The real beauty of Catherine Hardwicke’s ‘Twilight’

It is a truth universally acknowledged that something which is enjoyed by girls is seen as a “guilty pleasure.” Pop music, reality television, Rom-Coms, supernatural love stories… However, in the immortal words of Robert Pattinson, “[when] you say guilty, what you really mean is just pleasure.” The film Pattinson is referencing here is the 2008 vampire romance phenomenon, Twilight, which celebrates its ten-year anniversary this year. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, Twilight stars Pattinson as the self-loathing, brooding and handsome Edward Cullen, a vampire who falls in love with the clumsy new girl—and human—Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart).

Twilight has never been given a good rap. The image of hordes of screaming girls at premieres have been dismissed with the same illegitimacy as boybands. The love-interests are controlling and emotionally manipulative, the writing is cheesy, the later editions of the series fall into sex=death tropes and Bella doesn’t have a personality outside of her relationship with Edward. Subject matter aside, ten years on I think it’s time to re-visit the first Twilight movie—outside of its pre-determined prejudices. The first entry in the series is the only film out of the five movie mega-franchise to be directed by a woman. Because of Hardwicke, it is also the most creative—and best—film out of them all. Catherine Hardwicke took this YA fantasy novel and turned it into art.

Twilight was treated like an indie film during production, and Hardwicke was asked to cut $4 million out of her budget weeks before filming. After the disappointing performance of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), another adaption based on a popular YA book series, there was little faith for the film to actually succeed.  How naïve they were of the power of teenage girls—and women. Compared to the high gloss quality of the blockbuster films in the rest of the Twilight Saga series, this grainy indie-film quality gives a textured realism to the film, and creates gravitas for the setting of Forks, Washington.  The cinematography of the film is washed in blue-green colouring, a style Hardwicke established in her debut film Thirteen (2003). As a gritty and startling look at teenage angst and rebellion, Thirteen earned her a Directing Award at Sundance Film Festival and a Silver Leopard Award at Locarno, and Holly Hunter received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. If this saturated colouring in Thirteen was to represent the bleakness of their lives, then in Twilight, surrounded by dense forests and mountains, the intensity of the blue-green colouring and emphasis on the landscape determines a strong sense of place. It feels like you can reach out and touch it.

 

Unafraid to film the story in an interesting way, another technique Hardwicke carries from Thirteen is the use of hand-held camera. We can see this best when Bella visits Edward’s house for the first time.  When he shows her his room—stilted, awkward, “Uh yeah, this is my room” like a bashful schoolboy—the scene plays out in a cinéma vérité style. The couple are new and awkward around each other. They don’t know how to exist in their joint orbit and every move is uncertain. As Clair de Lune starts to play through Edward’s stereo, he moves forward to try and dance with Bella. Hardwicke shoots in a shaky hand-held style, observing the scene, finding moments—panning up from a close-up on Edward taking Bella’s hand to dance, up to their individual reactions. As the couple move in closer to each other, so does the camera into an intimate close-up. This tentative movement perfectly captures their uncertainty.

This sequence ends with a beautiful transition into Edward playing Bella’s Lullaby on the piano while Bella watches on. The edges of the room are doused in shadows while light floods through the windows and frames the pair at the piano. It is like the world drops away and it’s just the two of them together. This chiaroscuro lighting is visually dynamic, and artistic in the sense that such lighting might be seen in a noir or arthouse film, but not in a teen film. Similar lighting is used later on in a scene where Edward and a rogue vampire James, hell-bent on hunting and killing Bella, fight in an empty ballet studio.

Film critic Harris Dang recently described Hardwicke’s direction of the film as bringing a level of sincerity to the story. This is because she cared about it. The themes of adolescence and danger are similar to those she explored in Thirteen, which makes Twilight the perfect companion. Mad love, feeling like you’ll die or that it’ll be the end of the world if you part, are all dramatic feelings, but very adolescent ones. Hardwicke understood this, and there was no patronisation in her depiction. The series is nothing but a wild ride, but before the isolation and depression of New Moon (2009, Chris Weitz), the impending war in Eclipse (2010, David Slade), and life-sucking baby of Breaking Dawn: Part One (2011, Bill Condon), Twilight was incredibly human.

From their first conversation through to the end of the iconic baseball scene, where a rogue hunter vampire sets his sights on Bella, both Edward and Bella come alive. Pattinson reminds me of James Dean’s Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause, not only because of his coiffed hair and inner-turmoil, but also in the way he laughs, like he is surprised it is happening.  He may be playing a vampire, but Edward strutting into school with Bella next to him, with shades over his eyes and a smile on his face or the slightly nervous/slightly giddy way he invites Bella to his house and meet his family are moments which are all very human in their portrayal. As for Kristen Stewart, any judgement on her performance is misguided. For anyone who says she is emotionless, Stewart is always showing you exactly what she is feeling: in the stutter of her voice in a rush to get her thoughts out, to the determined set of her jaw or giggle as Edward playfully calls her a spider monkey (weird line, just roll with it). The nerves, the fascination, the desire to spend all your time together of first love are all there.

In a recent interview with Daily Beast, Hardwicke detailed the challenges she faced to get Twilight made. Ideas and enthusiasm about casting the Cullen’s diversely was shut down, but this did not stop her with the supporting cast: schoolmates Eric, Angela and Tyler; Laurent, a vampire from a rival clan; the waitress at the diner Bella and her father Charlie frequent. Casting is actually one thing the Twilight Saga continued to get right. Across the series, Native American and First Nation actors were cast in the roles of the local Quileute Native American tribe, who play a major role in the series as a pack of werewolves, vampire’s natural sworn enemy (this discussion is mainly in regards to the supporting cast. Taylor Lautner, who is cast as Jacob Black, the main werewolf and rival romantic interest for Bella, identifies as French, Dutch and German with distant Native American ancestry on his mother’s side).

Hardwicke also urged to make Bella a stronger character in the script. To make Bella “a little less passive than she was in the book,” she stands her ground time and time again, whether it be with her father or Edward, commenting on being catcalled as “disgusting”, as well as encouraging Angela to be a strong, independent woman and ask Eric to the Prom herself. Small beans, but always appreciated.

When Twilight exploded at the box office, earning $192.million USD opening weekend, Hardwicke was cast aside and the rest of the series went on to be directed by men. The success of Twilight led to more female-led YA adapted film franchises: four Hunger Games movies and two Divergents—all also directed by men. It was not believed that a female director could handle such a large franchise. Now, ten years later, things are changing. Pitch Perfect 2 and Pitch Perfect 3 are both directed by women. Last year, there was Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman and earlier this year, we got Ava DuVernay’s Wrinkle In Time. It has taken a while for women to be trusted with such large budget or franchised movies. Hardwicke was an integral stepping stone to this progression.  

There is a lot to dislike about the Twilight Saga. The writing is ridiculous, as are most of the special effects. Enjoying the films has been written off as guilty pleasures, even though my friends will live-tweet about how much they are enjoying watching the marathons on TV twice a year. It is no secret that the series’ stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart hated filming Twilight, but the roles of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan lead to so many doors to be opened for them. They are now household names, and two of the most interesting and sought-after actors working at the moment, starring in top arthouse and independent films such as Personal Shopper (2016, Olivier Assayas) and Good Time (2017, Benny and Josh Safdie).

I love watching the Twilight Saga, and I always have, but I have never watched the other four movies as much as I have watched Twilight. The other films are forgettable (literally, I forget what happens in them each time), but the distinctive style and artistry of Hardwicke’s Twilight will always stand out—not just because of the blue-green cinematography and how different it looks to the other films, but because of the influence it had. As the film turns ten years old, if you haven’t seen the film in a while, it might be time to revisit it. Look at the interesting camera angles, notice the way the camera is always moving in that hand-held style, situating you in the story. Catherine Hardwicke knows how to explore adolescence in an interesting, sincere and personal way. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the beauty of that.

 

by Claire White

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and Nora Ephron wannabe from Melbourne, Australia. She spends too much time talking about how good Lady Bird is, how much she loves 80s music, and how she dyed her hair red because of Molly Ringwald. She holds a BA in Screen & Cultural Studies and was a recent participant of the Melbourne International Film Festival 2018 Critics Campus. With a specialisation in teen film, find her on Instagram and Twitter exploring the intersection between teen screen and classic/art cinema with the Teen Screen Cinematheque @teencineteq or @theclairencew.

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