There is a special kind of energy and power that comes with a film festival audience. We are the lucky few who get to watch a movie without any preconceived ideas – before the critics have touched it, before word of mouth has spread. It’s exciting knowing that our reactions, standing ovations or even silence, may be the precursor to how the rest of the world will see the movie. And so, one evening, in the middle of downtown Toronto, I got to be part of that experience.
All I knew about the psychological thriller Allure (originally entitled A Worthy Companion) was the premise that an older woman dives into a manipulative relationship with a 16-year-old-girl and the fact that it was chosen to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. As I sat in the middle of the theater, I noticed that seven rows in front of me and to the very right was Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen), the star of the film. I knew this was going to be an experience I would never forget.
Allure tells the story of the cycle of abuse and how it comes in many different forms. Exact patterns are not necessarily repeated but can be transformed in other ways, some more dangerous than others. From the beginning of the movie, it is clear that Laura, played by Wood, is unhappy. It’s hinted in conversations with her father, that she has obsessive behaviors and that her tortuous infatuations and relationships tend to destroy her.
Laura works for her father’s cleaning business and soon becomes friends with a 16-year-old girl, Eva, whose house she cleans. Laura becomes infatuated with the young teen and when tensions boil over between Eva and her mother, Laura suggests Eva secretly run away and come live with her.
And so it begins. Laura has found her next obsession and as an audience member, I felt as though I was drowning not only in Laura’s longing to be loved but in Eva’s longing to be found.
This is not a feel-good movie on any level. You will not walk away from Allure with a smile on your face. But it will leave a lasting impression. It addresses uncomfortable subject matter such as power and control, toxic relationships, trauma and the cycle of abuse. There are scenes where I literally had to bury my face in my hands so that I could escape from it for a just a moment.
For me what was most scary was that I could identify with some of the personality traits of Laura. I don’t mean wanting to kidnap and emotionally abuse a 16-year-old. No, no, no. I mean the notion of being infatuated with someone and mistaking it for love. Loving the wrong person is incredibly universal, and although not everyone will identify with Laura or Eva’s abusive codependence, we may be able to identify with their pain. I actually liked Laura as a character. I just think she is someone who has had a lot of baggage and thinks that this young girl will give her the love she desires. This longing to be loved turns unhealthy and toxic. Laura begins to emotionally and physically abuse Eva when she shows signs of wanting to go back home.
In the Q and A after the screening, first-time directors Carlos and Jason Sanchez revealed that they had originally written the lead character as a man. And when they decided to change the role to a woman, they rewrote the entire script.
As I was walking home I wondered if I would have felt empathy or forgiveness towards Laura, if she was a man? I don’t think I am the only one, but I have a preconceived idea of what a kidnapper is. The big bad wolf has always been a man to me. And I felt guilty when I realized that I could forgive Laura’s acts simply because she is a woman and I could identify with her emotions.
Culture, upbringing, friendships, and experience all contribute to how we form opinions. My life experiences contributed to this predisposition that an abuser is a man.
Evan Rachel Wood gave the performance of her career by playing Laura. Diving into the mind of an abuser must be incredibly toxic to someone’s body. Like, on a cellular level. She revealed in the Q and A that she collapsed on set at the end of filming. I can see why. The weight of portraying Laura physically and emotionally would have exhausted her. I think Wood's story is pretty telling of the type of actress she is. To shed one’s own skin and replace it with something dark and deeply uncomfortable is a great sacrifice for storytelling.
I will be haunted by this performance and this movie, forever.
A producer that I love and respect sat in front of me at the festival and I read her Twitter post about Allure afterward. In no uncertain terms, she said that although the film had good intentions and performances, the filmmakers missed the mark completely. I couldn’t believe that we had seen the same film. She felt that it was misrepresentative of people who are abused and was an inappropriate representation of queer women.
Although it was a rare story to tell, I felt it was realistic. I can understand infatuation, obsession, and loneliness. I think this is the core of what Allure is about. Women can be abusive, manipulative and hurtful because we are human. I thought that although this story was written and directed by men, they told a story that I related to as a woman. I am not sure if a woman would have written a story quite like this, but I am glad someone wrote it. It’s a story that needed to be told.