Feminine Empathy and Rebellious Hysteria in ‘The Falling’

Reading Caitlin Kennedy’s wonderful dissection of Ari Aster’s Midsommar and its “unapologetic feminism”, I was inspired to revisit my first encounter with Florence Pugh – Aster’s heroine and Midsommar’s saving grace. Carol Morley’s The Falling is an excruciatingly close examination of delicacy and identity and how the currency of hysteria manifests so uniquely amongst teenage girls. I was sixteen when The Falling was released in 2014, the same age as its protagonists. Having now (just about) graduated from teenage girlhood, I sought to return to the film which I found so exacting when I was in the thrall of it. Rewatching The Falling, I was struck by its own blatant assertions at “unapologetic feminism”. In her essay, Caitlin writes that Aster possesses “a surprisingly effective aptitude for being able to inhabit the most sacred and distinct aspects of womanhood.” Her identification of the ‘sacred’ I believe is of the upmost importance to the creation of the specific type of spooky hysteria these films nurture and on which their ‘horror’ relies.

The Falling focuses on an epidemic of fainting in an all-girls school following the sudden death of the school’s most beautiful and most loved pupil, Abbie Mortimer (Florence Pugh). After the tragedy, first Abbie’s less beautiful and less interesting best friend Lydia Lamont (Maisie Williams) and then, rapidly, the rest of the school, including some teachers, find themselves victim to a mystery malaise of sudden and uncontrollable fainting. It is no mistake that Pugh’s character shares her name with The Crucible’s Abigail Proctor; possibly the most canonical fosterer of hysteria. Like The Crucible, feminine hysteria in The Falling is demonised and regarded with harsh suspicion. Originally, the fainting spells share the symptoms of anaemia; girls appearing to faint from dizziness. As the condition appears to become contagious, the episodes themselves mutate into something more visually sinister. Girls extend their arms and heave their heads and chests as if in a rapture propelling the film from mystery into the territory of horror. Morley draws a conscious connection between the children’s fearful falling and their guardians’ hysterical defence of their innocence and demonisation of sexuality. A schoolteacher announces “Now girls, I’m here to talk to you about the devil. The devil can enter you in many ways so please close your legs.” The young women’s sexual deviancy (read: agency) is understood in Miller’s Puritanical terms. In her reading of ‘Ode on Imitations of Immortality’ by William Wordsworth, Abbie’s teacher criticises her: “try not to be quite so empathic”. There is a deliberate irony in this criticism of stressed expression preluding the falling; the girls are forced to adopt a violent, physical form of expression in face of their verbal one being denied. The girls are later again aligned with Miller’s witches when a man cycles past them on their walk home through the woods. “Crazy witches!” He cries, before promptly falling off his bike into a pile of wet leaves. Unlike Miller’s ‘witches’ in The Crucible, Morley’s girls are able to find a mode of peculiar empowerment in their hysteria.

What is most striking upon revisiting the film is how instrumental community is; girls walk the school’s halls arm in arm, when their teacher enters the room they chant in unison “Good morning, Miss Mantel”, their individual voices devoid of distinction in the chorus. It is necessary that the film establishes this precise community in order for the fainting to be appreciated for what it is; rather than a weakness or crowd-following- the fainting is a radical display of definitively feminine empathy. Indeed, community is so important to The Falling that Abbie’s betrayal is not felt in the act of sleeping with Lydia’s brother, but in the act’s rejection of this sisterhood. Abbie creates a gaping void of experience, abandoning harmony and traversing into murkier adult territories. All Abbie and Lydia’s arguments stem from this perceived abandonment, Abbie defends herself: “We’re not kids anymore, lamb. You’ve got to face up to it, there’s a real world out there.” To which Lydia replies “Yeah, and you’re the centre of it.” Abbie’s ascension from innocence to experience is irreversible and indeed, her deeming Lydia “lamb” further separates the girls. In ‘The Tyger’ Wordsworth asks “Did he who made the lamb make thee? // Tyger, tyger burning bright,” unable to comprehend the two animals being born of the same creator, such are their differences. Abbie’s movement into experience, in having sex, is laboured as an irreversible digression. Immediately after admitting to Lydia that she has “lost it”, Abbie discovers that she is pregnant, vomiting in the school toilets. The girls consider inspiring a miscarriage in Abbie via “strenuous exercise” or “gin and a needle”.One girl points out “its [abortion] legal now” to which Abbie retorts “not for the likes of us”- teenage bodies, even pregnant ones, remain children at the discretion and whims of their guardians. The fainting epidemic is a response to this recognition of their bodies as contested sites of ideology. Abbie falls for the first time when the girls debate miscarriage, her second fall later proves fatal. It is difficult therefore not to align the falling with a frustrated and desperate attempt to reclaim physical agency. After Abbie’s death, Lydia is the first of the girls to fall. Her mimicry is an attempt to make imitations on immortality; looking to the remarkably interesting Abbie for guidance even after her passing. The subsequent falling of other girls in the school can therefore be read as a mode through which to exercise and demonstrate a form of radical feminine empathy- a protest against their constricted agency in bodies which vibrate between child and adulthood.  

Although Abbie’s ‘betrayal’ is a sexual act, it is frank and harsh and entirely devoid of a sexuality. Instead, Morley acknowledges that early encounters with eroticism are so often developed from the forbidden and guarded. A girl is made to kneel on the floor in humiliating demonstration that her skirt (not reaching the floor, but arriving just above the knee) is too short, under another girl’s shirt collar peeps the blush of a ‘love bite’. Indeed, ‘blush’ feels the appropriate word to encapsulate the meeting of embarrassment and intrigue that an adolescent arrival at eroticism heralds, a physical failing at secrecy. In a blush, there is no definition, we are not confronted with the sexually explicit of interactions between boys and girls, but instead an erotic blurring. The camera lingers on innocence just enough to endow it with a sensual possibility. Two girls share a piece of gum, move hair from each other’s faces. Girls school, devoid of the male gaze, allows these images to come and pass without being infected by the sleaziness threatened by the male gaze. The Falling’s sensuality is so firmly established in an instinctual innocence that Lydia fails to distinguish, in the blush, where sensuality and sexuality appropriately end. This leads to the unexpected arrival at her incestuous relationship with older brother, Kenneth (Joe Cole), a passage I, on first viewing at 16, rejected as entirely random and unnecessary. However, rewatching The Falling now, I appreciate Morley’s frank exhibition of naïve juvenile dealings with the complicated arrival of eroticism. I think it is helpful that we read the incest as a product of Lydia’s grief. If her falling is a recreation of Abbie’s falling, an attempt at closeness to her after death, then it is sensible that we read her relationship with her brother as originating from the same tragic impulse of copying her best friend’s final moments.

The film frequently falls victim of clumsy revelation, there is no subtlety in the announcement of Abbie’s pregnancy or Lydia’s mother’s agoraphobia. However, I propose we give these laboured dramatics the benefit of the doubt. Just as Morley resists the male gaze, constructing eroticism from juvenile feminine eyes, there is an endearing naivety to the film’s heavy-handedness. We apprehend these revelations through the eyes of teenage girls to whom there is no subtly in drama. They apprehend the world full on and with such feeling it causes them to fall.

My friend recently relayed to me a story from her mother who worked for some time in a girls’ school which was struck by a similar bout of fainting. Exactly as in The Falling, female students began fainting in hoards after one girl fell down suddenly. Another year multiple girls fell victim to an uncontrollable shaking. Similarly, although I did not attend a girls’ school, a brief stint of a smaller-scale fainting occurred when we received our cervical cancer vaccinations; during which time I remember many of my classmates losing agency of their legs following the jab. Morley’s appreciation of the girls’ school and the cultivation of popularity via hysteria can therefore be seen to possess notable cultural currency mirroring the stuff of very real urban myths. Consciously echoing classics like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock from 1975 and Lindsay Anderson’s If… Morley enters into an established, but still incomplete genre. The Falling carves itself a uniquely riveting place in its depiction of the timeless oddness of schooling; despite taking place in 1969 the film seamlessly confronts the experience of the contemporary student. Morley grasps the untapped potential for radical feminine empathy in her celebration of hysteria as rebellion.


by Joanna Mason

Joanna Mason (preferably Joey) is 22 and is studying in Glasgow, Scotland. Some of her favourite films are Lost Highway, Withnail and I, Frances Ha and Videodrome.

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