Pearl may be a spin-off story to Ti West’s slasher homage X released earlier this year, but it stands on its own in every right. The setting turns back the clock from the golden era of pornography explored in X to the Golden Age of Hollywood and early cinema. Brimming with a rich understanding of the studio system era, as well as pre-sound silent films, color and character exude from every shot of the film. This is not to say that its intricate stylization eclipses its narrative substance; Pearl is intently committed to deepening the character behind the titular anti-heroine played by Mia Goth. The structure of the story places Goth as Pearl at the center in a demanding role which she kills (in more ways than one). Pearl was filmed immediately after X and produced by many people involved in the prior film including Sam Levinson, Kid Cudi, and Goth herself. This short list of personnel gives an accurate indication of the highly sensationalized aesthetic. In its silent-peepshow-meets-Brian De Palma style, Pearl defies any single genre classification. Buoyed by a powerhouse performance from Goth, the film is intimate and liberating in its exploration of how people outwardly present themselves versus their true desires.
Pearl lives on a Texas ranch as the sole daughter of her strict German immigrant mother and disabled veteran father. Set in 1918, their small town is affected by various global phenomena: the rampant Spanish flu and the moral weight of World War I bring stress and uncertainty to the community. Though Pearl is married, her husband Howard is away fighting overseas, and her mother rarely lets her out of the house on account of the virus. Therefore, Pearl is left alone to dream about becoming a movie star, and occasionally chat with her wealthy sister-in-law Mitsy. Pearl’s main joy comes in the afternoons when she escapes to the movies without her mother’s knowledge. Her main aspiration is to one day be a dancer on screen- a consuming obsession. As part of the zeitgeist of the era, Pearl gets swept up in the collective fascination with the fantastical novelty of film as a medium as she looks for ways to escape her dead-end life on the ranch.
Of course, like X, Pearl has been marketed as a horror film, though as a viewer one wouldn’t know it from its initial scenes. Opening with colorful, postcard-style text credits and a full orchestra score, Pearl feels like a gleefully morbid spoof on the styles of cheesy musicals like Oklahoma!. To interpret a recent quote from Harry Styles: “my favorite thing about the movie is that it feels like a real go-to-the-theater film movie;” as in, it captures the “feel” of a classic studio film while adding new darkness all its own. I should clarify, Pearl is not a musical but does have a beautiful full orchestral accompaniment composed by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams that plays through most of it. Like in a musical, however, Pearl speaks with an exaggerated accent and loves to dance. Unlike the line girls in the silent films she loves, she has no dance partners, and no one who believes in the stardom she sees in herself. In fact, Pearl is made to feel guilty for indulging in these fantasies by her mother, so she practices in isolation. Though a cliched sentiment, the theme that people behave differently based on those around them comes across sincerely through the visual motif of medical masks worn to prevent the spread of illness during the influenza epidemic.
In my opinion, one of the key markers of a great film is its ability to expound upon a seemingly obvious theme, providing insight into an innately familiar notion. Pearl succeeds in this regard as its focus revolves around the theme that if a person sets their expectations based on what is shown in movies, then reality will always be disappointing. Pearl fantasizes about film stardom during times of suffering and plans her future around these vain and wishful thoughts. It’s the same modernized American dream sold on shows like American Idol and previously explored in X with the porn industry. What begins as an idyllic and upbeat pastoral where Pearl and her mother seem to be making the most of what they have fractures as Pearl starts to compare their lives to the perfection of life in the movies. Pearl inhabits a world of appearances, guided by the impression that the grass is greener in Europe or on a film screen. With this subjectivity, Pearl offers a direct comparison of cinema and real life in showing routine, mundane, and unpleasant daily chores with the same glitz as any MGM musical. A particularly rousing, and lengthy, monologue delivered by Goth near the film’s end stands as the film’s thematic centerpiece. The sequence would fit seamlessly into one of those hackneyed “best acting ever” Youtube videos that highlight overplayed clips of Leonardo DiCaprio or Daniel Day-Lewis; the performance is simply that raw and ambitious.
All the while, Pearl is living in a movie, one that depicts her suffering with all the hollow gloss and schmaltz of classic Hollywood in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Like X, the same outmoded editing tricks like wipe transitions and irises lovingly mock onscreen suffering to pay homage to historical filmmaking styles. These tricks do not extend to the whole film; as Pearl’s life unravels in the final act, Ti West’s editing takes influence from Brian De Palma by incorporating some eye-catching split-screen and screen mirroring montages. Overall, I found Pearl to be a wonderfully fun film as it appeals to viewers looking for both cheap horror and serious drama. Due to its packaging as a trite classic Hollywood comedy, contrasted with its brutal human emotion, and similarly bloody nature to its predecessor X, Pearl is accessible from many angles. Beneath all its artificiality, the tragedy, loneliness, and isolation of Pearl are conveyed with precision by Mia Goth. Anyone who’s endured the past two years will relate.