Lockdown Cinema: ‘Rear Window’, ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and ‘Mustang’
Revisiting Rear Window (1954), The Virgin Suicides (1999), and Mustang (2015)
Long before COVID-19 had even entered public consciousness, three films presciently depicted a specific story element that came to characterise the current climate for many: becoming housebound. Due to current restrictions, most people have become organised into three categories: key workers, those who can work from home, and those who are furloughed/unable to work for various reasons. It is this last category to which these films bear relevance. Regardless of the narrative events that led to these characters finding themselves housebound, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang portray the various responses some individuals display upon being confined to their homes, thus losing their agency. Previous viewings of these films perhaps found audiences stretching their empathy and imagination in order to connect with these characters’ predicaments; however, as being housebound has now become a near-universal experience, revisiting these films yields a different result.
For those unable to work, lockdown has led to behavioural changes, such as the search for new hobbies or the re-evaluation of existing ones; both approaches are reflected in these films. Rear Window’s Jeff (James Stewart) attempts to combine the two when his world is reduced to a micro-level. Hitchcock’s opening sequence establishes everything the viewer needs to know about Jeff: he is a photographer who, after taking a photo of a car that crashes into him, is stuck inside with his leg in a cast. Restricted to his apartment, all he can do is look outside his window and observe his neighbours in their communal courtyard, a far-cry from his previously adventurous lifestyle. While passively spectating is initially just to pass the time, the naturally inquisitive Jeff immediately begins to take great interest in the goings-on of his neighbours. Where Jeff’s professional life requires him to observe, he utilises this skill and applies it to his current predicament. Within the context of COVID-19, a sense of tragedy is underlined within Jeff’s character as the viewer can identify with his desire to observe his neighbours as one of the only ways in which he can retain some connection with the outside world.
Jeff’s ability to combine his current predicament with his previous lifestyle presents itself as a luxury when compared to the experience of the Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides. Following Mrs. Lisbon’s (Kathleen Turner) insistence that Lux (Kirsten Dunst) burn her vinyl records, the Lisbon household is from then on devoid of music. Whilst so many of us have consumed various forms of media to help cope with becoming housebound, the Lisbon sisters are denied that luxury for themselves; they are left to stagnate. It is only when a group of neighbourhood boys, infatuated with the sisters, play their own records over the phone that the Lisbon girls are able to mentally escape their dire situation. The narrator (Giovanni Ribisi), reflecting back on the events as an adult, acknowledges that the Lisbons “were living in the dead, becoming shadows”; recognising this, the boys communicate via the songs and their lyrics, understanding the respite music can provide.
Where Jeff combines his current and previous experiences, and the Lisbons must compromise, Mustang’s Lale (Güneş Şensoy) demonstrates the most independence and provides the final activity that transcends mundanity: outdoor walking. With exercise being one of the few acceptable reasons to leave the house during current lockdown restrictions, many have used that to reassert their agency. As with Lale, it does not matter whether people enjoy walking or not, what is crucial was the very notion of being free. Some have found that they’ve enjoyed walking more than anticipated; director Ergüven similarly demonstrates this through Lale. Even the location signifies this transformation of the commonplace to the exciting as Lale walks along the main road. Despite being an ordinarily uninspiring setting, Ergüven allows the natural beauty of the location to accentuate the storytelling. Where Jeff derives pleasure from watching his neighbours, the viewer of Mustang derives their pleasure from the scenery Lale encounters during her ‘mundane’ walk.
Lale’s walk corresponds with the second aspect that makes these films relevant to the COVID-19 climate: the brief moments of escape, either mentally or physically. As the only character restricted by a physical impairment, as opposed to an order instilled by an authority figure, Jeff’s escape is metaphorical as he must live vicariously through the actions of those around him, predominantly Lisa (Grace Kelly). Suspecting his neighbour of murder, Jeff tasks Lisa with investigating the courtyard for clues, paralleling the inquisitive observations of our neighbours during lockdown. When Lisa acts of her own accord by breaking into the suspect Thorwald’s (Raymond Burr) apartment, Jeff can only respond with shock, horror and partial anger at her irresponsibility of ignoring his instructions. Powerless to help Lisa as Thorwald returns, Jeff can only observe, and hope; his concern is naturally for Lisa, but as she is partly acting on his behalf, Jeff is also concerned for himself.
The Lisbons, like Jeff, find a mental rather than physical escape. Instead of living vicariously, however, the sisters resort to reading travel magazines, imagining what it would be like to visit these various destinations. Paralleling the mindset that many during lockdown have found themselves (wishing to be in a better location), the girls are able to conjure for themselves an alternate, fantasy life, which the narrator also envisions.
Of the three films, Mustang’s escape is the most optimistic, as well as the only physical embodiment of the act. With an upcoming football match declaring a women-only crowd, Lale is desperate to attend; despite their disinterest in football, the other sisters relish the thought of escaping the “wife making factory” that their house has become. This finds itself corresponding with the COVID-19 climate whereby food shopping has suddenly become an attractive leisure activity for those housebound. The cinematography of the football match sequence unintentionally develops this connotation of relief. In an interview for Filmmaker Magazine, Ergüven reveals that as they were not allowed to film inside the stadium, they relied on the television broadcast to capture footage of the sisters. The erratic camera movements in this sequence elevate the girls’ euphoria of their brief escape. In not showing the actual football match, Ergüven utilises the unorthodox filming method to deepen the characterisation of the sisters. Through this, she is able to contrast the girls’ rebellious escape with the directly succeeding sequence in which they are paraded through the town in order to attract suitors. Here, under the full control of Ergüven, the camera acts as an extension of the girls’ emotional state: slow and dragging, resistant to reach its final destination.
Naturally, the films’ endings, their final destinations, detail the spectrum of individual responses to becoming housebound. The conclusion of Jeff’s narrative provides a sense of comedic irony as he is responsible for extending his time being restricted. After his suspicions are proven correct, Jeff is thrown out the window by Thorwald, resulting in both his legs in casts. In a circular fashion, Hitchcock replicates the opening sequence, and where Jeff originally described being housebound as a “swamp of boredom”, he is now shown to be smiling, content with his predicament.
With a title such as The Virgin Suicides, the conclusion of the Lisbon girls’ narrative is certainly clear, but that does not stifle its impact. The conclusion is obviously the most desperate of the three examples; seeing no way out alive, the Lisbon sisters reclaim the agency previously stripped away by their parents. Coppola deftly balances this reclamation with the tragedy that the neighbourhood boys were able to help; however, after existing under strict conditions, the Lisbons had become blind to the presence of their salvation, thus encapsulating the experience felt by many during recent times.
Mustang’s conclusion is perhaps the most intriguing to consider as it is the prison-like conditions of their house arrest (gates, bars on windows) that ultimately provides salvation for Lale, and her sister, Nur (Doğa Zeynep Doğuşlu). After locking out all the adults present, the sisters create the time needed to collect their belongings and escape as the gates and bars prove to be impenetrable. Throughout the film, Ergüven characterises these conditions as creating the sense of claustrophobia and suffocation similarly felt by the Lisbons. However, as Lale and Nur utilise the physical aspects of their imprisonment to their advantage, Ergüven cinematically represents the notion of the end justifying the means.
With these films, it is not simply that they presciently depicted the experience of the COVID-19 lockdown, but that they managed to do so over several different decades. In portraying themes previously experienced by those on the fringe of society (isolation, loneliness, boredom), it is in viewing these films in a time where those feelings have become universal that they manage to transcend time, becoming contemporary. Their communal narrative of depicting excitement at the mundane has only become more relatable. Whilst the situations portrayed in Rear Window, The Virgin Suicides, and Mustang are not entirely applicable to today’s climate, it is in revisiting them that their staying power can truly be understood.