A teenage girl, just 18, masturbates in a shower. She’s leaning over, and at first it’s hard to tell what she’s doing—the contortion of her body, the pained expression of her face, and her sobbing/moaning betray a pleasure entangled in horror. At first, I always think she’s crying. Maybe she is.
This is India Stoker, and she’s just had the kind of night that doesn’t feel real, the kind that lingers in the mind in a strange haze. She’s had a sort-of date (her first, we presume, because of the way the boys at school taunt her, and the isolation she seems to swim in) turned nightmare when her date, the only boy from school who has shown India a sliver of kindness, decides he deserves sex in return. When he tries to rape her, another male figure emerges into the same darkness. Charlie, a distant uncle for whom she feels a strange and not entirely familial draw to, steps out as if from nowhere and kills the boy. These memories come back in bits and pieces as she showers. And while at first it seems as though she’s processing her assault, the memory of the boy’s death and India’s pleasure blend into something strangely subversive. This sequence is the centerpiece of Park Chan-Wook’s 2013 gothic drama Stoker, and in it lies the uncanny paradox of being a teenage girl.
Earlier that night, India described her state of mind to the boy: “Have you ever seen a photograph of yourself, taken when you didn’t know you were being photographed, from an angle you don’t get to see when you look in the mirror, and you think…that’s me…that’s also me?” This rare explicit insight into India’s thoughts always reminds me of a painting by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, Not to Be Reproduced. In it, a man stands in front of a mirror, and the reflection is not of his face but of his back once more. A book sits on the mantelpiece, reflected perfectly, rationally—only the man eschews reflection. The feeling produced by this painting is not one of terror, but rather a kind of existential unease, a creeping feeling of not-quite-wrong-but-not-quite-right that seeps into your skin. It’s as worrying as it is concerning, like being able to witness your own skin change before your eyes. In Stoker, the same kind of unease is intricately linked to growing up, and the not-quite-wrong is a not-quite-young, the not-quite-right, a not-quite-grown. Stoker is a film about a girl walking the tight ledge between her childhood and her adulthood, filtered through the anxieties produced by sex, grief, and trauma, and trying to construct an identity amidst the chaos.
Stoker’s eerie, uneasy tone is due to its fidelity to India’s point of view, the way we experience the cold, clean visual language, while never feeling distant from her warm, beating, messy heart. These things should feel paradoxical, but instead the filmmaking reflects India’s desire to mould the world into the way she sees it.
The opening of Stoker plunges us into India’s subjectivity through voiceover, blending with unnerving sound design and skewed perspective to play with our sense of reality, and casting a film of unreliability over what we see:
“Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I am not formed of things that are of myself alone. I wear my father’s belt, tied around my mother’s blouse. And shoes, which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free. And to become adult, is to become free.”
India’s opening thoughts come from a place of growth, the result of an evolution that spans the film. While Stoker opens on its ending, the film’s narrative begins on India’s 18th birthday, a celebration of coming-of-age marred by its overlap with her father’s funeral. His traumatic death could represent a cleaving in India’s life, and, indeed, the film does deal with the slippery tension between childhood and adulthood. Yet Stoker knows that the supposed end of adolescence can be as transitory as adolescence itself: Yes, India has turned 18, but she hasn’t emerged fully formed.
Stoker frequently appears to pose symbols of childhood and adulthood as diametric opposites, but the foiling of this construction is baked into the very fabric of the film. In one scene, India lies in bed, pair after pair of saddle shoes cocoon her body, ranging in size from a toddler’s, to a pair she received on the birthday that opens the film. Having always believed that the shoes were a private gift from her father, unacknowledged but symbolic of a special and private relationship that didn’t include her mother, India’s illusion is shattered later on when she learns that the shoes were in fact her one point of contact with her uncle. Charlie’s final gift to India, a pair of high heels, seems to further shatter this illusion. These new shoes connote sexual maturity; India’s final evolution from girl to woman.
But in Stoker, objects are rarely defined by static belonging, aren’t promised to one identity. The borders between the people they belong to are blurred, and consequently, the people that wear them are blurry too; they are not formed of themselves alone. People, like the things they own, don’t exist in a vacuum, but are instead completed, contextualized, and complexified by their contours. In this sense, evolution doesn’t signify culmination, and a pair of shoes is not just indicative of maturity. As our first introduction to India indicates, they’re only one tile in the mosaic of personhood.
Stoker is a movie about a fucked-up family, and chronicles India’s tense and distant relationship to her mother (somehow both chilly and tempestuous), worsened by Uncle Charlie’s dual-seduction of both women. The house itself plays a particular role in the birth of India’s sexuality, as the majority of the film is confined to its walls. Its pale and sickly green décor, dark and hidden cellars, and labyrinthine staircase make the domestic unwelcoming. And though this is India’s domain, we still experience it as a hostile place, run by her mother and her mother’s taste. A piano, located in the closest thing to a living room in the Stoker household, becomes a battleground for India’s internal wrestlings between past and future, between the tight grasp of childhood and her emerging sexuality.
When India’s mother asks her to play a piece for her uncle, she refuses, her faux-polite smile petulant like a child’s. India’s unwillingness to perform for others doesn’t negate her attachment to the instrument itself. Where the instrument is traditionally played to entertain others, India’s satisfaction with music as a solitary pleasure hints again at masturbation. India doesn’t like to play for others, but she plays for herself. She doesn’t like to be touched, but she touches herself.
Two scenes featuring India at the piano highlight the importance of the instrument as a private space for introspection. Because the piano is reserved for intimate and solitary play, it fosters an environment ripe for fantasy. In the first, India plays the piano alone, and a spider slowly crawls up her leg, making its way across her saddle shoes and up between her thighs. India doesn’t react to the spider, and instead focuses solely on the music. This introduces the masturbatory aspect to her piano playing, reinforced by the second piano-centered scene, in which India’s spider seems to have transformed into her Uncle Charlie. He comes and sits next to India as she plays, and engages her in a duet. The duet is challenging and playful, and Charlie moves closer to her, puts one arm around her. As they become entangled in each other, entangled in the music, India’s legs, crossed together, tighten. After the piece climaxes, India, breathless, realizes her uncle is no longer next to her, and likely never was. These scenes are ambiguous and unsettling, disturbing in their sensual suggestion. The spider and Charlie can be read in parallel, as creations of India’s sexual imagination, tied to the piano, an instrument sacred to India precisely because in playing, she finds sanctuary within herself. It’s the only place she experiences freedom in the film. India comes of age—and while her house, her home, may feel wrong, she can’t help but evolve within it, her mind a garden ripe for growth.
India’s attraction to her uncle seems rooted in the acknowledgement of having found a symbolic twin, a match to her particular kind of strangeness. India is aroused by the revelation of her uncle’s violence because it liberates her own inner violence. Stoker doesn’t insist on the all-importance of love as a driving force of its characters, but it does concern itself almost exclusively with the ties made by blood. India’s sexuality and autonomy emerge from a family tapestry, and adulthood is not freedom from the past, but rather the freedom to be able to construct a future from different elements of the past. Stoker’s ending reflects not a return to a patriarchal moral order, one male figurehead in India’s life replaced by another, but a violent step forward into adulthood.
India, armed with her father’s hunting rifle (a classic phallic symbol that both denotes India’s autonomy and links her inextricably to the violence of her name), kills her uncle Charlie, who has sought to control her, and a police officer, who knows too much. India is free not because she has eliminated the traumatic and violent forces of her childhood and adolescence, but rather because she has learnt from them: the murder of her uncle and the departure from the family home are liberating because they represent India’s first independent steps into the world. Significantly, she leaves her mother alive when all signs seemed to point to her murder, as though India has internalized what her father told her in flashback: “Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop yourself from doing something worse.”
Because our understanding of the film’s events is so entrenched in India’s subjectivity, it is not the killing of the boy who tries to rape India that constitutes the pivotal point upon which the narrative twists, but rather her orgasm. If India’s “that’s me…that’s also me” expresses a kind of distance from reality, it’s the encounter of the self that grounds her experiences, that make them feel real. Teenagehood: endless disorienting encounters with your own self, doppelgängers folding into one another, forming one messy but contained person. Doppelgänger narratives often dance around tense and violent confrontation between the two selves. They almost always star men though, as if they have a monopoly on interior conflict.
So what happens when the solution to personhood isn’t denying and fighting the ugly and dark and dangerous parts of yourself? Though Stoker is not by any means a traditional doppelgänger film, it is a film about the peculiar and anxiety-inducing mix of the new and the familiar that constitutes a coming of age. In Stoker, sex—and specifically masturbation—is a way to bring yourself into focus, a way to understand the world through your own kaleidoscopic lens. Above all, it’s a way to bring the new and disparate parts of yourself back together.
In bringing to life India’s rich and intoxicating inner mindscape, Stoker sidesteps views of coming of age inherent to the very term: in coming of age, you shed your old skin, and step out anew. Instead, the film refuses to consider a future free of the past. Adulthood is a sheet placed over childhood; childhood a stain that bleeds through. When I think of Stoker, I think of the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, and her strange female protagonists, the way their perspectives push the world slightly off its center. I think of The Hour of the Star, in which the narrator wonders, “Am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”
In Stoker, seeing yourself and acknowledging that the person and the monster make one is at first a source of horror, and then a place from which to make your home, at last, in the bones that you grew up in.