With its lush, sumptuously sweeping score, saturated Technicolor photography and kitsch wipe edits, Ti West’s Pearl would be a dead ringer for a 1940s melodrama were it not for all the axe violence and hayfork skewering. A prequel to West’s previous picture, X, it was co-written with star Mia Goth during a Covid quarantine period. The result of this meeting of twisted minds is a gloriously demented homage to old Hollywood. West combines witty cine-literacy with a flair for explosive bursts of deranged bloodshed. Just call him Douglas Sirk-opath.
The year is 1918. The first world war rages and a flu pandemic is claiming casualties on the home front. But Pearl (a phenomenal Goth) has big dreams that extend far beyond her life of joyless drudgery on her parents’ farm in rural Texas. She wants to dance, and plans to hoof her way out of Texas and into adoration and movie stardom. When she learns of an audition at the local church, she realises that this is her chance to escape her overbearing mother once and for all.
The full-blooded, gleefully lurid tone of the film-making demands an oversized performance to match, and Goth is more than up to the job. She peels back the skin of the character and fills it with kittenish cruelty and the creeping rot of madness, all topped off with a monstrous, distorting need to be loved. Goth is riotously entertaining throughout, but two specific scenes, in both of which the camera rests solely on her face for an extended shot, capture the full force of her unnerving talent.
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