When Angelina Jolie was announced as Best Supporting Actress
at the 72nd Annual Academy Awards ceremony, she
embraced her brother, a very beautiful boy who has
Angelina's eyes, and then made her way to the podium.
Looking like she had just come from a cauldron party,
Angelina proceeded to gush about her intimate love
for him, speaking in a manner that went beyond most
viewers' notion of sibling love.
It's probably absurd to think that Angelina and her brother
have a sexual relationship. But she made us
feel that they do, and palpably.
With its intrinsic sense of taboo, incest is not typical
multiplex fare. A bit like Francois Truffaut's quote
that it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film,
cinema seems to have difficulty seriously conveying
the horror and disgust of incest. When I first saw
Hotel New Hampshire, for instance, I didn't see
Rob Lowe and Jodie Foster as brother and sister
but as two attractive young actors in bed. If Angelica
Huston had played the role of Evelyn Mulray in Chinatown,
even without sharing any scenes with her father,
perhaps the ending would've felt more sinister than
it did. And if Nicolas Cage had played Vincent,
the nephew of Michael Corleone in The Godfather
Part III, perhaps we would have a better sense of the real stakes in his romance
with Corleone's daughter, played by Sophia Coppola,
Cage's actual first cousin.
This is not to say that an actor's actual relatives are
needed in a film to make incest appear real
to us. But it seems a quixotic task of dramatically
capturing horrific times and events (the scope
of the Holocaust, slavery, etc.), and incest
is on yet another plane. Dramatized incest isn't
just the simple act of simulated sex, which
we see onscreen daily. It's the psychological
effect of that fake sex, based on relationships
that have been explained, though it remains
ultimately intangible to the viewer. Only a
few films provide a real suspension of disbelief,
and it is no coincidence that those films invariably
feature little-known actors.
Why do we come back to this volatile subject in art time
and again? In his book Forbidden Partners: The
Incest Taboo in Modern Culture
(1987), James B. Twitchell writes: "The shock and
horror of incest have excited each new generation,
none more so than our own—It has been a powerful
stimulus to our individual and collective imagination.
It has made us shiver and wonder. It has made us
imagine and create." Aside from this almost jingoistic
call to culture in the name of incest across the
land, Twitchell does make the point that, implied
if not explicit, incest has been a continuing muse
in all forms of art and storytelling since the early
days; for the Greeks, Shakespeare
and even the Bible.
of you shall approach to any that is near of kin
to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the LORD.
verses in Leviticus that follow are even more specific
rulings on what defines sexual contact between family
members. They go into detail, relative by relative,
down to one's aunts. The people of Israel, in no
uncertain terms, receive the Laws of Acceptable
Intimacy, thereby distinguishing them from the surrounding
pagans. Yet before the Commandments were handed
down, generations lived as they could, measuring
morality by standards not yet in placeÑall the way
back to the very first couple, who engaged in sexual
intercourse without the union of matrimony. And
yet, could it not be said that Adam and Eve are
not only our fore parents, but also the first brother
and sister? Eve is born of Adam's rib, thus making
her flesh of his flesh. Beyond that, they're like
a mischievous bro & sis, running around the
yard, frolicking during "naked time" as if the only
thing missing is dad and his handy cam. The bewildering
lack of an actual childhood must only add to the
complications inherent in having your lover be the
only other person with whom you can share your time
and who stands beside you as you answer to the wrath
Often in films dealing with sibling incest, the romance
is portrayed as almost a noble love that others
simply don't understand. Unlike the love between
parent and child, this is an "us-against-the-world"
vibe, an insular club with its own patterns of communication,
much like Angelina Jolie and her brother on that
Sunday night in March.
The Cement Garden, directed by Andrew Birkin and starring Charlotte
Gainsbourg (Andrew's niece and the daughter of Serge
Gainsbourg, the French singer with whom she recorded
the song "Lemon Incest"), has that quality in spades.
It presents the older children of a family caring
for the younger ones and even burying their deceased
mother in the garden. The older children, Jack and
Julie, face a growing intimacy over the course of
the film. Julie's boyfriend is the audience's surrogate,
discovering with disgust the "deviancy" going on
behind closed doors. If one goes behind the curtain,
thinking of Birkin directing his own niece in such
a film, the film slides into a darker place. It's
not quite Robert Carradine and his niece Martha
Plimpton going at it hardcore, but it'll do.
The film Hotel New Hampshire stubbornly sets about creating
an uncommon tone. The entire story is treated like
a reverie—a fantastic, awkwardly unfolding yarn that gets wackier as it progresses
to an almost surreal conclusion. When the love between
siblings Fanny and Jack (Jodie Foster and Rob Lowe)
is finally consummated, it comes after nothing short
of total sexual narrative exhaustion; May-December
sex, pre-civil rights interracial romance, gang
rape and homosexuality. In short, the film has covered
so much that the "pure" love of the brother and
sister seems a refuge from other immoral and/or
socially unacceptable behavior. And still, the incestuous
evening is presented comically, with a clock's hour
hand making more laps than a typical workday to
show time passing, taking us out of reality—or perhaps saving us from it. It is, after all, pubescent Jodie and Rob,
who never much acted like siblings in the first
place. From the beginning, their love is treated
like an itchy rash, as if it just needs some talcum
powder to make it go away. And it does.
Having the same anagrammatical serendipity as Santa/Satan
is Angels and Insects. This film presents
sibling incest as a mystery, a con of sorts. Set
in England in the 1860s, it is determined to use
incest as a symbol for the hypocrisy and evils lurking
under the surface of proper society. What makes
the discovery scene so effective is the deception
of loved ones. Essentially, there is no difference
between this scene and the conclusion of Louis Malle's
Damage, where Jeremy Irons' character is discovered, by his own son, having intercourse
with the young man's fiance. Our sympathies lie
with the deceived, regardless of the relationship
between the carnal partners.
Angels and Insects is in keeping with the party line of "noble" sibling
love; that it's an ineffable need, an unceasing
affliction/addiction, the rest of us be damned.
Any true sense of deviancy comes from the brother,
an indecent, xenophobic, pompous sexual abuser (of
other women). As in Damage, the offending member is itself
on display, half-erect, caught red-handed, as it
were. But are we truly revolted on a visceral level
by the naked siblings? Not really, no more than
we were at the brother forcing sex on a servant
of the house. Again, as with Hotel New Hampshire,
the incest is diffused, here by the immoral behavior
of one character and the multiple scenes of matrimonial
sex of the other.
Like Chinatown, The War Zone presents incest between a father
and his daughter, though unlike the other film,
it is shown graphically on-screen in the present.
As with all relationships of this sort, even if
the sex is consensual, it never really is. Early
on we get a sense of something wrong, and the film
is the most successful of the lot in setting up
a completely fictional scenario and making us feel
the impurity. This is because the film is claustrophobic
from the beginning; the family trapped in a small
house in the country, mom breastfeeding her infant
child in plain view. The film sucks us into the
hearth, and by the time we see the father putting
himself into his naked teenage daughter, we are
sickened. The act itself is not conducted in the
missionary position but from behind, further communicating
the discord and pain.
Yet dad is a good man most of the time. By not presenting
him as sinister, not cueing the Darth Vader theme
as dad enters stage left, it is more wrenching to
see him committing such an act on his own daughter.
Demonize him at the beginning, and the audience
collectively becomes self-congratulatory for seething
at him each available chance. In other words, he
would get off easy because we're distracted by our
pride in thinking ourselves morally superior. But
by making the audience contend with a man who otherwise
loves and cares for his family, the film pulls no
punches. It therefore earns the disgust and bitterness
it leaves behind.
If it were not inappropriate to put incest into a hierarchy,
with cousins on the low end and parent-child on
the other, it seems that mother-son intercourse
finds itself at the top. Why is that? Perhaps, oddly
enough, because it feels less like manipulation.
Whereas a father-daughter union implies non-consensual
sex and therefore a crime much like that of rape
in general, mother-son sex seems to be a more "cerebral"
and less "base" act and, paradoxically, more wrath-worthy.
This entire train of thought is narrow-minded, but
it does prove sometimes to be the case. It has been
said that men, with each caress and suckle of a
lover's breast, want to return to the bosom of their
mothers. And for this "weakness" is reserved the
strongest censure. James B. Twitchell also writes:
"We reserve our linguistic wrath for the most abhorrent
act: mother-son incest. The most obscene and ferocious
curse in the English language is 'mother-fucker,'
which with gnomic concision expresses both social
and familial outrage at a fever pitch."
Three films about mother-son intercourse, Bertolucci's
Luna, Malle's Murmur of the Heart
and David O. Russell's Spanking the
Monkey, all present the actions of the mother as somehow "saving"
her misunderstood and socially retarded son. Spanking the Monkey sees them taking refuge in
one another, drowning out the mother's and son's
missed opportunities, both social and professional.
They need to be drunk for it to happen, and it does.
Pitting the mother and son against the philandering
father also increases its effectiveness. Unlike
some of these other films, seeing the fathers onscreen
reinforces the mothers as mothers and the sons as
In Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close,
Gertrude kisses her son fully on the mouth to stop
him from speaking the truth she does not want to
hear—this, after he dry humps her
in a fit of tortured anger and carnal confusion.
As in The Grifters, incestuous flirtation
is exploited for ulterior goals. It seems that both
Hamlet and The Grifters, which
are not about the carnal relationship between mother
and son, is more effective because we are invested
in the characters in a way that has nothing to do
with sex. When these moments come, they play better,
and they play to the gut.
In the dramatization of incest, many interesting ideas spring to mind,
particularly about suspension of disbelief. To wit:
If we accept John and Joan Cusack in the same film
as siblings (Say Anything) and as non-siblings in others (Grosse Pointe
Blank, High Fidelity), why can't they, by extension,
play husband and wife? Shouldn't that "believability"
work both ways? Why does that cross the invisible
line of being dramatically unacceptable? Aside from
how distasteful it is, would the depiction of real-life
siblings as on-screen (unrelated) lovers be considered
obscenity, or only if they played brother/sister
lovers? From each question springs a new one. But
it all comes down to the same essential one, that
which has been asked since the beginning of Drama
through Dogma 95: How authentic can dramatic reproduction
be, and do its constraints lie with the presentation
or with the spectator?
"For whatever reasons," Twitchell writes in his conclusion,
"the human unease at contemplating, much less violating,
this prohibition has inspired some of the most lasting
works of modern literature and popular culture—as well as some of the most
Thus, it is to the Big '80s, a decade that
has proven to be both culturally long lasting and
ephemeral, that we turn for the final words on celluloid
incest. Marty McFly is kissed by his mother in that
reverse-oedipal comedy Back to the Future,
a film wherein the hero's mission is to re-channel
his mother's obsessive love to his father—in the process rescuing his father and avoiding sleeping with his mother.
The kiss we do see is innocuous enough to
be in a film that is a ride at a theme park. Admittedly,
it's a bit pointless to seek out verite in a movie
about a time-traveling DeLorean. And, oddly enough,
the single film scene that best conveys the "eeww-grossness"
of incest is found in none other than National
Lampoon's Vacation. Vicki, the white trash cousin
of the Griswolds, sits on a seesaw with Audrey and
brags, "I French kiss."
Audrey is unimpressed by something so typical.
"Yeah," continues Vicki, "but my
daddy says I'm the best." The moment's humor
may be sordid, it may not be trying to appeal to
the best in each of us and it may fill us with moral
superiority to this white trash family. But we're
talking incest here; it does have an underneath. We laugh or we groan, but we don't