Ann remembers that Bunny’s doll is at the Doll Hospital. She races over there, as this may be the last item belonging to Bunny which is not yet stolen or lost.
Ann searches through the dolls by lamplight, looking for Bunny’s doll.
This scene, with all the dolls and the dramatic lighting, marks the point at which things go really haywire…
Look, Steven, it’s Bunny’s doll!
Steven, dousing the doll in kerosene.
A rare close-up! Steven is falling apart.
Ann is taken to an antiquated, prison-like hospital. Steven insists that he wants the best possible care for his sister, who has recently been inventing a child.
Ann, in her hospital bed.
Ann, fleeing the hospita, somehow ends up in a room full of caged animals. Perhaps a metaphor?
Again, a locked gate.
Steven, carrying the mysterious Bunny.
Ann is shocked to see what is transpiring inside the house.
Ann asks Steven to explain how he pulled it off.
“I want to be with you, Stevie," she tells him, but he tells her that she forgot about him.
Bunny is the third character in their odd family.
Now it’s Bunny and Ann vs. Steven.
Steven towers over the vulnerable.
Ann starts playing games, in an attempt to get away.
Just a little hide and seek!
Ann locks Bunny in the greenhouse – again with the locking of the doors.
She talks Steven back into their childhood when there were just the two of them, and he furiously swings her higher and higher.
There is something “off” with Stephen, but we’re never sure if it’s more than the fastidious dress and childlessness, hence sexual “unnaturalness” common to characters of film noir.[open endnotes in new window] Examine the evidence — when we first see Stephen, he is carrying a small toy; he drives a tiny sportscar; he refers to himself as uncle; we never see him in the act of working, so his job is suspect; he contradicts himself repeatedly; his psyche is fragile; he is unmarried; he is without a child; he is literally revealed to be a child, yet still he is the dominant one in their dynamic until Ann’s “rebirth.” Stephen is not an adult until he is a father, he is not even a complete human being. This kind of characterization, in turn, parallels Ann’s, where she is not an adult until she is a mother, and therefore with her child gone, she is not even a human being. The only thing that saves Ann, that justifies her place in society, is her child. Stephen does not have this, which is why he must kill Bunny, to bring Ann back into his sphere of the “other.”
Ann, in her role of “barely existing,” is just vacant, merely reactive, the opposite of Douglas Sirk’s “Thinking Women,” and especially the opposite of her future counterparts, Julianne Moore and Jodie Foster, who perform physical feats in vibrant color. Back in 1965, however, woman had a different role, and here we see Ann playing those parts, a Cindy Sherman retrospective rolled into 107 minutes. With minimal costume changes, she switches between dutiful wife, loyal sister, worried mother, weak patient, and little girl. Despite the changes in her appearance throughout the film, we are never allowed to witness these physical transformations. First her coat is on, then it is off, first her hair is pulled back, then it is down — but all the action is always off screen. We are rarely reminded of her role as a female, her role as a person, even of her femininities, of the process of (un)dressing—in contrast to Stephen’s changing appearances. Ann’s mood and clothes are neutral, like a grown-up doll. She seems vaguely sedated throughout, a state that becomes ironic when Stephen suggests she take a sleeping pill to calm down. For most of the film, she couldn’t get more passive, more childlike, a condition echoed in the final scene, when she oh-so-easily slips into the role of an actual little girl, and the childhood games she plays to distract Stephen go on for an uncomfortably long time. The closest Ann comes to existing in the film is here when she plays the role of a child in order to save Bunny. Once she is reunited with her daughter, the film quickly ends.
Bunny personifies many of her mother’s qualities, exemplified by the fact that Bunny isn’t even her real name. “Bunny” literally does not exist. “Bunny” is the name of an invisible child invented by Ann and Stephen during their youth. Bunny, a nickname from Barbara, literally means “foreigner.” Felicia, the real name of Ann’s daughter, literally meaning “happiness,” is never used, and is neglected in favor of an invisible name for an invisible girl. By the time she is finally discovered, Bunny appears totally inert, totally unfazed by the proceedings, limp and quiet. The only word we hear her say is “Mommy,” ironically mimicking her toy doll which Ann, in a mirroring sequence, “rescues” from the toy shop. That doll calls out “Mommy” when Ann picks it up, and her real girl does the same thing. The only time we see action from Bunny is when she retrieves her own fallen doll from within the grave, repeating on a much smaller scale the narrative of the entire film. Despite these few moments near the end, she is never more there than the rhetorical child, as much of a device and as little of a person as the child in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In films like Flightplan and The Forgotten, we get flashbacks to add credibility to and flesh out the questionable fiction of the child’s existence. In Bunny Lake, there are no flashbacks. There are no signifiers that the child ever was. Then in what should be a moment of revelation, when we see the child for the first time, she is even more passive and doll-like than her mother, but Bunny never has to be real. As in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the imaginary child is a symbol for what the parents are searching for, a device to validate and ground them. The invented child does not exist outside of its parents, and the parents do not exist without their children. It’s not even clear if Stephen exists outside of Ann since he does not have a child, has killed his imaginary one, and therefore has never grown up.
This status of being outside societal rules is reflected throughout the film, and it is this tension that allows Preminger to draw in elements of both horror and the woman’s film to play with our expectations of women in cinema. In horror films, the female victim is classically left alone to defend herself, which is precisely what creates the anxiety. Not so classically, however, newer horror films often provide a twist on the active male/passive female dynamic. If older horror films dealt with women by killing them, “The modern slasher solves it by regendering the woman,” writes Carol Clover, as she presents the concept of the Final Girl, the one left last to deal with the villain who has killed everyone else off:
Clover’s description applies to Ann on numerous levels. First, we see Ann’s masculine interests via her lack of husband and then in her active search for her daughter. Second, her sexual reluctance is evidenced through her complete lack of sexuality: she dresses conservatively, with minimal makeup, and is either childlike or bland in her interactions with men. When her landlord flirts with her, she is horrified and dismissive. Her “apartness from other girls” is demonstrated through the nonexistence of other female characters. As discussed earlier, the script provides no sense of a female community. Lastly, she does not even see Stephen until the end of the film, exhibited by her total ignorance about his mental instability. When she does finally see him, the tables are turned.
As horror films evolved, it became less and less common for the female to need rescuing or for the principal female to be killed off halfway through the film (as occurs in Psycho). Interestingly enough, these films frequently feature a killer who is a “feminine male” and a main character who is a “masculine female.” In Bunny Lake is Missing, Stephen becomes even more feminine once his villain status is revealed, although his implied homosexuality has been there from the start. In contrast, Ann becomes more masculine and assertive as she realizes what she needs to do to find and rescue her daughter. Important to understand is that the Final Girl does not start off as an aggressive savior, but
This back-and-forth is apparent in Ann, who veers between subdued and determined, proactive and childlike.
Another indication that the roles are not as simple as they seem is Ann’s consuming desire to find her daughter, to take matters into her own hands, to prove that her daughter exists, and therefore to facilitate the investigation. This
Preminger plays into this default assumption on the part of audiences by spending the first half of the film making us wonder about Ann, whether she is sane or not. However, by the last part of the film, he subverts our expectations, and she is the one who becomes the investigator, while her brother, Stephen becomes the riddle. Precisely because we expected a different story, we are all the more unsettled by this twist. She was right the whole time. The woman, uncharacteristically, triumphs. The woman is seen — even without a husband to validate her.
With this triumph, Bunny Lake echoes elements of another genre: the woman’s film. The woman’s film is another attempt to reverse the gender dynamics of dominant cinema, by “obsessively centering and re-centering a female protagonist” in a way which makes it “no longer necessary to invest[s] the look with desire in quite the same way.” We do not look at Ann as a sexual creature. Her “relationship” with her brother is obviously neutered, and her vixen-like potential is as beige as her costume. In addition to re-purposing the gaze, the woman’s film features another key component evident in Bunny Lake — the woman against the male, with “male” usually signified as anything from society (the Establishment) to the husband. In The Forgotten, it is every male figure who disbelieves the protagonist (from neighbor to husband to therapist to government), and interestingly also the female police officer who is at first sympathetic to her loss, the first one who suspects what is at play. Since World War II, the film industry began to cater to women’s fears by creating a new subgenre that
While in Gaslight (1944), the untrustworthy figure literally meant your husband, by 1965 this meant everyone. Using paranoia as way of describing these plots “may prove even more appropriate for a delineation of the ‘woman’s film’ than that of hysteria.” What is especially interesting here is that paranoia is defined as “baseless or excessive suspicion,” a disorder “characterized by…delusions.” In all these films, from Gaslight to Bunny Lake to The Forgotten, the women are encouraged to think that their fears and beliefs are nothing more than delusions, when, in fact, the symptoms of mental instability are being forced upon them by the men in their lives. Here, again, we have elements of Antigone in Ann, the lone figure against the inherently masculine public sphere, her sense of isolation exacerbated by everyone’s disbelief. Is she paranoid or is she, like Cassandra, the only one who sees? Ironically, when it is the woman who sees, it is usually the men who disbelieve. [I omitted the paragraph on Rosemary’s Baby, which seems to wander off theme.]
Social and familial resistance to the protagonist’s beliefs is common to many narratives, where the protagonist must fight alone for what only she/he believes in, typical plot devices that serve to create drama and strife, allying us with the main character, as she/he forges ahead, against all odds (see Erin Brokovich, for example). Few things are more invigorating than watching the little man win against the big (David and Goliath, Rocky, etc). However, in Bunny Lake is Missing, there is no real third party against which to cheer. As the film progresses, we wonder if the policemen are right, and if Ann’s paranoia is after all a sign of mental instability rather than the cries of a worried mother. The skepticism of the police about Bunny Lake’s existence is also skepticism about Ann’s sanity. In this way, the film incorporates another element of a woman’s picture, the struggle to find legitimacy and support in a man’s world, a struggle to be heard, believed, and recognized. Mildred Pierce is one of many classic examples of this archetypal narrative, but it’s a story that spans generations and obviously continues to find relevance.
Since there is no ready villain, the tension in the film heavily relies upon Preminger’s cinematic technique. He continually shoots with wide-shots, emphasizing the separation of the characters from each other, while the male figures are frequently seen as taller than Ann, emphasizing their domination over her. Close-ups are used sparingly, reserved “as a kind of money shot for special moments — moments of crisis and violence” as in the “unnerving track-in on Stephen’s beaming eyes as he burns Bunny’s doll.” Without the distractions of conventional editing, without jump cuts or close-ups or point of view shots, not only is narrative tension increased, but we as the audience are kept at a distance, further preventing identification on our part and depriving us of an “anchor in the humane or normal.” We want to identify with Ann, our hero, but we’re not sure if she even is a hero, and we certainly see her as unstable as anyone else in the movie. Even when we don’t know what is going on, we are uncomfortable. Preminger makes sure of that with the spatial separation, with his exact editing, with the dramatic shadows, darkness, and claustrophobic locations that fill the movie, and with repetitive shots not only of doors and gates being locked, but also of shots through bars and window frames.
Nonetheless, our allegiance to Ann is an integral part in the narrative’s unfolding. In order for the film to have its tension, we have to spend the first part believing in Bunny, and we have to spend the second part torn between knowing and not knowing. If we too quickly do not believe in Bunny, nothing would keep us engaged. We want to believe Ann. We’ve witnessed the early scenes, which give every impression of her being a capable mother. Nothing about her seems insane. Then there is also the title of the movie — Bunny Lake is Missing. We want to believe there is a Bunny Lake to be found.
Elizabeth Cowie, when discussing the central character in the film Coma, writes,
It is the way the film presents Ann’s “feminine nature” that allows the film to have its tension. The way the film develops this portrait of an overwrought woman, playing into the stereotype and our inclination to dismiss women’s paranoia as nothing more than that, is an integral part of the film’s narrative. We are encouraged to disbelieve Ann, which makes the ensuing revelations all the more startling. During one of the scenes where the police superintendent is questioning the former headmistress, she says, “I never lie,” to which he replies, “That makes you a most unusual woman.”
Even Ann’s role as detective is further disqualified because she doesn’t actually solve anything. She doesn’t discover the answer. She is merely hit on the head by it. Any knowledge that Ann has is disqualified by the basic question about her sanity, and after early scenes of searching clumsily through the school, she spends the entire film getting the police to believe her rather than doing anything which might expose her brother’s activities. While she does manage to delay Bunny’s killing, it is ultimately the police who arrive on the scene to arrest him. At that point, ironically she is being pushed by her brother on the swing, returning her to her status as feminine victim and child. The fact that it was her brother, that the answer couldn’t have been closer to home (literally), makes us also question Ann’s perceptions. Nonetheless, when the police arrive on the scene to take her brother away, she does not collapse into a grateful heap but proudly walks off with her daughter without saying a word. She was always right, and we cheer for that triumph.
In a way, we feel even more linked to Ann because she never knew more than we did. Unlike the typical detective set-up, where there is information they know that we only discover in the final moments, we are always on the same page that she is. We find out five seconds before she does about her brother’s involvement, but other than that, she never has greater knowledge than we do about her brother, her daughter, or any of the other characters. So despite the fact that as a protagonist she echoes the actions of a detective film, as she conducts her investigation, complete with thrilling escape scenes and peering through windows, she still does not merit the climactic capture of the villain. In that instance, she is returned to her domain as a woman by the arrival of the policemen, denying us the opportunity of seeing her smash the shovel over her brother’s head.
Christy Burns, in her essay “Erasure: Alienation, Paranoia, and the Loss of Memory in the X-Files,” observes that, while paranoia may appear to be an issue of
The fear of identity loss which pervaded the 1950s became stronger through the sixties and continues to this day, as evidenced by the popularity of the X-Files and films like Flightplan and The Forgotten. These films are not simply tales of women looking for a misplaced child. These are not just tales of women standing up to the men in their lives. These are tales of women struggling to be heard, to be seen, to exist. Bunny Lake may be missing, but the film is not about her. The film is about Ann, about women who are consistently pushed aside, ignored, lost in the cracks, and who fight to be acknowledged, to prove that they are right, that they are, whatever the question may be. The child is irrelevant. The child is rhetorical. The child is a plot device more conspicuous in absence than in presence. It is merely the disappearance of the child that instigates the issue — and the issue, in these films, is that women are missing. The end of Bunny Lake is not a positive one. With a slip of the hand (a man’s hand, at that) Ann disappears back into the blackness of the final credits, and so she too is lost again.