Girls Disappear All The Time
October 19, 2023
Girls Disappear All The Time Annette LePique 19 October 2023 Before I begin, I feel compelled to mention that I love Jennifer Reeder’s films. I love her toilets filled with blood, her dream logic, and the way her actresses’ snap their teeth like David Lynch’s primordial female nightmares. Yet . . . Something is off in Reeder’s 2023, Perpetrator. Filmed in Chicago over a COVID-19 winter, Perpetrator is the story of Jonquil, Jonny for short, a young woman caught within the ambiguous space between the gift and curse of a familial lineage. Jonny, as she learns from her aunt Hildie is one in a line of women struck by the power of radical, transformative empathy. Jonny can be anyone. She can feel what they feel and inhabit their very skin; the features of her face shifting to accommodate a stranger’s angles and peaks. Such change is always accompanied by a nosebleed or some sort of bloodying. It is this blood that transports Jonny to an immersive womb-like environment. In this vast red space Jonny is transformed into something both more and less than her person: she’s indestructible, invincible, eternal. This mysterious change rouses Jonny to action when confronted by the disappearance of multiple girls from her school. This power to walk in the shoes of another, to live as another, to be in the world as another; to feel their pain, their pleasure, their desire, is called “forevering.” When Hildie attempts to articulate the intensity, the incoherence, the beyondness of forevering the camera pans over framed black and white photographs of her in various eras of dress, a signal towards the power as a stand in for the feminine’s access to jouissance. Hildie is mythic, more an archetype than a person, and even her language begins to break down when confronted by the too-muchness of forevering. It’s a funny not so coincidence that the power of forevering shares a root word with philosopher Grafton Tanner’s coming work on the power of nostalgia, Foreverism. While Tanner’s work, including his 2021 The Hours Have Lost Their Clocks , deals with modern culture’s anxiety about nostalgia in an age of material insecurity and widespread precarity, Reeder’s forevering knows exactly where it came from and desperately wants to return to its origins. For Reeder, these origins are the fantasy of the archaic mother: that all-consuming, omni-present, repressed feminine force that both haunts and threatens our perception. However Reeder’s maternal is formed by and through the violences of capitalism; it’s a fearsome phantom of bloody castration who does not tolerate the frictions of difference. The film opens with the teen Jonny breaking and entering homes in order to obtain rent money. Her mother is seemingly absent. Yet, it is soon revealed that Jonny’s mother shares the power of forevering and has been hiding out in her life as her father; a distant and erratic man who seems to do little caretaking and instead relies upon Jonny for survival. The structures Jonny’s mother created as her defacto father are completely ineffective. Jonny is forced to steal and (it’s strongly implied) unenthusiastically engage in survival sex in order to secure their housing and other needs. While Jonny’s material conditions serve a narrative purpose of getting her in contact with aunt Hildie, they also present her mother in contradictory and violent terms. As a father and a mother she is rendered bizarrely impotent within Reeder’s phallic order, she can neither care for Jonny nor fully inhabit her forevering. Though Reeder explains her decision away as a consequence of social misogynoir, I think it more likely stems from a flimsy narrative borne of the ultimate neolib girl-power catch phrase: “the future is female”. Jonny’s mother and her aunt Hildie are props, constellations for Jonny to reference in her journey in becoming the fantasy of the archaic mother. She after all is the only one who has a semblance of control over the bloody womb’s domain and has mothered herself for the entirety of her young life. It’s through Jonny’s full embrace of “forevering”, the power’s blood, fangs, and viscera, that she is able to find the titular perpetrator, penetrate and devour him, and solve the mystery of the missing girls. Jonny’s journey to embodying the fantasies of the phallic and devouring mothers culminates in a multi-ethnic and gender fluid coalition of young women celebrating a birthday together in a mansion with a cake dappled with red and Jonny’s fangs fully extended. It’s an ending played as a paradise, Jonny is happy and safe no longer unparented and unhoused, but its a paradise built upon murder and one Jonny is called upon to protect again and again through brutality. While this violence is levied against deserving parties (crooked cops and serial killers) it’s also accompanied by a physical toll on Jonny’s wellbeing. But each time Jonny is scared and in pain, it’s only temporary. Jonny’s very real problems, her precarious access to food, shelter, and care, magically disappear once she has access to her forevering, that eternally fickle and inhuman feminine. Though the archetype of the archaic mother runs throughout Freudian thought, Julia Kristeva and Bracha Ettinger both take up analysis of the force with differing results. While Ettinger proposes a matrixial gaze built upon the of the witness as an explicitly sexed alternative to Lacan’s fractured gaze, Kristeva argues that this same porousness between the subject and the maternal inevitably leads to regression and psychic disintegration. Though Ettinger’s matrixial originates from her desire to propose an ethics of care, its care that more often than not is denied under capitalism’s strictures. You cannot serve as a witness if you cannot recognize and articulate the other’s shared humanity by way of your shared material conditions. That misrecognition lies at the heart of Reeder’s archaic mother. Jonny’s girl power is something that comes at the expense of her very humanity. Perpetrator’s depiction of feminine power also comes at the expense of the actors supposedly aligned with the phallic order. Reeder has faced criticism regarding her despicable male characters, yet often lumped in this category (or forgotten) is the sensitive teen lothario who tries to help Jonny. The final scene of the film’s only teen boy features him crying on an auditorium stage, despairing over the fate of the missing girls. His tears are played for laughs but who are we to say whose despair has meaning? This is what happens when myth, the unspeakable, is uncritically embraced within capitalism. Harms are simply repackaged and sold with sparkling, blood red branding, and a model who looks a bit like you is left holding the bag.