Director Spotlight: Jennifer Kent
Jennifer Kent’s journey towards becoming a director started with a career in acting. Kent appeared in Australian film and television, and had spent years teaching at major Australian acting schools prior to her directorial turn.
After seeing Dancer in the Dark for the first time, Kent made the immediate decision to write director Lars Von Trier asking to work with, and study under him. It is through this bold move that Kent, having grown tired of acting, was suddenly working on Dogville, Von Trier’s excellent melding of film and stage play starring Nicole Kidman.
Kent made her massive feature debut in 2014 with The Babadook, a brilliant deconstruction of grief and motherhood that has since become a modern horror classic. While there are elements in it that are similar to Von Trier’s work, Kent’s unique voice pierces through as a bold and idiosyncratic expression of its own.
Her upcoming film The Nightingale appears to be simultaneously more sophisticated and brutal, as it tackles the harrowing violence of sexual assault as well as the traumas of colonialism. The Nightingale premiers this summer making this a perfect time to look back at The Babadook, and look forward to the other projects that are in store for this visionary director.
(dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014)
The beginnings of The Babadook can be found in Jennifer Kent’s short film Monster. It’s a fascinating watch after you’ve seen the feature film, as it encapsulates the core ideas perfectly while also starkly highlighting Kent’s German expressionist influences.
Like last year’s Hereditary, The Babadook invokes its horror through a lens of grief, building the tension to almost unbearable extents before it cracks. What makes it stand out in such a pronounced way is its keen focus on grief and motherhood, and while it calls to mind films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, it is in some ways even darker, more incisive, and ominous.
The plot follows a widowed mother struggling to raise her son while coping with the trauma of her husband’s death. A creeping dread slowly winds its way into their world through the appearance of a children’s book about a monster called the Babadook. Before long, the Babadook makes his presence felt through every inch of the house.
Like the very best of horror, the film uses its limited budget to its advantage, keeping things simple with a small cast and clever practical effects. Essie Davis’s performance as the mother is absolutely heart-rending, and one can’t help but feel that it in some way inspired Toni Collette‘s phenomenal turn in Hereditary a few years later.
Helmed by this gripping performance, The Babadook stands out not only as an emotionally profound exploration but is also one of the scariest films of the last decade. This is the type of horror that quietly catches in your throat and doesn’t let go until the film is over.
Since its release, the Babadook has been the subject of a now classic tweet, and through a Netflix glitch, has even become a queer icon. Even this type of ironic idolization speaks volumes about the immediate visceral impact of the film and the effectiveness of Kent’s sophisticated metaphor for trauma and grief.
(dir. Jennifer Kent, 2019)
The Nightingale stirred controversy when it screened at Sundance earlier this year. Critics have described it as an intense and violent film, and judging from the extreme reactions it elicits, probably closer to Von Trier than The Babadook was.
The story is set in 1820’s Tasmania with the plot revolving around a young Irish convict, played by Game of Thrones’ Aisling Franciosi, hunting down an officer for revenge with the help of an Aboriginal guide. In interviews, Kent describes wanting to explore the possibility love and perseverance and within the bleakest of circumstances.
Although certain critics have contextualized this film within the ‘rape-revenge’ genre, Kent speaks at length her distaste for this classification. She talks about how historically these films have been directed by men and often portray the sexual assault through a male-gaze, while the subsequent violence of the revenge ties a neat and conclusive bow on the entire experience.
Instead, much like The Babadook, Kent once again seeks to explore the ways in which trauma is internalized and endures. Additionally, the trauma here is further contextualized within the broader structures and violence of colonialism, allowing a much deeper discussion to take place.
Release Date: August 2nd, 2019
Additional Materials: Read a fascinating interview with Kent about her approach to including Aboriginal language in the film.
Jennifer Kent’s next film will be an adaptation of Alexis Coe’s non-fiction book Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis. Set in 1892, this is the tragic account of two young lesbian lovers who after having their love letters discovered were forced apart. The split was followed by a grisly murder that captivated the nation.
Kent is also currently working on a TV series based on the works of American sci-fi author James Triptree Jr. whose work was noted for its sensitivity and approach to gender. Triptree became popular for his stories and often corresponded by mail with his contemporaries such as Phillip K. Dick and Ursula Leguin.
All the while it was unknown to everyone that Triptree was actually a pen name for author Alice B. Sheldon, a woman who found a new freedom of expression under the male pseudonym. The TV series will be a blend of Sheldon’s own fascinating biography and her fantastical stories.
Finally, Kent has also hinted at an exciting new horror project in the works that is a collaboration with none other than Guillermo del Toro whose work in dark fantasies like Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth seems like a perfect match for Kent’s sensibilities.
UPDATE 3/29: Guillermo del Toro has confirmed to Bloody Disgusting that Kent will be writing and directing one of the episodes of 10 After Midnight, the Horror Anthology series he is developing for Netflix.
Additional Materials: Check out this NPR interview with biographer Julie Phillips on the fascinating life of sci-fi author Alice B. Sheldon.
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