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The Guilt-Inducing Ghost Wife Haunts the Movies

The Guilt-Inducing Ghost Wife Haunts the Movies (photo)

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The AV Club‘s Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe characters like the one played by Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown,” ebullient, impulsive types who’ve apparently waited all their lives to meet and instantly imprint on subdued male protagonists.

I’d propose there’s a counterpart to the MPDG, though I don’t have nearly as catchy a name. That would be the guilt-inducing ghost wife, filmed in ethereal late afternoon light, fragile, frequently desexualized, a specter of memory and failure haunting our tortured, widowed heroes — why couldn’t I save her — in visions, flashbacks or more fantastical set-ups.

Idealized and resented, ghost wives are both saint and tormentor, instrumental to the plot, spurring our mourning hero on to seek revenge, redemption or resolution. Like the MPDG, there’s a distinct subjective quality to their characterization — they’re along for the ride, but they don’t get to tell the story. Unlike the MPDG, being dead, the best they can hope for is to be banished or joined in the afterlife.

Here are six examples from the last decade. Spoilers follow for “Inception,” “Shutter Island” and other films on this list.

07202010_inception_mal.jpg“Inception” (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan

To call Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, the main antagonist in “Inception” is skirt the fact that she only exists in the mind of Leonardo DiCaprio’s master dream thief Cobb, who is actually his own worse enemy. Cobb’s tormented by the loss of his wife, whose death he believes he’s responsible for, though at first we don’t understand why. And so his guilt congeals in the form of a ghost in the machine, with Mal bursting into Cobb’s carefully planned extractions to gum up the works.

The press notes describe the evening dress-clad Mal as a femme fatale (her name even means “bad” in French), but that implies she has agency and an agenda of her own, instead of being an acknowledged pale shadow of someone long gone, an especially fleshed-out projection. Even as an apparition, she’s only half adversary — the other side manifests as a prisoner of Cobb’s regrets, trapped in the basement of his subconscious, where he can visit and brood until forced to choose between her (and death) and moving on (and life, or at least a choice that represents it). For all of her initial mystery, Mal turns out to be mainly a figure of pop psychology.

07202010_shutterisland_delores.jpg“Shutter Island” (2010)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Mourning a late spouse has become a new specialty of Leo’s — in Scorsese’s most recent film, he plays US Marshal Teddy Daniels, whose investigation into the vanishing of a patient from an isolated hospital for the criminally insane is hampered by visions of his departed wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), who despite having died in a fire appears suspiciously damp in these hallucinations. Dolores highlights another not uncommon aspect of the ghost wife, which is that their supernal air can disguise considerable personality complications or flat-out craziness.

There’s no doubt that there’s a trauma at the heart of “Shutter Island” — all of the imagery, even the flashbacks to the Holocaust, are just shadows cast by it. But given how wracked with guilt Teddy is, isn’t the ultimate reveal of what set everything in motion is a little… anticlimactic? That was Dachau back there as some sort of metaphor, wasn’t it? His shouldering the culpability for what occurred carries a whiff of melodramatic martyrdom or even condescension. Ultimately, Dolores, like Mal, is a broken doll, who required protection from herself.

07202010_solaris_rheya.jpg“Solaris” (2002)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

More so than the Tarkovsky version, Soderbergh’s take on Stanisław Lem’s story puts the relationship between its central psychologist (played here by George Clooney) and his late wife (Natascha McElhone) ahead of everything else. The alien ocean planet of the title seems, like the subconscious panoramas of “Inception” and the visions of “Shutter Island,” to be at heart an in-between place where memory can be made flesh — “we don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,” as Kelvin’s friend Gibarian puts it in a posthumous video message.

Literal flesh, in this case — Rheya, who committed suicide years ago, appears like a dream to Kelvin in his sleep, after he arrives at the space station to investigate what’s apparently driven everyone stationed there mad. Unlike a dream, though, she’s still there when he awakes, a being created by alien forces from Kelvin’s memories of the woman he lost. And, because she’s just (and only) as Kelvin remembers, she’s desperately in love with and in need of him and just as desperately unstable and unhappy. He finds himself trying to atone for his abandonment of her the first time around just as she finds out what happened to her early incarnations and prepares to let the past repeat itself.

07202010_thefountain_izzi.jpg“The Fountain” (2006)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

While she also appears as a vision in other sections of “The Fountain,” in the present-day storyline Rachel Weisz manages the rare accomplishment of being a guilt-inducing ghost wife before she’s even dead. As Izzy, Tom’s (Hugh Jackman) beloved cancer-stricken spouse, she has the celestial glow that only a cinematic terminal illness can give you. She’s still there, trying to savor her limited time left, but Tom (Hugh Jackman) is so consumed with saving her, with finding a cure, that he’s essentially already arrived at the same state as the obsessed, isolated protagonists in the films already mentioned.

You can make a strong case that both the conquistador strand and the far future one are fictions with the world of the film — not just because of their visuals, how they echo off textures and tropes of the present day story, but also because they’re elements of the story that Izzy is writing, one that starts in Mayan times but ends in Xibalba, the dying star, the underworld. Izzy asks Tom to “finish it,” and whether he arrives at his peace by completing her story or by living for eons and traveling with a magic tree in his space bubble, it’s clear that resolution can be found only in his accepting mortality — for her, and for himself.

07222010_theroad4.jpg“The Road” (2009)
Directed by John Hillcoat

The character of the wife/mother (who, like the two protagonists, is unnamed) was beefed up for John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy, likely to provide breaks from the film’s oppressively grim post-apocalyptic present as well as to up Charlize Theron’s screen time. The result is classic ghost wife — Theron’s character is glimpsed in the blissful, honey-colored past, asleep on the grass, or smiling at a concert. The man (Viggo Mortensen) wakes from dreaming of her and weeps — she embodies the whole world that’s been lost, a better time when people weren’t, you know, eating each other.

As, in the flashbacks, things fall apart — rioting outside, the weather getting colder, electricity failing — Theron’s character retains her slightly otherworldly quality, that sheen of memory, even as she grows pensive and sad and asks “what kind of life is this?” It’s as if she’s tied to the past and fading along with it. And she is — she chooses death, and there’s an implied censure to her abandoning her husband and son to this terrible world, though by the film’s end, she looks like the smart one.

07202010_memento_wife.jpg“Memento” (2000)
Directed by Christopher Nolan

What can I say? Nolan’s a fan of the ghost wife.

Jorja Fox’s unnamed character, glimpsed only in Leonard’s (Guy Pearce) not entirely reliable flashbacks, even looks a little like “Inception”‘s Mal, haircut-wise. And since we only ever see her as filtered through Leonard, she’s just as subjective a presence as Mal, an idealized, slightly fuzzy remembrance of a woman who might have died in a violent confrontation, or might have committed suicide by brain-damaged husband.

Is Leonard’s wife the one from the Sammy Jenkins story, asking for insulin again and again in hopes of jarring her love from his psychological troubles? If so, she’s not just a figure to inspire vengeance, and Leonard’s endless self-created quest to find her killer. She’s one of guilt, one to escape, because in the end her death came from the fact that he wasn’t able to become what she wanted — the man he was before the attack.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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