Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry, Darling” is – on its pristine, obsessively polished surface – a film about the danger of dreams. But the film is also a sort of mirror image of itself. If you look closely, it is reversed, leaning on its own imagination and only reluctantly, and belatedly, returning to the bland demands of commercial reality.
Even if you’ve kind of avoided any publicity for the film, the pop culture cues should already be clear.
The film opens, with little effort to orient you, in the small desert town of Victory, California in the Hollywoodized 1950s. Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) is a devoted housewife; her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), works at the “Victory Project”, along with all the other men in the neighborhood under the direction of Frank (Chris Pine). Life for the Chambers seems idyllic; they have all the material luxuries they could want, lots of friendly neighbors and a passionate romance. But Alice begins to have strange visions and flashbacks. And when she begins to ask questions about what Project Victory really is, her comforting, perfect world begins to fall apart.
Even if you’ve kind of avoided any publicity for the film, the pop culture cues should already be clear. Screenwriter Katie Silberman riffs on “The Stepford Wives” and a cornucopia of Philip K. Dick adaptations and ripoffs, from “Total Recall” to “The Truman Show” to “WandaVision”. Victory, the city, is a reactionary fantasy of female domesticity and male careerism. Frank constantly tells his underlings that their work will “change the world”, and wives are urged to support their husbands without question in pursuit of this nebulous but admirable goal. Alice slowly realizes that her happiness and relationship are pitfalls as the town begins to grow strange tumors of unreality. The third act is a rush to escape; Alice finally gets rid of fantasy to grab hold of empowerment and her true self.
It’s a fairly familiar tale, and critics weren’t particularly impressed. The film has a 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of publication. But the film is only indirectly interested in its cliché narrative. The breakthrough to reality and self-realization are superficial and inserted into the last half hour of the film more like an obligation than a consummation. It’s a Hollywood film with famous actors; there must be a plot and a resolution. It can’t be “Eraserhead”.
But sure Wilde would rather do “Eraserhead” – if you could drape “Eraserhead” in fabulous dresses and impeccable retro decor. A suspense thriller is meant to create suspense by carefully increasing detail and revelation. But rather deliciously, that’s not how “Don’t Worry, Darling” works. Instead, things happen almost immediately, and the narrative revolves around evil without ever going anywhere, like the film’s dream sequences of cabaret dancers arranged in a circle raising their legs before dissolving into the picture. with a dilated eye.
Rather than a Hollywood plot, it feels more like an elegantly claustrophobic art film, suspended in its own obsessions.
Evil is uncomfortable and frightening; Alice has visions of violence and gets lost in her own head as Jack suggests she’s crazy. As in a nightmare, she finds herself always drawn to the same paranoid scenarios. She’s at a party where everyone is having a good time, but she’s getting more and more anxious. She begs Jack to leave, but he pushes her away or doesn’t listen. Rather than a Hollywood plot, it feels more like an elegantly claustrophobic art film, suspended in its own obsessions – or one of Douglas Sirk’s pictures of women, sinking into ruffled, enveloping domesticity.
This rather obvious aura of dread makes the film feel more like a horror movie than a thriller. But as with many horror movies, the uncanny isn’t just a scare; it is an aesthetic pleasure. Wilde’s shots are remarkably framed. The 50s soundtrack is curated with care and love. Sirkian clothes and saturated colors are practically dripping with sensuality. The already infamous sex scenes focus almost entirely on female pleasure. In one, Alice lies on a table laden with food, knocking one item after another to the floor until the table is clean and symmetrical under her ruffled dress. Erotic fulfillment and aesthetic clarity are one.
There have been a lot of rumors about tension between Wilde and Florence Pugh on set. If there was, it doesn’t seem to have affected performance. Pugh conveys blissful serenity and anguished confusion with equal conviction; his skill justifies Wilde’s poetic anti-narrative, and vice versa. Harry Styles (as an actor, at least) is a pretty badass. Pugh outclasses him so completely and effectively that it’s hard to even watch him when they’re on screen together. But that’s definitely the point. The love story between Jack and Alice fades into irrelevance as the director and chef spin and float together in a sunny skull-built suburb.
The strength of the film is to explore this skull, not to escape it. It’s a film that I think will endure repeated viewings, but even on my first read, there’s a wealth of wonderful detail. I think my favorite is a scene where Alice is in the tub after a mental health crisis, and Jack tells her he wants to think about having kids. She is dazed almost to paralysis. When he leaves, she looks at herself in the mirror, then immerses herself. But her reflection lingers for a split second after she’s underwater, a version of herself she can’t leave behind – or won’t let go.
Compared to this virtuoso play with image, self and meaning, the scenes that tell us what is “really” going on are mundane and dull, lacking the glamor and subtlety that make much of the film so fun to watch. to look at. It’s the fake world that most intensely embraces the film’s potential. The real world looks like a ghostly, desaturated reflection.
You could say that Wilde shows the seductiveness of the middle-upper-middle class of the 1950s, with each gender in its place and a house full of deviled eggs and other appetizing material things. But the director also seems to be in love with creativity, building textures, characters, and dreams for themselves. “Don’t Worry, Darling” is a movie that flippantly warns you to be careful of illusions even as it revels in a movie’s power to create a world deliberately detached from reality. A film that feigns toward an explanation of women’s reality in order to embrace women’s imaginations may be too idiosyncratic for short-term critical or commercial success. But I think it will eventually find its audience.