Sing, O Muse, of Pygmalion, the sculptor so disgusted with womankind that he chiseled himself a wife from stone! Sing of Aphrodite’s decision to reward this questionable impulse by turning the resulting statue into a real, living girl! But most of all, O Muse, sing of the enduring legacy of Pygmalion, for his misogyny and unreasonable expectations inspired generations of artists to contemplate what it would mean to create an ideal instead of finding one in the real world. (Or just, you know, settling.)
Many Greek myths have found their way into fiction over the years (uh, millenia), obviously and otherwise. Prometheus’ fire-bringing set aflame the Shelleys’ imaginations, among others; Orpheus and Eurydice are recalled in diverse media ranging from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia to the film Moulin Rouge!. Countless texts warn against the sort of hubris that damned Icarus, and Dionysus and his maenads show up in that beloved coming of age novel, The Secret History, to name but a few examples.
The Greek's myths endure because they continue to resonate. While Donna Tartt treats The Bacchae directly, the tale of Dionysus’ razing of Thebes is at its heart about the terrifying power of religious mania, the danger in believing you possess all the answers; it points a finger at the hypocrisy of those who pretend they have no shadow side, and cautions them to beware what they repress. Similarly, who among us has not wished we could retrieve something irretrievable, as Orpheus tried in vain to do? And what isn’t appealing about the noble attempt to bring fire to a dark world?
As for me, I keep coming back to Pygmalion, as a creator and as a consumer. There is something completely fascinating to me about tales where a person tries to make another, whether from scratch, as in the original Pygmalion myth, or by attempting to shape and thereby permanently alter another person’s mind or body. Every aspect of the conceit bewitches and absorbs me—the process by which the metamorphosis occurs (or fails), the fraught relationship between creator and created, the end result of these sorts of experiments. Sure, there are better treatments than others (She’s All That is, for example, irredeemably wretched) but hearing that something has a Pygmalion aspect will get me to watch, read, listen faster than any other plot hint.
Last year, my dear hosts at Pornokitch gave me the opportunity to create a Friday 5 of favorite Pygmalion stories. I selected a handful from film, literature, nonfiction, and television—but it was so darn hard to pick only five I pitched a yearlong series where I could explore various treatments a more in-depth fashion. Thus… Pygmalia. This year I’ll select twelve Pygmalion stories—or stories that contain echoes of Pygmalion’s myth—and ramble about them. I already have a few in mind, but please feel free to suggest others in the comments or on twitter @molly_the_tanz. Or email me, emollytanzer [at] gmail.com. I’m woefully underread in comics specifically, but any recommendations are welcome.
Enough chitchat. Onto… some serious weirdness.
The Wiki for The Bride describes it as “an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” but that is a completely ridiculous claim. It is, more accurately described as “a film starring Sting as Baron Charles Frankenstein and the girl from Flashdance.” While The Bride generously nods at Frankenstein as well as various cinematic adaptations of the tale, it is entirely it’s own thing. A glorious thing, to my mind, and one that makes few concessions to viewers who come to it without at least a passing understanding of Frankenstein, but its own thing just the same. For the uninitiated… imagine a fanfic of Frankenstein that picks up in Frankenstein’s lab before he destroys the mate for the creature, but a dark, inverted fanfic where the writer had an axe to grind with My Fair Lady, including deciding that in their version of Frankenstein, Clerval survives to play a sexed-up Colonel Pickering to Baron Frankenstein’s Professor Higgins.
I… I don’t know? It was the 80s, and cocaine. That’s why this got made, is my only theory. Haters love to hate on this wonderfully weird relic, which has a whopping 22% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I think it’s great. I may be biased because it (1) is a Pygmalion story, and (2) it features a truly stunning performance by one of my favorite British actors, Anthony Higgins, as Sexy Clerval, who plays such an important role he is not mentioned, not even once, in the Wiki synopsis. Man. Tough crowd.
The Bride begins with a context-free sequence where Timothy Spall as Igor and Quentin Crisp as “Dr. Zalhus” (?) help Baron Frankenstein create a mate for the Creature, played by Clancy Brown of Highlander and… Highlander fame. I shouldn’t be mean, apparently he was in Pathfinder, which is a film I watched. He will also be in the certain-to-be-wonderful World of Warcraft film as, ahem, “Blackhand.”
Anyways, despite being over-electrocuted, as will happen in a Frankenstein adaptation, Jennifer Beals wakes up and is obviously mega-hot, prompting the Creature to claim her for his own. Baron Sting Frankenstein also notices Beals is hot, and becomes uncool with this. Steampunk-ish things happen, a fire occurs, and Frankenstein and Beals flee the lab, leaving the Creature (and possibly Dr. Zalhus) to burn to death. But at least the Creature escapes, befriends David Rappaport from Time Bandits, and goes off to join the circus in Budapest. I’ll come back to this obviously insane plotline in a moment, for Beals' arc is why I chose this to headline my Pygmalion series.
Did I mention that Beals is super-hot? This inspires Baron Sting Frankenstein to take her into his care, lie to her about being an amnesiac that he found in the woods, and embark on a quest to mold her mind into that of the ideal woman—a woman “equal to a man,” as he puts it. Sex Clerval thinks this is an absolute scream, because Sex Clerval just wants to make lewd innuendoes about how it would be better to train up Beals for some other purpose. Not at all creepy. Did I mention that Sex Clerval is sporting the world’s most alarming greasy braided ponytail as he leers about raping an amnesiac? I love this movie.
Beginning in earnest to channel My Fair Lady, Sting Frankenstein begins to teach “Eva” (which he decides will be her name after she struts downstairs in her altogether) the refinements of late 18th century European society. Eva is thrust into his old University robes and taught grammar and to eat with a knife and fork instead of gobbling chicken face first. Fair warning, there is nothing innocent or charming about this. Sting is even nastier to Eva than Higgins is to Eliza Doolitle in My Fair Lady (more on this later). Instead of tormenting Eva by, say, giving strawberry tarts to birds or whatever, tra la la, Sting shouts angrily at Eva when she gets things wrong and is generally horrible to her. Only when she puts on real clothes and begins to read and understand the world does he show her any respect, and even then, it’s not much.
When at last Eva can handle herself, Sting takes her to a seriously 18th century shindig—footmen, gilded things, officers, champagne, African pages, the works. Eva conducts herself just as well as Eliza “I hear the RAIN in SPAIN falls MAINLY in the PLAIN” Doolittle, chatting about Shakespeare’s plays with what the movie wants us to believe is sophisticated literacy, until an Abyssinian cat approaches Eva and she starts literally screaming at it. “You didn’t tell me about cats,” she pouts in the carriage afterwards. “I thought it was a tiny lion.”
Also at the shindig: Eva’s very own Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young officer played by a v. dashing Cary Elwes. He is instantly attracted to Eva, and Eva, having apparently only associated with Sting and Sex Clerval, is not unaffected by this chance meeting.
Eva’s obvious attraction to Elwes sours things between her and Baron Sting. Sting becomes grumpier and more erratic, and very desirous of making sure Eva knows her place. His sexual obsession with his physical and mental creation becomes increasingly obvious, especially when he sneaks into her bedroom, you know, just to watch her sleep, Edward Cullen-style.
All this builds to a head, culminating in a giant fight between Sting and Eva, beginning with him insisting that she belongs to him, “liberated” Eva telling him to back off, Sting revealing the nature of her origins, and then trying to rape her. Good times.
As all this has been... happening... the Creature has teamed up with “Rinaldo,” the aforementioned guy from Time Bandits. Rinaldo is the father/friend that Frankenstein never was to his creation, you know, in Frankenstein the novel, but definitely not in The Bride, where Frankenstein’s casting off the Creature is never once mentioned. Never. Rinaldo through kindness and empathy helps the Creature become more human, even giving him a name. Viktor. So meta! A bunch of stuff happens to them that is great but not relevant to the alleged Pygmalion focus of this writeup, so suffice it to say that when Viktor the Creature returns to Castle Baron Charles Frankenstein he is a changed man.
Oh, I forgot to mention that Eva and Viktor have a mental connection of an unelaborated-upon nature, which leads to Viktor saving her from Sting Frankenstein’s attempted rape. The film ends with them going to Venice. Maybe?
If you are confused, you are not alone. Even those who watch this gem come away with… questions.
It’s a mess. I know it’s a mess. But I love it, on its own merits and also because it’s a weird, dark image in the mirror of My Fair Lady—and one that turns My Fair Lady on its ear by specifically criticizing the film’s jolly pro-patriarchy stance, most especially if one believes the film is representing a romance between Eliza and Higgins. (I don’t, but I elaborated on my theory last time.)
In My Fair Lady, Higgins and Pickering go out of their way to mention over and over again that Eliza is in no way going to be preyed upon by them sexually. Is this believable? If like me, you read Higgins as not particularly interested in womenfolk beyond professional interest in their dialects and enjoying bossing them around, definitely. But, again, My Fair Lady is considered by many to be a romance, which makes for a much more sexually uncomfortable situation for Eliza.
Frankenstein and Clerval, The Bride’s Higgins/Pickering couple, make no attempt to hide the fact that they are both pretty darn interested in Eva as a sexual object. Frankenstein’s quest to make a woman “equal to a man” is as laughed at as it as laughable within the world of the film. We know Charles "Sting" Frankenstein is a creep, and Sex Clerval is the voice of our knowledge. It is obvious that Sex Clerval unapologetically loves being a part of the patriarchy and knows his friend is just lying to himself. All of his scenes revolve around this. It's true: Frankenstein, in spite of his protests, just wants to hit that two times—and he very obviously is aware that whatever Eva’s personal feelings on the matter might be, he can hit it as much as he wants. Eva is isolated, powerless, and in his “care.” If she refuses his advances, she has nowhere to go and has no one to turn to, being alone in the world due to being a re-animated corpse. For Eva, it’s not just a return to the streets of London as a weirdo because she can talk like a lady in a flower shop. It’s the threat of being thrown into the woods around Castle Frankenstein without anyone caring if she lives or dies. It’s really ugly, and the scenes of Frankenstein grooming Eva lack any of the cheeriness of My Fair Lady. We know the worst that can happen to Eliza is she might chip a tooth on a marble. The stakes are much higher for Eva, and throw into sharp relief what lively musical numbers like “Just You Wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins” elide over.
My Fair Lady is recalled again when Elwes/Freddy comes on the scene, in a too-similar way to the Ascot sequence of My Fair Lady to be an accident. Eva, like Eliza, is on display for the first time for all and sundry, and manages to hold her own until excitement causes her to lose her refinements. Elwes, like Freddy, is intrigued by this oddity, but not because he wants to hang out on the street where Eva lives. No, he too just wants a piece of that, beause (as I mentioned) she is ultra-hot, and when they are discovered as Elwes is in the final stages of seducing her, Elwes confesses his attraction was always purely physical, and he cares nothing for her. Eva rather understandably doesn’t take this well. It’s a hard lesson, and one that Eliza never needs to learn because the element of sexual peril is removed from My Fair Lady. When Freddy finds Eliza on the streets of London he does not take advantage of her being unaccompanied in a dark, dangerous city. He goes to Higgins' mother's house with her, presumably, and delivers her safely unto a matron.
But perhaps the darkest, most obvious of The Bride's inversions of My Fair Lady occurs in the difference between the two male leads’ reaction to their creation exceeding their expectations. In My Fair Lady, Higgins is excited and astonished by Eliza's transformation. He’s ecstatic when Eliza is hailed by all as astonishingly refined at the ball, he’s delighted if regretful when she leaves him, and even more delighted when she returns to be his… whatever it is she returns to do. Her successes make him proud of her as his acomplishment, but when called on the carpet for being a jerk and an egotist he reveals that he is proud of her for rising to the occasion and triumphing.
In The Bride, there is no scene where Frankenstein exclaims anything akin to “You’re a tower of strength, a consort-battleship! I like you this way.” No, when Eva corrects Frankenstein that it was Percy Shelley, not Keats, who wrote “Prometheus Unbound” Frankenstein has a total meltdown hissy fit and throws the book she retrieves to prove her point into the fireplace. Frankenstein despises Eva for her intelligence, for her success, for daring to treat him as an equal, his ostensible purpose in educating her. All his lies are revealed for what they are: the kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t trap set by the patriarchy to keep women from power. It’s a very dark film in that way, though it calls out romantic Pygmalion adaptations pretty spectacularly. Pygmalion, the original Pygmalion I mean, made his creation because he despised all the real human women out there. What, I wonder, would have been his reaction if Galatea had come alive… only to have opinions, an inner life? Wants and desires? Would he have been like Higgins in My Fair Lady, pleased to accept his ideal creation's depth of intellect and strength of character? Or would he have been a total douche about it, like Baron Sting Frankenstein in The Bride?
Smart money unfortunately says the latter...
Next Month: We'll lighten things up substantially with Vision of Escaflowne, a completely bonkers mid-90s anime I encountered as a young Tanz. You thought that synopsis of The Bride sounded odd? Just wait until you find out about the Zone of Absolute Fortune.