Published Jan 23, 2020In one of the most tender scenes in new horror film The Turning, Mackenzie Davis's character Kate teaches Brooklynn Prince's Flora how to put on a "brave face." As director Floria Sigismondi tells Exclaim!, the scene was inspired by David Bowie.
The story, as Sigismondi recalls, occurred when Bowie went to talk to some schoolchildren and noticed a boy who was very shy and withdrawn, she says. Bowie went to the child, put on a metaphorical "brave face: and also gave the boy one. "[Bowie] gave [the kid] sort of this armour to go and face the world with," Sigismondi says. "I thought that was such a beautiful story [about] giving someone strength through this very imaginative and visible way."
The Turning, adapted from Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, is about an aspiring teacher who secures a job as a live-in tutor for Flora in a big, old house. Kate wants Flora to be brave, in the way she herself learned from her mother, so she teaches Flora how to put on her "brave face," an invisible mask worn against the world. The two girls roar mightily after they've put their faces on. It's touching, not just because of how sweet the scene is, but because it's a gentle moment of solidarity — something shared just between the two girls under bright sunlight, away from the overbearing house, and out of view of the film's terrifying male characters.
Sigismondi's adaptation of James' story brings her own experience to it, adding a relevant texture that makes it more interesting. "I really wanted to make it female-centric," Sigismondi says. "[Some] elements I took from the book and kind of dove in there and then made it our own."
The "brave face" scene is important, because most other times, Kate is being terrorized by the ghost of deceased riding instructor Quint, or by the loud and rambunctious presence of Flora's brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard), who has no respect for Kate, because he's learned no other way to be toward women. Quint, played terrifyingly by Niall Greig Fulton, is a scoundrel who terrorized and raped Flora's previous tutor, Miss Jessel.
"Those kinds of [rape scenes] are very hard for me to watch in films," Sigismondi admits, "and I normally want to tune out." While she did include such a scene in her film, Sigismondi made sure to do it in a responsible way. "You know, as a woman directing that scene, watching a fellow female actor going through that scene and she has to access these places that are quite dark and disturbing, we really have to be there for each other and create a super safe environment."
This scene in The Turning is shown by not really being shown. It's represented through Quint's ghost, disarticulated hands and his voice. It is horrifying and brutal, but it's not gratuitous, lasting only long enough to show "toxic masculinity at its worst," Sigismondi says.
Another scene, where during a game of "flashlight tag," Kate is terrorized by Miles and/or Quint's flashlight, is similarly brutal and thematically on point. "You're in a parking lot and there's nobody around and it's night-time, [and] someone does follow you and what do you do?" Sigismondi says. "Every woman has felt that experience." The flashlight tag scene is the most menacing iteration of the male gaze, showing us how violent it can be. Sigismondi says she wanted to articulate how being tormented by a presence like Quint's, or by a young boy who's learning toxic masculinity, "can drive you mad."
"Quint, to me, is that sort of passed-down abusive masculinity that is learned," she says. It's generational abuse that Miles is in the process of taking on. "Miles [is] at that choice: what kind of man am I going to be?"
While Sigismondi's film raises the question of whether and how toxicity can drive one to madness, it doesn't provide a direct answer. Kate comes into the kids' home psychologically loaded: "Even though she comes in very confident, fresh, there are little hints, you know, from her mother and her roommate," Sigismondi says. "Are these her experiences she's bringing to the table, or experiences [that] really happened in the house?
"The kids, they're taunting her, do they drive her mad or is it the Pandora's box within her that gets opened?"
James' novella has historically divided scholars and readers alike with its ambiguity and refusal to be pinned down by a "correct" interpretation. What Sigismondi shows us is that it doesn't matter whether we get a right one, what matters is that we get meaning for ourselves.
"I want to leave it up to interpretation," Sigismondi says.