Ottessa Moshfegh often writes the kind of books that seem unfilmable. Her stories are not typically impossible or too narratively thorny to make for a coherent viewing experience (though her most recent novel, the divisive Lapvona, is both of those things). It’s more like the depths of human filth she mines are too raw for mass consumption, or at least that which film must translate literally. Take, for example, her debut novel Eileen, about a 24-year-old juvenile detention facility clerk who describes herself as “a loser, a square, a dingaling.” She’s lonely and obsessed with bodily functions, like an inmate’s masturbation and her own diarrhea that her regular use of laxatives produces. (I’ll spare you the infamously in-depth description of her watery stool, but rest assured that it goes above and beyond to prove her assertion that she is not exactly a “pleasant person.”) She lives in a 1964 Massachusetts town with her verbally abusive father and stews in her life’s filth:
I didn’t really mind getting bossed around by my father. I’d get angry and I loathed him, yes, but my fury gave my life a kind of purpose and running his errands killed time. That is what I imagined life to be: one long sentence of waiting out the clock.
The hands of director William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) have sculpted a more user-friendly Eileen, played by Thomasin McKenzie. This Eileen, like the one in the pages of Moshfegh’s book, masturbates at work and smells her fingers, but she doesn’t go the extra mile of pressing her unwashed hand into a retiring colleague’s to bid him goodbye. There are standards here. Eileen, who Moshfegh described in an interview with Jezebel as a “disgusting female character,” is more odd than anything. We see her entranced with pubic hair on soap, chewing boxed chocolates and then spitting them out, replacing her father’s empty gin bottles dutifully. Without Moshfegh’s brilliant first-person narration, Eileen is a kind of walking question mark, and McKenzie strikes a deft balance between quirk and dissociation. This Eileen has been seemingly crafted to invite people in, while her literary counterpart practically dared people to look away.
They’re both products of Moshfegh’s mind, by the way. She wrote the screenplay with her partner Luke Goebel and gushed about the experience in a way that might surprise people who think of Moshfegh as aggressively aloof or a full-time purveyor of doom and gloom: “I feel so spoiled by this experience,” she recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “All the blood, sweat, and tears have evaporated now into this shimmering glow and we’re like, ‘We’ll do it a million times more,’ [because] it’s that good.”
An overall softening seems to be afoot with this project, and while the film version of Eileen doesn’t quite pack the same punch, there are some advantages to presenting a gentler version of the story. Eileen is no misstep of Cat Person proportions, though I do wonder if some of the more subtle points made here will be lost to those who didn’t read the book and thus haven’t been exposed to Eileen’s internal monologue. Regardless, there’s some welcome, straightforward comedy deriving from Eileen’s bumbling—scenes of her falling down stairs while carrying an eye-high pile of her father’s shoes and having a garbage bag explode at her feet as she is attempting to toss it in a dumpster have an infomercial-fail kind of vibe. It all looks nice and charming, too. Eileen is presented in a gentle 1:66:1 aspect ratio (neither too boxy nor too wide), and the muted, grainy aesthetic is not unlike that of Todd Haynes’ Carol. And so is the burgeoning lesbian romance that seems possible when Rebecca (played with exquisite poise and compassion by Anne Hathaway) joins the staff of the prison and shows Eileen something she is sorely lacking: kindness.
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For a long stretch, it’s not quite clear what Eileen makes of Rebecca. Is there actual physical attraction there, or is she merely bending toward the only sliver of sunshine life has allowed her? The degree of Eileen’s obsession is far clearer in the book, but there’s something liberating in the movie’s necessary ambiguity—there’s not really a name for what Eileen is feeling, because as an alternative to the abuse she receives from her father and coworkers (one of whom calls her “useless”), her actual connection with Rebecca is simply everything. It allows the possibility of life being more than just waiting out the clock. Rebecca’s rhapsody of Eileen, delivered by Hathaway as if she has just tasted the most delicious dessert, meanwhile, is just as moving in the film as it is on paper: “You remind me of a girl in Dutch painting. You have a strange face, it’s like plain but fascinating. There’s a beautiful…turbulence. I love that. I bet you have brilliant dreams. I bet you dream of other worlds.”
The movie’s resolution follows the book’s closely—it’s a shocker, in which Eileen juggles both her rage for the world’s injustices and her preparations to exact the kind of cruelty that perpetuates such injustices. Her entire life has led up to that point, and while her choices are selfish and fucked up, none of them are difficult to comprehend. We miss the conclusions her character draws via Moshfegh’s pen—“Idealism without consequences is the pathetic dream of every spoiled brat”—but not much.