Down the Rabbit Hole: Sex and Grief on Screen

by Katie Barnett, University of Worcester, UK.

John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole (2010), an adaptation of David Lindsay Abaire’s 2006 stage play, deals with the aftermath of a family tragedy as Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) struggle to come to terms with the death of their four-year-old son Danny. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that Becca and Howie are dealing with their grief in very different ways. They circle around each other in their large, empty house. As Howie endlessly tries to remember Danny, watching old videos on his phone, Becca desperately tries to forget, stripping his drawings from the refrigerator. Their grief separates and isolates them. This emotional estrangement extends to a physical estrangement that makes Becca flinch whenever Howie touches her.

Howie, however, is keen to have another child, a desire that Becca does not share. Part way through the film, he attempts – ultimately unsuccessfully – to seduce his wife. His twin weapons of seduction are a shoulder massage and an Al Green record, both deployed in the couple’s lamp-lit living room. At first Becca appears responsive. Eyes closed, her expression is briefly one of pleasure as Howie kisses her neck – an image that was used on many of the film’s promotional posters – and yet within seconds she has, once again, moved out of Howie’s reach. It is a short scene and easy to overlook as just another indication of the couple’s disparate grieving processes. Yet it is a revealing glimpse at the way that sex, grief and guilt are often bound together in cinema’s explorations of parental bereavement. 

In the 1991 film Paradise (directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue), grieving parents Ben (Don Johnson) and Lily (Melanie Griffith) are similarly isolated from each other following the death of their young son. Lily rejects any physical contact from Ben, culminating in a scene in which Ben violently advances on her, tearing her nightdress, before Lily manages to push him away with a repeated cry of ‘I can’t! I said I can’t!’ More recently, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) presents a complex interweaving of sex and death. Here, a son dies while his parents (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) have sex; the mother’s grief subsequently manifests in a desire for violent and forceful sexual encounters and she is later driven to perform genital mutilation on herself. Although these films are markedly different, in all these examples bereaved parents struggle to reconcile any kind of fulfilling sexual relationship with the inescapable grief of having lost a child.

In Rabbit Hole, as in Paradise, it is revealing that ‘sex’ ultimately becomes shorthand for ‘future’, symbolic of forward movement and a restoration of reproductive possibility. It is difficult not to think of Lee Edelman’s work on reproductive futurism here, in which he identifies the persistent, almost invisible societal drive towards heterosexual reproduction above all else, including the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. [1] In these films, renewed intimacy between both couples (a kiss in Paradise; Becca reaching for Howie’s hand in Rabbit Hole) coincides with an acceptance of the possibility of a future in which they may become parents again. For Ben and Lily, their physical reconciliation occurs only after a series of events in which Ben saves Willard (Elijah Wood), another boy in his care, from a fatal fall. Both Lily and Ben realise the depth of their feeling for Willard, opening them up to the possibility of another child in their future. Becca and Howie, likewise, finally reconnect at a garden party surrounded by the children of their friends and family, a backdrop suggestive of a reproductive future into which they can now move.

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Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell 2010)

The reproductive imperative lurking in these representations of sex and intimacy is worth considering in relation to the scene mentioned above, in which Howie’s failed seduction sparks an angry exchange between the couple. As Becca puts physical distance between herself and Howie, he remarks, with some frustration, ‘it’s been eight months’. This is a reference to the eight months since Danny’s death, but it also refers to the amount of time since Becca and Howie last had sex. In the context of an earlier discussion about Howie’s desire to have another child, in which he suggested that the two of them needed to ‘get back on track’, the eight months seem significant as (almost) the length of a pregnancy. As such it serves as a tacit rebuke of Becca’s disinclination towards sexual intimacy. Not only does Becca refuse to make things ‘nice’ by responding to Howie’s advances, but while she remains uninterested in re-establishing a sexual relationship, there will always be the spectre of another potentially ‘lost’ child. In this case, it is not Danny but the future child that Howie so desperately wants. ‘We need to at least start heading in that direction’, he protests. This direction, it seems, is resolutely forwards. Grief has rooted them in the present and the present is no longer enough.

In this light, the depiction of sex between two grieving parents in Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg 1973) becomes an oddly radical move in its dislocation of time and its emphasis on intimacy and pleasure. A five minute sex scene between Donald Sutherland (as John Baxter) and Julie Christie (as Laura) attracted significant controversy on the film’s release and generated a persistent myth that Sutherland and Christie had actually had sex during filming. The scene earned the film an X rating from the BBFC in 1973; this became an 18 rating on the film’s video release in 1988 and was finally downgraded to a 15 in the 2000s. In this discussion, however, it stands out for another reason: for once, sex is not about the future but the present.

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Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg 1972)

The scene is disjointed both within itself – the intercutting of John and Laura having sex with them getting ready to go out – and within the continuity of the film. The narrative does not advance here but stops long enough to let us know that, despite their grief as parents, the Baxters are still a couple capable of humour, intimacy and desire. There is no suggestion that either John or Laura are keen to have another child (indeed, they have a son, Johnny, at boarding school in England), or that they have sex for any other reason than because they want to. Nor does it indicate a cessation of grief, or a move beyond it. It is simply a moment of respite. For once, sex does not have to stand for anything so weighty as forgiveness, punishment or future survival.

Note

[1] Lee Edelman. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Contributor

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Katie Barnett is a lecturer in Film Studies and Media and Culture at the University of Worcester, UK. Her research focuses broadly on representations of the family within Hollywood cinema, with particular interest in examining fatherhood and masculinity through the queer theoretical standpoint of reproductive futurism.

k.barnett@worc.ac.uk / @katiesmallg

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