“Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Pauline Kael
A kind of Bride of Frankenstein for the Young Adult crowd, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 is glorious trash that fully embraces the sheer silliness of its source material and very nearly transcends it, transforming it into a dense, thematically rich artistic vision that isn’t, shockingly, that far removed from a Tree of Life or Melancholia.
Yeah, that’s right: I’m as surprised as you. I haven’t read the novels by Stephenie Meyer, nor was I much of a fan of the first three films: Twilight was the best, but the brooding atmosphere that director Catharine Hardwicke created was generally odds with puerile script; New Moon stunk and Eclipse was acceptable, but both films were tonally and stylistically lost – unsure of how, exactly, to approach the material, their respective directors took the easy way out.
That’s not a problem here. Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters) goes all in and plays it to the hilt: he knows exactly what he’s dealing with and fully embraces the outré nonsense of it all, delivering a wonderfully subversive piece of pop culture entertainment that is easily the best film in the Twilight series.
And it works, somehow, despite the near-total lack of anything resembling a narrative. Or much of anything, really, happening at all. Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) get married. They have sex. Bella gets pregnant. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) looks on from the sidelines. That’s it, folks.
But the Twilight films have always been about what’s bubbling under the surface: the romance, yes, but more importantly, the young woman’s fear of losing her virginity, of becoming a woman (or, a vampire). Edward, the vampire, must fight his animalistic urges, his lust for blood, whenever intimate with human Bella. Here, he leaves the bed destroyed and Bella covered in bruises on their wedding night.
Breaking Dawn takes this one step further with Bella’s pregnancy: the unnatural human-vampire hybrid growing within her belly. Now, the series takes on abortion and impending motherhood: the young women’s fear of the new life growing inside her, and the man’s overwhelming sense of guilt about what he has done to her.
It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer. But it’s also rich and vibrant and full of subtext and symbolism. Nary a drop of blood is spilt in battle (save for a flashback sequence), but blood – or the absence of blood – plays a large and memorable role.
With the lack of story here, music plays a large role, with many sequences becoming music video-like montages. That’s not a bad thing: Breaking Dawn’s extremely well-chosen soundtrack is the first from the Twilight series to really grab my attention, with familiar tunes from Christina Perri (A Thousand Years), Bruno Mars (It Will Rain), and – even better – some newer tracks from Sleeping At Last (Turning Page), The Belle Brigade (I Didn’t Mean It), Imperial Mammoth (Requiem On Water), Aqualung & Lucy Schwartz (Cold), and others.
Not to be outdone, Carter Burwell’s original score also shines. It’s loose and inconsistent – and some of it, particularly during the opening wedding scenes, doesn’t seem to fit just right – but frequently hits just the right ominous notes.
It’s not all perfect. Despite a budget of nearly $100 million more than the first Twilight film, the effects work leaves a lot to be desired. The wolves still look awful; thankfully, most of their scenes take place during night, the shoddy CGI obscured as much as possible. Still, there’s a ridiculous daytime scene with the wolves talking to each other through some kind of telepathic voiceover.
There are also some unanswered questions (some of which may be explained in Part 2, some of which may have been answered in the previous films, and all of which I’m more than content to leave unanswered): how does the human/vampire pregnancy work? Really, this has never happened before? What is the threat posed by the pregnancy to the wolf pack and the Volturi, and how do they know about it?
I don’t expect mainstream audiences to respond well to this film, or understand what Condon has accomplished. It’s not going to win any converts to the series, and the pacing is really going to turn some off; Twilight fans might appreciate it best, given the over-indulgence in the source material, but even their patience may wear thin.
For me, however, Breaking Dawn is a perfect slice of pop entertainment: trashy, pulpy, campy, supremely silly stuff made with a wink by a very knowing filmmaker. Condon, an openly gay director who rose to prominence with Gods and Monsters, a film about one of the first openly gay directors (James Whale, whose Bride of Frankenstein features in an early flashback scene), was the perfect choice for this material, and he’s succeeded where others have failed.
Like the Harry Potter finale, Breaking Dawn has been split into two parts, with Part 2 coming next fall. Unlike Deathly Hallows – Part 1, Breaking Dawn has been split more naturally; what little story is present here ends with appropriate closure while setting up the final entry in the series.
Note: be sure to stick around during credits for an additional scene featuring the Volturi, headed by a wild-eyed Michael Sheen as Aro. Their complete absence from the rest of the film was an entirely welcome development, but the loony comic tone with which Condon handles their one scene here promises (potentially) good things for Part 2.