copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
Who is missing in Bunny Lake?
by Dahlia Schweitzer
The default opening to the Bunny Lake is Missing DVD is not the film itself nor even the menu prompting you to select your viewing options. The DVD slides into the player and automatically begins to play, not the movie but a different movie, a preview, a preview for a strikingly similar film, also about a desperate mother. Before you even get to Bunny Lake, you’re in The Forgotten. You’re watching Julianne Moore express a panic that is specifically maternal, before seeing Carol Lynley create her own panic, which was clearly the inspiration for this contemporary revision.
In The Forgotten, you’re treated to a very comparable narrative, with the exception of aliens. In The Forgotten, the plot twist hinges on aliens. Clearly, in 2006, they thought that was what we needed. In 1965, however, films were simpler, and Bunny Lake is Missing is able to explore the heightened paranoia of a mother whose child disappears and no one believes her — without having to throw in the extra aliens. Yet, with or without aliens, there is such a strong parallel between the films that when the preview begins, you think twice about if it’s a tribute or a rip-off (what’s the difference, really?). You wonder, before you’re told what it is, if you’re watching a remake of Bunny Lake because the parallels are that alarming. So you watch the preview and ponder the parallels, and you remember that movie with Jodie Foster called Flightplan (2005), where she, too, loses a daughter no one believes ever existed. You feel the desperate ache of the mother ignored, the mother no longer a mother without the child to prove who she is, and you realize that Bunny Lake, without the aliens, tapped into a fear and an anxiety that remains so relevant today that Julianne Moore is still desperately seeking her child.
What is about mothers with(out) children that is so powerful that we’re making movies about it with the same premise forty years later? We watch, not yet having completed the preview, Gary Sinise, as Julianne Moore’s psychologist, telling her (oh so compassionately, oh so patronizingly, oh so professionally) that it is totally “normal” for people to invent alternate lives with imagined friends, family, and children. The implication, of course, is that it is totally “normal” for women to get hysterical. It is totally normal for women to just “make things up.” It is just as normal for women to “make things up” as it is for men to tell them that they’re just “making things up.” So what is not normal? It is not normal for Julianne Moore to stand up, to run away, to chase scary men in scary suits, to risk her life in order to prove that she is not making things up, that she is not “just hysterical,” to be so alive and so real that she stands up to Sinise, and when she stands up to the Establishment which tells her she is wrong, it is a triumph. And we feel this triumph in Bunny Lake, when Ann finds her daughter, and has proved to all the smug, patronizing men that she is not just “making things up” and that she is just as real and exists just as much as they do.
Bunny Lake’s opening credits, designed by the legendary Saul Bass (responsible for the titles of many movie classics, including Psycho, Seconds, Anatomy of a Murder, North by Northwest, and The Man with the Golden Arm), quickly establish that the movie will conceal more than it will reveal, as the text is exposed to us only when strips of black paper are torn away. The last shot is of the outline of a child (or a doll) in cookie-cutter fashion, stark white against stark black, leaving us with no confirmation that there is a Bunny Lake or what she may look like. In the closing credits, we see this outline again, only this time our last shot of it leaves it filled with Ann’s face. She is what completes the hole shaped like a doll. She is defined by the figure of her child, by the figure of a doll. Yet at the same time, the movie ends with her victorious. She has been proved right, her paranoia grounded in fact, and her daughter retrieved. Despite this triumph, however, she is still trapped in her “role.” With this succinct visual statement, Preminger defines the struggle of women everywhere.
If paranoia is viewed as an ontological problem, as a search for the validity of one’s existence, and paranoia is seen as a primarily female condition, we can understand why this narrative is repeated over and over and appreciate the significance of Bunny Lake is Missing. Ann is like Antigone centuries before, and like the women at the heart of Flightplan, The Forgotten, and many other similar stories. These women are seeking their place in a society constructed to oppose them. Without a child to link them to their community, who are they? Do they even exist? What does a woman become when her child disappears? What does a woman become when her child never existed? What is a woman if she is not a mother and a wife?
We know that in cinema, as in life, the male looks, the female is looked at. The male does, the female simply is. In film, the role of the woman in the narrative usually has something to do with her physical appearance and her seductive capabilities. When she is part of the movie (which is not always) she tends to serve extraneous roles that delay or complicate the male’s journey, something against which he reacts or a problem he solves. During the rare occurrences when she is
“the central character, she is generally shown as confused, or helpless and in danger, or passive, or a purely sexual being.”[open endnotes in new window]
Laura Mulvey quotes film director Bud Boetticher, known for his classic B westerns, who argues,
“What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents…In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”
In herself, she does not exist, she is not seen—much as when Julianne Moore in The Forgotten confronts her husband, and he says, “Do I know you?” Without her child to define her, he no longer knows who she is.
In his film, Bunny Lake is Missing, director Otto Preminger makes us examine our conventional expectations about hetero-normative relationships and the role of women in contemporary cinema/society. There are many elements to this film that provide an interesting statement [DICTION: DO ELEMENTS PROVIDE A STATEMENT? ELEMENTS MIGHT LEAD TO A CONCLUSION—EG, VIEWERS MAKE THE CONCLUSION] about the role of motherhood in society, and the rules of society when they come to women and families, and even the very notion of women existing, and how that existence is defined. The implied incestuous relationship between Ann, the protagonist, and her brother, his implied homosexuality, the presence (or lack thereof) of Ann’s child, and the various bizarre couplings throughout the film create a cacophony of social commentaries that are almost impossible to decipher neatly. One way of looking at the film and especially at the dynamic between Ann and her brother is by considering Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim since Antigone was another maligned woman with complex relationships with the men in her life. Butler makes a series of points that deal both with the concept of incest and the idea of a woman alone against the world — arguments which I will refer to for a deeper understanding of Bunny Lake is Missing and for considering what Preminger may be saying about women and mothers in contemporary society.
Released in 1965 and based on Evelyn Piper’s book of the same name, this film tells the story of the unmarried Ann Lake whose illegitimate daughter, Bunny, disappear shortly after their arrival in London, where they have moved to set up house with Ann’s brother Stephen, who is at first implied to be her husband. Ann has dropped Bunny at school, but when she goes back in the afternoon to collect her, there is no record that she was ever there. The police investigation takes a turn away from routine when all of Bunny’s things have also disappeared from the house, and suddenly we (and the police) wonder if Bunny even exists, a theory that gains momentum when Stephen begins to discredit Ann’s state of mind. Ann’s useless hysteria about her daughter’s disappearance continues in the background of the script, until she remembers that one of Bunny’s dolls is in a repair shop and may be the one item of her daughter’s that has not disappeared. In a sudden show of strength, assertive for the first time in the film, she races off to the shop, where Stephen finds her and knocks her unconscious after destroying the doll.
As flames flicker in his eyes and the doll’s face melts, we realize that it is actually his state of mind which we should be questioning, and maybe Ann was right all along. After Ann is sent to the hospital, where Stephen urges sedation because of all the stress Ann has recently been under — and because of the child she has “invented” — he returns to the house to kill his niece, who has been locked in the trunk of his car the whole day. We discover that it was his jealously over his sister’s attention that has fueled his insanity, and he completely regresses into the role of a child, which is what Ann has to mimic when she finds him after escaping the hospital. She manages through a series of childhood games to distract him from killing Bunny until the police superintendent finally arrives at the scene. The policeman finally ascertained that Stephen has been lying, and therefore realizes, as we already have, that there may have been more to the story than he at first realized.
In the original book, the villain was the old headmistress from Bunny’s school, but Preminger found that solution “arbitrary” and “uninteresting.” It is his new solution, combined with the fact that he also eliminated the original character of the child’s father from his film adaptation, which focuses our attention on the unconventional brother/sister dynamic and Ann’s single mother status, emphasizing the social theme that, as Preminger himself stated in connection to the film,
“If you do not conform to the rules of society, the law does not protect you.”
There is a strong element of being outside society throughout the film, unprotected by the social system that excludes that which is “other.” After all, aren’t women inherently outside of the social system? Religions traditionally discriminate against women, but so does almost everything else. Even in the United States, considered by some to provide a fairly open playing field for women, the Equal Rights Amendment still cannot get passed. Women are ignored or, at the very least upstaged, in almost every traditional arena. Butler writes that the public sphere (that which is inherently masculine, i.e. government, community, state) only acquires its existence through interfering with the happiness of the family, creating as a result a virtual confrontation with womankind in general. The simple act of not being married sets Ann apart from every other character in the film, at the mercy of her brother, patronized and disbelieved by “the Establishment.” Without a child, she has no purpose. To further accentuate her isolation and vulnerability, there are no other women in the movie with whom she can fight or bond. There is no sense of a “female community.” Ann is the only woman in the film that seems at least halfway capable. The teachers at the school lose their students and misplace information, the owner of the school appears completely mad, and the nurse at the hospital allows Ann to escape. It is to the men that she must turn to find her daughter.
Hegel, as cited by Butler, argues that one only becomes an individual on the condition that one belongs to the community, and that when one acts criminally, one does not act as an individual. Only when one belongs to the community, when one obeys societal rules and expectations, does one truly exist — and one could ask how much, even with a child and a husband, does a woman ever exist? At least with both, she is part of a socially sanctioned unit. Without a husband or, significantly, a child, Ann does not have a chance at existing, and Stephen, as a homosexual and criminal, most clearly is also not a member of the community. When her child disappears, Ann as a woman has no other reason to be seen, and inasmuch as there is no record of her child, there is also no record (on the ship’s logs, for instance) that Ann has existed. Without a child, there is no proof of her life, much less that her life had a purpose.
It is only at the end of the film, when reunited with Bunny, that the police superintendent wishes them both a good night, “Now that you exist.” The implication is that the message is meant for both mother and daughter. Once the daughter has been recovered, she and her mother are visibly present. Ann, like Antigone, has been defined through the
“power of the mother, one whose sole task…is to produce a son.”
Without the child, there is no mother. Without mother, there is, in turn, no child. At the close of the film, it is Ann whose face fills the cut-out figure in the credits. It is Ann whom we lost and re-found.
In order to accentuate Ann’s place of isolation, Preminger also goes out of his way to imply an incestuous relationship between Ann and Stephen, setting the two of them further outside the community. In drawing a comparison between novel and film, as Esther Sonnet notes, the book Bunny Lake is Missing focused more on the social critique behind Ann’s (in the book called Blanche) journey, Preminger’s
“substitution of a brother for menopausal hysteric [the original villain of the story] channels the film into a claustrophobic figuration of individual psychosis, childhood regression, repressed desire, and the taboo of incest.”
Similarly, in considering Antigone, Butler writes that incest is intrinsically linked to aberration, a “spector of social dissolution…at the heart of the norm.” The horror with which incest is frequently met, is
“not that far afield from the same horror and revulsion felt toward lesbian and gay sex and is not unrelated to the intense moral condemnation of voluntary single parenting or gay parenting.”
Preminger did not hold back from emphasizing just how far outside the limits of the societal norm Ann has gone. In addition to the film’s implications of incest, there is also perhaps worst of all, her status as a single parent. When the police superintendent discovers this, the terrified Ann asks him if this revelation will mean that he will no longer search for Bunny. Worse than all her other transgressions is her unmarried state. The only thing left to tie Ann to “the Establishment” is her child. And without that, like Antigone, the “only kind of recognition she can enjoy is of and by her brother,” a recognition which Preminger intentionally plays with, first with his implications that the two of them are married and later, in a particularly disturbing moment, when Stephen, naked in the bath, smokes what seems to be a post-coital cigarette delivered to him by Ann.
Perhaps this is Preminger’s way of demonstrating that regardless of whether or not there is a sexual component to the sibling dynamic, kinship is still removed from the domain of the social, a “relation of ‘blood’ rather than of norms.” The more closely intertwined the two of them are, the further removed Ann and Steve are from any socially approved community. It is when Ann stops following Steve and asserts her independence from him that she finally begins to exist for us in the film. It is by dividing their bond that she gets closer to being recognized, closer to finding her daughter, and closer to becoming part of society. This gives her another interesting parallel with Antigone, who also has a relationship with Oedipus (her brother and father), whom she follows loyally but this “following turns into a scene in which she leads him,” a turning point in the play, and also in Bunny Lake. Before the film even begins, Ann has a history of following Stephen, most recently to London and then throughout his attempts at an investigation, passively trailing behind him, until she remembers Bunny’s doll in the toy repair shop. When she races off, it is Stephen who follows her, and the entire energy of the film flips; he becomes more feminine, more childlike as she becomes more masculine, more active, more real.
Butler also writes that Antigone takes the place of nearly every man in her family. By not marrying, Ann does the same, both mother and father to her child. However, these parts of herself are fragmented at first since Stephen plays the role of father through his guise as uncle, but after he is disqualified, Ann is left to play both parental roles. Interestingly, as a warning, Butler writes that
“alternative kinship arrangements attempt to revise psychic structures in ways that lead to tragedy, figured incessantly as the tragedy of and for the child.”
Preminger clearly agrees. In Bunny Lake, the tragedy of Bunny’s disappearance is a direct result of the “alternative” relationship between Ann and Stephen. Interestingly, at the end of the movie, Ann is still clearly unmarried, still without any male love interest. In this way, like Antigone, Ann “fails to provide heterosexual closure” as she and her daughter exist together, no husband or father figure in sight. In other contexts, this would almost prove her homosexuality. At the very least, it proves her contempt for societal expectations.
This subversion of typical gender roles is extended within the dynamic of Ann and Stephen. When Antigone speaks to Creon, she
“becomes manly; in being spoken to, he is unmanned, and so neither maintains their position within gender and the disturbance of kinship appears to destabilize gender throughout the play.”
A similar transition occurs when Ann finally stands up to Stephen, and he in turn becomes childlike. Up until this point of the film, Ann has been virtually childlike. (What kind of mother loses their child? Clearly a woman who is useless in the ways of the world.). But now, through her aggressive and independent behavior (she does not seek police support), Ann assumes, if not the role of the law, the role of a man, her newfound masculinity accentuated by the contrast of Stephen’s regression to childhood.
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. 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:
“The gender of the Final Girl is…compromised from the outset by her masculine interests, her inevitable sexual reluctance (penetration, it seems, constructs the female), her apartness from other girls, sometimes her name. At the level of the cinematic apparatus, her unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the active investigating gaze normally reserved for males and hideously punished in females when they assume it themselves; tentatively at first and then aggressively, the Final Girl looks for the killer…and then at him.”
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
“alternates between registers from the outsets; before her final struggle she endures the deepest throes of ‘femininity;’ and even during that final struggle she is now weak and now strong, now flees the killer and now charges him.”
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
“desire to solve riddles is a male desire par excellence, because the female subject is herself the mystery.”
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
“merged with the stylistic elements of film noir to produce what one critic has described as ‘uniquely feminine cine-dramas of suspicion and distrust.’ A standard theme of these 1940s films was ‘you can’t trust your husband.’”
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,
“If a woman is saying something disagreeable she must be neurotic. The ‘opposition of disbelief’ sets her up as overwrought and upset…as unreasonable and paranoid — ‘shown’ by the way she does not react as a woman should, but yet over-reacting, as a woman would” (Cowie 122).
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
“knowledge, evidence, and history, it is more deeply an ontological problem, in which a subject endeavours to determine the nature and security of his or her own existence.”
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.
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2. Boetticher, Bud, in Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. 63.
3. Preminger cited in Pratley, Gerald. Cinema of Otto Preminger. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co. 1971. 152.
4. Preminger cited in Pratley, Gerald. 152.
5. Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 35.
6. Butler 31.
7. Butler 12.
8. Sonnet, Esther. “Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake is Missing (1957): Adaptation, Feminism, and the Politics of the ’Progressive Text.’” Adaptation 2:1 (2009): 65-86.
9. Butler 67.
10. Butler 71.
11. Butler 3, 6.
12. Butler 61.
13. Butler 62.
14. Butler 70.
15. Butler 10.
16. Dyer, Richard. “Homosexuality in Film Noir.” Jump Cut 16 (1977): 18-21.
17. Fassbinder famously said, “In Douglas Sirk’s movies the women think.” Cited in The Anarchy of the Imagination. Ed. Michael Toeteberg and Leo A. Lensing. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1992. 81.
18. Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. 244.
19. Clover 238-239.
20. Clover 246.
21. Clover 247.
22. Smelik, Anneke. “Feminist Film Theory,” in The Cinema Book, second edition. Ed. Pam Cook and Mieke Bernink. London: British Film Institute, 1999. 353.
23. Doane, Mary Ann. “Caught and Rebecca: The Inscription of Femininity as Absence” in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. 71.
24. Pratt, Ray. Projecting Paranoia. Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 2001. 184.
25. Doane 71-72.
27. Orr, J. “Otto Preminger and the End of Classical Cinema.” Senses of Cinema. 26 April 2008. 8.
28. Orr 8.
29. Burns, Christy L. “Erasure: Alienation, Paranoia, and the Loss of Memory in The X-Files.” Camera Obscura. May 2001, 194.
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