Teen Wolf Episode 7: The Dressmaker
Perhaps you are feeling confused because you thought episode 7 was called “Night School”. It is. But my mom stayed with us for an extra week after our family “Christmas,” and she had the flu, so as a special treat I asked her if she’d like to watch a movie instead of watching an episode of Teen Wolf. “Do you want to watch an Australian movie called The Dressmaker?” I asked her, “It looks pretty funny.” HA! I forgot that in the Australian film tradition, comedy only comes in one color, and that is a saturated true black. The good news is that if you are the rare Teen Wolf viewer who watches for gore and body count, I’m pretty sure The Dressmaker kills off more characters than Episode 5 this season when the entire guest list for Mason and Liam’s party was disappeared by the ghost riders.
This recap, as always, will be one long spoiler, so don’t read it if you want to believe you are in for a comic romp with a side order of sexy Liam Hemsworth when you begin watching The Dressmaker, and enjoy the sensation of having your expectations wrenched away from you with all the violence of, say, having both your Achilles' tendons slashed by your wife so that you fall to the floor and bleed to death. To be fair, the guy who ends up this way in the movie is a dick, but personally I did not enjoy the emotional rollercoaster. Also, as always, I will not be rewatching anything and will not be looking up anyone’s name, so the accuracy of these spoilers may vary.
The dressmaker herself--Tillie--is played by Kate Winslet. As a child in the 1930s (I guess?), Tillie was involved in an incident that left another child (Spencer) dead, and as a result she was sent away from her teeny tiny Australian home town to boarding school. She then “runs away to London,” falls in with a couture designer, and becomes an extremely talented--and FAST--sewer and designer. The film opens with Tillie’s return home to try to recover her memories of Spencer’s death, and determine whether or not she is, in fact, a murderer, and if, in fact, being a murderer is the reason she is “cursed”. The film never actually tells us what has happened to adult, European couturier Tillie to make her feel cursed, but it does open in 1951, which means presumably she spent the last decade, decade and a half, in “Paris, London, Milan”. You know. During the Second World War, and all. So you can imagine she might have seen some stuff? I mean, bad stuff was happening to everybody in Europe so that still doesn’t explain why she thinks she, personally, is cursed, but, okay, let’s go with it.
The first two thirds of the film feels like it might be the comedy I expected; there's lots of absurdity and an enormous cast of eccentric Australians. Tillie begins to try to figure out her past by bribing the townswomen with couture dresses that make them incredibly glamorous. Even though everyone hates Tillie for being a murderer and her mom for being a slut who had Tillie out of wedlock, they can’t resist the siren call of Tillie’s fabulous Parisian fashions--especially since the dresses appear to come with fancy make-up tutorials, hair smoothing potions, and magical spells to keep the visible rolling dust of the Australian landscape off their new silk frocks, even as they wear them to do the wash and work in the store and so on.
In this portion of the film, Liam Hemsworth puts the moves on Tillie, Tillie’s mom, Molly, tries and repeatedly succeeds at stealing Liam’s hip flask, and Tillie makes friends with the town policeman, who, it turns out, is a closet cross-dresser with a secret life-long yearning to be a high-fashion designer himself. I don’t remember his name, so I’m going to call him Officer Feathers, because he loves feathers, especially on hats. Can’t fault him for that! Liam, Tillie’s mom, and Officer Feathers are the only sympathetic characters in the whole film. I recommend you try very, very hard not to get attached to them.
No, wait, I take it back, there’s a chemist’s wife who was the target of the old man’s abuse until he became too crippled to smack her around, and . . . Marigold? Spencer’s mom/Evan what's-his-name’s wife. They don’t have a ton of screen time, but they are not horrible. Don’t get attached to them, either.
This portion of the film also has flashbacks as Tillie remembers the events leading up to Spencer’s death, which, you will not be surprised to learn, was not a murder at all. This act concludes with Tillie’s realization--with Liam Hemsworth’s help--that she did not murder Spencer, and that Spencer’s dad (slash-Marigold’s-husband) is her dad, too. She celebrates her liberation from the fear of possibly being a murderer with her acceptance of Liam’s proposal of marriage. The proposal takes place on top of a grain silo, and it filled me terror. Something about it was wrong. Liam proposes to jump into the silo to prove Tillie isn’t cursed. He’s already done this once in the film, with no trouble at all, but. It felt like a VERY BAD IDEA. This was the moment where I said to my mom “I am going to be very upset if Liam Hemsworth dies jumping into this silo.” Then Liam Hemsworth jumps into the silo and dies because the silo is full of sorghum, not wheat, and he drowns. Hilarious! Even more hilarious is his long-suffering mother asking Kate Winslet to help her wash and lay out his body, and his mentally disabled brother’s continuing narration of all the signs of his death without comprehending that it has actually taken place.
In the shorter second act of the film, Tillie’s mother has a stroke and dies, the chemist’s wife ODs on opiate-laced cakes supplied by Tillie’s mother, the chemist falls in a pond and drowns, Officer Feathers voluntarily takes the fall for the opiate-laced cakes when suspicion falls on Tillie (he confesses while dressed as a matador, which is pretty great) and is taken to jail, Marigold murders Evan What’s-his-name as described above by slashing the backs of his ankles with a kitchen knife and leaving him to bleed to death; she’s subsequently reported to have been taken to an insane asylum. Finally, Tillie dresses the entire town in silly costumes for a play and then burns the town down while they are away performing. In the closing scene, she rides out of town on a train, just as alone as she was at the beginning, but now . . . Less cursed? More cursed? It all happens very fast and, in fact, is not funny at all.
I did not want to watch a movie where all the people I liked died/were left shattered by the death of everyone they cared about, but don’t think that means I didn’t like the movie, because I did! It passes the Bechdel test in spades, and is, overall, an entirely woman-centered film. All of the male characters exist to serve the character arcs of the women around them. Liam Hemsworth basically gets fridged so that Tillie can turn from a path of forgiveness to a path of fiery demolition. Of course he gets a lot more screen time than most women who get fridged, but let’s be clear: he does not have a character arc. He is a plot device who exists to give Tillie feels. Tillie’s relationships with women, and women’s relationships with each other are at the center of the film throughout, and where men come into the picture, the focus is still on the women’s emotional experience. Evan is probably given the most time on screen of any male character other than Liam Hemsworth, but the film doesn’t care about his emotional needs or character growth at all. Marigold, on the other hand, has a well-developed arc, and, like Tillie, ultimately seeks control over her own destiny via destruction. Evan is the cause of Marigold’s suffering and the target of her vengeance; Marigold is the character the narrative cares about.
So: stories about women, and women relating to each other. I definitely liked that part. On the other hand, these are definitely stories about white women. Pretty sure there’s not a single non-white character in the entire film, and then at the end the neighboring town does a performance of the Mikado, so . . . I don’t know what to make of that. Nothing in the film itself seems critical of that choice, but it seems like in a film this glaringly white there ought to be some commentary on that? Anyway, points off for presenting a picture of 1950’s Australia as a 100% white population. I mean, I don’t know, maybe there really were tiny little towns that were 100% white? Not that that’s a good defense for that as an artistic choice.
There is one more thing that I liked about the film, which is that when Tillie’s world falls apart, she turns to sewing as a means to first interrogate her world, then remake it, and, finally, destroy it. We learn that her mother taught her to sew, and it is through correcting Tillie’s sewing that Molly first begins to reconnect with her and re-assume the role of mother. I asked my mom if she wanted to watch this movie because I thought it was a comedy, but also because it was called The Dressmaker. My mom taught me to sew, and she taught me to knit. She made my daughter a little backpack filled with felt animals for christmas, and I made her a shirt. She made two tablecloths for my kitchen table and while we watched The Dressmaker, I made my daughter a pair of socks. I don’t have time to sew, but since the events of November 11, I have found myself again and again turning to sewing as a way to bring order to the world, as a small, good thing I can control and finish and feel is not lost or wasted. It was a pleasure to see this traditionally feminine work centered in the film and treasured; for all its absurdities and its unexpectedly high body count, one thing that is consistently taken seriously is fabric and well-made clothing.
In conclusion, Stiles is still missing. But maybe he will be back next week! At this point you probably have a better idea than me. Next week I promise to catch up and recap the actual show I purport to recap in this series.