s relationship with her mother, Carol, a relationship that forms the focus of a short prologue to the film.  Tina, played by Lowe, has obviously been under the thumb of her controlling and entirely domestic mother for her entire life. Tina is also a dog psychiatrist who, we learn in the opening credits, is moderately responsible for the death of Carol’s dog, Poppy.  When Tina reminds Carol that Poppy’s death was an accident, Carol responds by saying “so were you” and marching off.

Cue the opening credits and “Tainted Love.”

But the song’s meaning isn’t directed solely at Tina and Carol’s highly dysfunctional relationship; it is also indicative of Tina and Chris, her boyfriend, and their relationship as well.  The pair are excited to be going on a caravan trip together across England. Like many young couples, they want to deepen their relationship, to play-act scenes of domesticity in an effort to become the real thing.  The play-acting begins even before the trip: like a pair of overly rambunctious teens, the thirty-something couple tumble around on Tina’s bed, Tina remarking “I’ve always wanted a boy in my bed.” Later, Tina will cry out while having sex with Chris (her face in a bowl of chips) that this is “how I always imagined it!”, pointing further to her virginity and the oppressive control of her mother.

By this point in the film, before even the opening credits, it becomes clear that both Tina and Chris are severely repressed individuals. Each are lured by the desire to become domestic, to follow the stereotypical lifestyles of those they see around them: get married, have kids, settle down. In many ways, the very crux of the sightseeing trip is a domestic rite of passage for a young couple: the long holiday, the attempt to understand how each functions in isolation with the other, to pretend to be someone in a more “serious” relationship. At one point in the film, Tina says that she doesn’t want to go “back in the box” of living with her mother in her creatively stifled life, but the irony is that she’s simply trading one box for another; in this case the symbolic “box” of the caravan. So long as Tina pursues the domestic, she will feel trapped, either by the domestic (living with Chris in the caravan) or by the desire for the domestic (“creating” a family with Chris and Banjo), and she remains trapped between those opposing poles for much of the film.

There is a certain tension in the values of domesticity—the evocation of “not only a domestic space but also a set of domestic values: selflessness, constancy, piety, and purity” (Fraiman 1).  Not only is domesticity considered to be a form which entraps literary and film characters, burdening them with the demands of conforming to exterior pressures while also entrapping them within a home, but the very desire for domesticity is also burdensome. In other words, many characters are burdened by domesticity; it is often either due to their wish to escape their burdens, or by their desires to conform to a stereotypically domestic experience.

As Susan Fraiman writes, it is simple to think of domesticity and the curation of domestic spaces:

Dusting and polishing a table, arranging objects on a shelf, putting a child to bed, buying groceries for guests, baking a cake, caring for pets, hanging checked curtains, nursing the sick, stashing things where they belong, dreaming of a beautiful space (8).

The “beautiful space” in Sightseers is the tiny caravan; as Chris and Tina continue on their journey, Tina continues to decorate the space around her with trinkets and mementos of their trip. Not only does she put commemorative stuffed animals from the sites they visit in their caravan and car, but she also adopts a “child” from one of Chris’s murders. Chris, driven by jealously, murders a man named Ian; although Tina is initially unaware of the murder, Ian (and his wife’s) dog appears at their campsite. The dog’s name is Banjo, but Tina rechristens him Poppy, even going so far as to give Banjo Poppy’s collar. When Tina speaks to the dog, she refers to herself and Chris as “mommy” and “daddy” and, at one point, tells Poppy that they’ve found a “babysitter” for him.  

Indeed, Chris’s murders leave behind artifacts that heighten the sense of domesticity for Tina. Chris steals Ian’s camera. Tina witnesses Chris murder his third victim in brutal fashion by beating his skull in with a stick and then a rock; while Chris goes through the man’s belongings, Tina blithely asks for food.  Chris finds some cherry tomatoes, and Tina gratefully eats them. Save for the bloodied corpse at their feet, the scene is one of domestic bliss, at least in Tina’s mind. At one point, Tina even “borrows” Ian’s credentials, bragging to an elderly couple at a monastery that Chris has written three books, something that Ian had accomplished. In reality, Chris, the portrait of the frustrated author, has written little more than a few lines and drawn a few doodles in his journal.

The sightseeing trip itself is unexciting as well, a clear homage to not only the boredom of some of the sites (the Crich Tram Museum is the first stop), but to the general malaise and banality of domesticity as well. Their visits are symbolic of the boredom of the life that, Tina, at least, wishes to embrace: a pencil factory, and old monastery, and so on. The trip itself is evidence of both lovers fumbling heavily in playacting their relationship. One gets the sense that both Tina and Chris are together because they have few other options; that their love, such as it is, is fueled less by attraction and more by a mutual desire to achieve some form of domestication, to “fit in” in a world where they never quite fit in before. At one point, Tina coyly puts on an absurd pink knitted bra and panties (with a slit in the front of the panties) in a clumsy and misguided effort to seduce Chris, who rolls over and goes to sleep.

For the initial portion of Sightseers, the viewer is led to believe that Chris is the focus of the film, as his murders (and his rage at humanity in general) take center stage. Yet the focus of the film shifts subtly from Chris to Tina. Tina’s first murder occurs when her visions of domesticity are threatened. For much of the film, Tina plays the role of the matriarch of the family, often wronged, but stoic in her suffering. When Chris goes out and gets drunk, Tina makes a meal, waits for his return, throws away the meal, and then, disappointed, sulks in the patio chair until he arrives. However, this mirage of domesticity is threatened when Tina and Chris stop off for a late dinner at a restaurant, which contains a rather loud and bawdy bachelorette party. Tina excuses herself to go to the restroom, and upon her return, finds the bride-to-be on Chris’s lap, kissing him lustily.  

Soon after, Tina follows the drunken woman out into the parking lot and shoves her off a steep embankment. Chris soons finds out about the murder and chastises Tina, pointing out that he kills for reasons that include public littering, publishing more books than Chris (who has published none), and chastising Tina for not cleaning up after Banjo. Chris, at one point in the film, says simply that he just wants to be “respected and feared” as a life goal, and his “reasons” for murder exhibit a particular desire to keep the world around him ordered. Tina, on the other hand, murders out of a desire to maintain her domestic ideal. Her second murder occurs when she purposefully uses Chris’s car—still pulling the caravan, the symbol of their supposed domestic bliss—to run over a random jogger. “It’s the first one we’ve done together, isn’t it?” she excitedly exclaims. In Tina’s mind, the equation is simple: Chris murders people, so she murders people: it should bring the pair closer together. Yet, it doesn’t. Chris calls Tina a “witch” and argues that she does not murder correctly. Instead of bringing them closer, the murder of the jogger deepens their split.  

Chris eventually makes the mistake of befriending Martin, a fellow camper who pulls what he calls a “carapod” behind his bicycle. The idea immediately makes Chris smitten with Martin, as, within this solo bicyclist, Chris has stumbled upon his ideal: isolation. The carapod is a simply shelter, about the length of one’s body, and it is designed for traveling alone. Chris and Martin soon become fast friends, even discussing potential business prospects for the carapod, but Chris’s sudden interest in Martin is based rather on the rejection of domesticity: Chris no longer wants to play along with Tina’s version of the domestic ideal; instead Chris wants to be alone, isolated, and considering his general disdain for basic human interactions, it isn’t a bad idea. In a last-ditch attempt to bond with Chris, Tina clumsily tries to seduce Martin. When Chris returns, Tina tells him that Martin wanted to engage in various explicit sexual acts with her, including coprophagia. Unlike earlier, however, when Chris encouraged Tina to make up an attempted assault in order to kill a victim, Chris blithely responds that he has “no objection, in theory” to the comments. It is at this point that Tina realizes the domestic ideal no longer exists with Chris. When Martin excuses himself to go sleep in his carapod, Tina pushes him off a cliff to his death. They quickly argue over the murder, an argument which devolves into passion and then reconciliation. Unbeknownst to Chris, however, Tina has realized that Chris is not her companion, and her domestic ideal is non-existent. Indeed, Tina seems to realize that the domestic holds no value for her at all.

The two lovers decide to romantically kill themselves by jumping off a nearby bridge. Chris, however, misinterprets Tina’s desires, and a clue he misses is that Tina releases Banjo just before the climb onto the bridge. Thus, when Chris jumps, Tina simply lets go of his hand and watches him fall to his death. The final image of Sightseers is Tina standing on the bridge, looking down at Chris’s body, her hand slowly opening and closing. We can assume that Tina has metamorphosed, somewhat, into embracing Chris’s worldview: an emphasis on loneliness and misanthropy, and a complete rejection of the domestic.

Sightseers’s exploration of domesticity also dominates Prevenge (2016). In this film, Lowe plays Ruth, a pregnant woman (Lowe was seven months pregnant while filming); the burden of domesticity weighs heavily on her. Lowe not only starred and wrote Prevenge, but also directed the film. Much will be written, and rightfully so, on the nuanced portrait of the fear and isolation that pregnancy brings. The idea of “Lowe’s willingness to explore the darkest avenues of pre-partum blues,” is just one aspect of this film (Rooney).  However, when Prevenge placed in the context of Sightseers, it becomes apparent that Lowe mines additional thematic territory—that of domesticity. In Prevenge, Ruth, much like Tina, desires a domestic lifestyle, and the overwhelming crush to become domesticated through relationships, drives each woman to murder. The fetus, in other words, is just one aspect of a much larger critique.

Ruth’s partner, who remains nameless, dies before the start of the film in a climbing accident. When the viewer is first introduced to him, it is through an overly and stereotypically romantic action: Ruth clutching a photo of him while weeping. In Ruth’s mind, the lifestyle she had imagined for herself, very much the domestic roles of wife and mother, are torn away from her. This sudden shift in her perspective causes her to, at the supposed behest of her fetus, to kill those responsible for his death. Returning to Fraiman’s notions of domesticity, Ruth seeks “survival in the most basic sense” by embracing the “safety, sanity, and self-expression” within the domestic ideal (25). As the fantasy of the domestic has been torn from her, Ruth’s desire to remain safe and sane dwindles.

The first two victims in Prevenge are, at first glance, killed simply because they are lechers. Both of them make a number of overtly sexual advances toward Ruth, and the viewer is led to assume that Ruth murders them based on the “pre” part of Prevenge: she is stopping them from acting out on their lustful desires, with her or others, by murdering them. However, it is important to note, as this trend will become clear with the remaining victims, that Ruth is killing them not because they are rude or boors, but because they were on the climbing trip in which her fiancée fell to his death. It is heavily insinuated that her partner’s death was a life-saving decision made by the climbers, thus making them at least partially responsible for their deaths. Hence, the “revenge” part of Prevenge. Ruth is simply killing “people she believes have robber her and her unborn daughter of their happiness” (Rooney). In other words, her partner’s death destroys the perceived bliss of domesticity.

But focusing on just the first two victims oversimplifies the events of the film. Both men, Mr. Zabek, and especially the second victim, DJ Dan, openly deride ideas of settling down and raising a family. Mr. Zabek is an exotic pet store owner who makes repeated double entendre invitations to Ruth to do things such as touch his snakes. The opening sequence of the film, in which Zabek sleazily pursues Ruth around the pet shop, also include various close-ups of assorted exotic creatures, a montage that will reply again during the final scenes of the film, indicating Ruth’s eventual rejection of society in general.

DJ Dan, the second victim, recoils in physical horror upon discovering that Ruth is pregnant. After Ruth kills DJ Dan, she quietly ushers Dan’s senile and elderly mother, Michelle, back into her bedroom, tucking her into bed, and asking if she would like a cup of hot chocolate. In this regard, the viewer witnesses Ruth’s embrace of the domestic. DJ Dan, conversely, openly rejects the domestic ideal, remarking that he “fucking hate[s] kids,” because they’re “annoying” and “small.” The irony of DJ Dan’s death, then—Ruth castrates him and he bleeds to death—is thick. His desire to use his anatomy only to seek pleasure rather than procreation and the creation of a family unit results in a fitting punishment (at least to Ruth) followed by a quick demise.

It is Ruth’s third victim that demonstrates her desire not only for surface-level revenge, but also her dismay at the people who reject the domestic life she has imagined in her mind. Ruth goes for a job interview and meets Ella, who was also on the climbing trip. Ella is radically different in many ways from Mr. Zabek and DJ Dan—she is a poised and polished professional woman; however, her words belie that she has the same attitude toward domesticity as Ruth’s prior two victims. “It’s a tricky decision for the company,” she tells Ruth, “[y]ou’d b taking maternity leave as soon as you unpacked your stapler.” Ella provides unsolicited advice as well, telling Ruth to “Get it out of your system, the motherhood thing.” Ella’s comments indicates an outright contempt for domesticity, even going to far as to admit that she always works “late” and “alone” and has little else in her life. Interestingly, Lowe herself will discuss a similar experience in her essay: “I had some friends who said not to let producers know [that Lowe was pregnant] because they won’t hire you for fifteen years” (Lowe). Lowe’s real-world experience uncovers the tension in the opposing poles of domesticity: people are urged by culture and society to conform to certain domestic ideals, yet, for women, the enactment of those same ideals can often lead to estrangement from the very society that demanded the changes.

There is another female victim, an unnamed yoga instructor named, who also rejects domesticity. Ruth, masquerading as a children’s charity volunteer, enters the yoga instructor’s home under the guise of needing to urinate. Ruth briefly explores the home, and the viewer sees a portrait of a woman given over to the active, decidedly non-domestic lifestyle. The yoga instructor also runs, boxes, and climbs. She is the very idea of the weekend warrior. Once inside, Ruth pesters her about giving to the children’s charity, leading the yoga instructor to respond, “I couldn’t give a fuck about child charity.” In fact, as the two women comically spar, Ruth with her knife, and the yoga instructor in a boxing stance, they have a brief conversation about her fitness. Ruth maligns the woman’s all-consuming dedication to the fitness (and the outdoors); the yoga instructor replies that doing so “makes you stronger.” Ruth’s response is revealing: “Does it though? It’s just like following an instructor like a bunch of sheep. It’s kind of weak-minded. A lot of people searching for a purpose, I’ve already got one.” One could assume that Ruth’s purpose is to avenge her partner’s death, but her observation that the yoga instructor is mentally weak also reveals Ruth’s continual disdain for the domestic. In many ways, this exchange—which is promptly followed by the yoga instructor punching Ruth’s stomach, providing Ruth with the opening she needs to kill her—is the clearest statement of Ruth’s desires in Prevenge. The yoga instructor, like all of the other victims, go climbing, or engage in casual sex, or reject ideas of the domestic, because they have no “purpose,” which in Ruth’s mind, is to create (or imagine) the stability of the home.

Ruth eventually commits a murder that has nothing to do with her partner’s climbing trip.  Ruth, this time in the guise of a potential subletter, goes to the apartment of Josh and Zac. Zac is the one she needs to speak with—and murder—but he is late to the apartment. Instead, she meets his roommate, Josh, who is kind, gentle, and cares for her. He offers her a meal he is cooking, he asks after her fetus, and he genuinely sympathized with a story she concocts about her husband leaving her. Josh, in other words, is genuinely domestic, even remarking at one point that he “likes kids,”and is a vision of the idealized world that Ruth wishes to inhabit, but cannot. In an effort to feel domestic, Ruth even invites Josh to feel the baby kicking in her room, and he obliges. For just a moment, Ruth achieves a semblance of her ideal. Unfortunately, Ruth becomes enraged by the sight of Zac as he enters the apartment, and at the supposed behest of her fetus, beats Zac to death in front of a stunned Josh. As Josh is a witness to the murder, Ruth kills him, too, although this occurs offscreen. She later chastises her fetus, telling her that it was “completely unnecessary to kill that man.”

Another clue to Ruth’s mindset occurs in a moment where she (and her fetus) are watching the Claude Rains vehicle Crime Without Passion (1934). The film opens with an avant garde sequence featuring the Furies, the spirits of vengeance of old. As Ruth watches, the women on the screen, their billowing robes blown about, grimace and scream silently into the camera. The film—or at least that sequence—obviously strikes Ruth, and she stares at the film with some enchantment. Here, it seems, Ruth understands vengeance, but she is still quick to place her desires for vengeance on her fetus, who talks in a high-pitched singsong to her about the need for revenge. It is only at the end of the film, after Ruth has killed several people, that she understands that her desire for vengeance comes not from her fetus, but from her own mind and her own desires.

It should also be noted in both films that scenes integral to the domesticity of the woman—be it Tina or Ruth—occur outdoors.  People who are “outsiders to polite society” are often shown “literally out of doors,” where “domestic spaces and domestic labor” does not exist (Fraiman 25). Symbolically, then, Tina’s personality in Sightseers begins to undergo drastic changes when she is outside of confined spaces. Each of her murders occurs outside and away from Chris; her first murder of the soon-to-be bride occurs outside of a restaurant while Chris remains inside, her second murder of a jogger occurs when she is in a car and Chris is still in the caravan, and her third murder, of Martin, occurs while Chris is in the domestic space of the caravan, and Tina is outdoors. In fact, if Chris’s suicide can be considered a “murder,” or at least a betrayal, then this, too, occurs outdoors. The outdoors, which are free of the domestic space, indicates a freedom building in Tina; she is both an “outsider” from society, but is ultimately free of the burdens of domesticity.  In fact, before Ruth’s final murder attempt of Tom, the leader of the climbing trip, she dresses in a Halloween costume and, in a dreamlike sequence, watches the other revelers dance about and laugh in the street. This is the foreshadowing of Ruth’s ultimate rejection of the ideal of domesticity.

As Lowe writes, “[t]he visibility of pregnant women has to be a really good thing because it challenges the Victorian perception that you’re in your confinement.” Ruth’s appearances before and after her initial attempted murder of Tom takes place outdoors, showing her newfound lack of the “confinement” of domesticity. In almost every other sequence in the film prior to her murder attempt on Tim, Ruth is indoors: at the doctor’s office, in a home, in an office building, in a hotel room. The few times she is seen outdoors is when she stalks Tom on the street, when she walks to the Halloween party to kill Tom, and then finally when she confronts Tom at the cliffside area where her partner died. In those first two instances, however, she is unable to kill Tom, because, even though she is outdoors, she is unwilling or unable to shake the burden of domesticity.

In Prevenge, conversely, many of the murders take place indoors, in apartments, stores, or offices, the very bastions of domesticity. Ruth’s final murder, however, takes place outdoors, indicating her own freedom from domesticity; indeed, her partners’s death on a climbing trip indicates that he is seeking at least temporarily solace from his relationship with Ruth. Ironically, Tom’s confession that her partner had grown disillusioned with Ruth did not change his eventual (assumed) murder; instead it simply moved the context of the murder from revenge to simple vengeance. As the final seconds of the film unwinds, Ruth makes the same face as the Furies in Crime Without Passion, indicating her desire for vengeance. Earlier in the film, Ruth imagines her fetus saying, “I’m Fury. I’m in you,” but the Fury is actually Ruth herself, something she understands when her baby is born. She remarks, “She’s just normal,” while staring down at the infant. Thus, Tom’s death is not a vengeance based on the death of her fiancée, this is simply an attack that stems from Tom’s rather rude and blasé responses to her prior attempts to get close to him, or, even, perhaps, a punishment for his daring to puncture Ruth’s fantasy of the domestic. It is important to note that all of Ruth’s victims are essentially killed on her first try. Tom’s murder takes three different attempts: once while at the gym, once while on the street, and then once again at a Halloween party. At the gym, Tom refuses to teach her on the climbing wall because of her “condition.” At that point, regardless of his involvement in her partner’s death, Ruth has marked him for death. This final (presumed) murder, takes place, unlike every other murder, outdoors, away from Fraiman’s “domestic spaces and domestic labor” (25). That, in order to commit her final murder, she essentially abandons her newborn child in the hospital, much as Tina release Banjo in Sightseers, represents her final rejection of domesticity.  

In both Sightseers and Prevenge, Alice Lowe explores how the societal crush of domesticity influences her character’s interactions. Both Tina and Ruth first embrace and reject the burden of the domestic throughout the course of each film.  Symbolically, the characters’ movements indoors and outdoors, and how the reasoning Tina and Ruth’s murders subtly change over the course of the film, indicates Lowe’s continuing interest not only in issues of pregnancy and human relationships, but the very world of the domestic itself.  Only by rejecting the domestic can each woman fully gain autonomy; yet, in doing so, Tina and Ruth seem to embark on an ultimately destructive path at the end of their respective films.  Ultimately, Lowe leaves it to the viewer to interpret the tension in the opposing poles of domesticity, but without a doubt, the theme is one that is well explored in her work to date.

Works Cited

Fraiman, Susan. Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins. Columbia University Press:

New York, 2017.

Lowe, Alice. “Prevenge: Alice Lowe on Murder, Cardiff and Making a Human.” February 22,

  1. Raising Films. Retrieved from: https://www.raisingfilms.com/prevenge-alice-lowe-on-murder-cardiff-making-a-human/

Rooney, David. “Prevenge: Venice Review.”  The Hollywood Reporter. 9/1/2016.  Retrieved

from: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/alice-lowes-prevenge-venice-review-925227

 

About Jason Barr

Jason Barr is the author of The Kaiju Film: A Critical History of Cinema's Biggest Monsters and has a co-edited volume on kaiju and pop culture coming out soon.

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