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Breaking Dawn: Come for the rough vampire sex, stay for the gory childbirth

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There's a telling moment in Bill Condon's breakthrough film Gods and Monsters when Ian McKellen (as the great director James Whale) conveys the essence of camp to confused and hunky gardener Brendan Fraser. If people find the batshit insanity of his Bride of Frankenstein amusing, Whale says, that's OK — so does he. It's a deft acknowledgement of how a work of art can provoke disparate but equally spirited responses from audiences, and it certainly sets up what Condon's doing in Breaking Dawn – Part I — the fourth film in the Twilight series, and the most flabbergasting experience I've had at a movie theater in quite some time.

When last we left the picturesque Pacific Northwest town/supernatural DMZ of Forks, Wash., Bella (Kristen Stewart, who spends all but the first third of the film looking emaciated and meth-y) and Edward (Robert Pattinson, who's in an upcoming David Cronenberg film and thus eager to bring his A game) had just gotten engaged. She wanted to express her love physically, you see, and he was too much of a gentleman to do so out of wedlock.

So as Breaking Dawn opens, pretty much everyone from the previous films who hasn't been brutally killed shows up in formal wear for a lavish wedding that many will try to recreate over the next five or six years. (Notably missing are Dakota Fanning and her icy glower from the Thin White Duke-era David Bowie collection, as well as the rest of the ruling Volturi vampire council, who save their seething for a brief scene tucked away in the end credits.) The night before the nuptials, Edward comes to Bella with a confession: Yes, he has snacked on some humans — but it was back in the 1930s, and only on murderers and molesters (the equivalent of breaking your diet with Wheat Thins).

Yet this does not faze our heroine in the slightest — an indication that moral ambiguity isn't going to be this movie's strong suit. This character is basically willing to abandon her entire family and life to spend eternity (without sleep or food) with a sparkly pretty boy she's known for just a few years. So it is fair to say when she sets her mind to something, the coffin's closed.

But once the movie packs them off to their Brazilian honeymoon paradise, things get interesting. All social obligations having been fulfilled, it's time for what everyone who has read these books or watched these films has been waiting for — rough vampire sex. We know it's rough because Bella ends up with bruises the next day (along with a broken bedframe, shredded pillows, and what looks like the remnants of a WWII hillside skirmish all around).

This, of course, makes Edward ashamed, so he decides to withhold sex to make his new marriage work. Bella is having none of this: “I can't see — for a human — how it could be any better," she says, begging for some action. Evidently their bout of interspecies sex was so eye-scorchingly intense that it wilted the collars of the MPAA, who slapped the film with an R rating until a re-edit made it safe for the Hot Topic set. Still, even in PG-13 form, it's refreshing to see characters in these films express themselves physically in a way that doesn't involve changing shape, moping into space, or tearing off someone's head.

But I digress. As is so often the case, Bella ends up pregnant with a half-vampire child — a remarkably strong fetus that seems intent on draining Mama Bella's nutrients and crushing her ribs from the inside out. Her in-laws are at odds with one another, as some say the fetus should be removed (that's their specific terminology), while others argue a baby is a baby even when it's tearing its mother apart from the inside. (A half-vampire kickpuncher fetus may not be the ideal foundation for a reasoned debate about abortion, but it's as close as you can expect from mainstream American movies.) Bella, meanwhile, wants to birth the baby, and Jacob (Taylor Lautner), her werewolf confidant/designated swooner, can't believe that she keeps making such self-destructive choices — even though he's been in all the other movies, so he should know better.

Once word of this monstrous pregnancy gets out, civil war threatens to erupt among the Quileute werewolves, pushed to the brink of intertribal warfare because of their conflicted feelings about Bella. Then comes a big protracted scene where the computer-generated werewolves have a kind of town-hall meeting full of drool and angry voiceover — and at that point a snootful of wolfsbane couldn't stave off the movie's lunacy a second longer. Mad laughter is pretty much the only sane response to the all-consuming ridiculousness of this florid saga.

But as he expressed in Gods and Monsters, director Condon understands that the risk of looking foolish can be its own reward. With a story this outre, brazen craziness is preferable to the bland competence that has characterized the series since Catherine Hardwick's underrated original, which embraced its teen-outsider fantasy from a decidedly empathetic feminine POV.

So yeah, while the werewolf/vampire skirmishing remains perfunctory at best, Condon's interest lies more in the taboo-busting outer fringes of Stephenie Meyer's source material — especially Bella's impending motherhood. Always a fertile (sorry) source for queasy shocks, from Rosemary's Baby through It's Alive to the lunch-loosing French import Inside, pregnancy here carries body horror into disgusting new realms, culminating in the film's already infamous birthing sequence. Even if it restricts the action to Bella's somewhat morphined point of view (damn that PG-13), the breaking bones, torrents of gore and intimations of what sounds like (ulp) a non-consensual episiotomy ground this oddly squeamish series for once in the icky particulars of the flesh. Oh, and everyone attending the birth is a vampire who hasn't been able to feed for days. Hold the cigars.

Nevertheless, the movie has one indisputable problem that can't be laid at Condon's feet: Breaking Dawn shouldn't have been two movies. There are two really important scenes herein — the honeymoon night and the birthing, both of which got derailed by the MPAA and actually leave me intrigued as to an unrated director's cut — but everything else is mostly treading water. More plot happens in the mid-credits Volturi scene than in two-thirds of the rest of the film, and it's missing anything as essential as the character moments that justified Harry Potter 7A. All we learn about Bella in this film is that she is an enabler of the highest degree. Billy Burke continues to be series MVP as one of the best father figures in movies today, and Condon knows how to compose a scene beautifully. But for those who aren't completely involved in the Twilight series already, Breaking Dawn — Part I may be a long night indeed.

That said, I saw something in this film that I have never seen in anything before. I saw a grown man fall in love with a baby and have a psychotropic experience because of it ... You know what, I was wrong. There are three really important scenes in this film.

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