Amber Tamblyn, the actress, author and filmmaker, doesn’t bother with coyness when it comes to her influences. “The movie I saw in my head was Grey Gardens directed by David Lynch,” she writes in the press notes for her debut feature, Paint It Black, based on Janet Fitch’s 2006 novel.
The film itself proves more entrancing than the imitative mashup that logline suggests. Tamblyn (and Ed Dougherty, who co-wrote the adaptation with her) has shaped Fitch’s book into an actress’s duel and duet in which Alia Shawkat and Janet McTeer torment each other in a starting-to-molder Echo Park mansion.
The dress-up and the passing manias are too poisonous to suggest the Maysleses’ immortal study of the two Edith Beales, and McTeer’s character, world-class pianist Meredith, keeps a gleaming Steinway in the house rather than raccoons. Instead, Tamblyn arcs toward Lynch, celebrating and interrogating the roles that actresses have played in his films. Here it’s a dead boy that plunges us into the underworld.
Shawkat plays Josie, the lover of Meredith’s only son, a recent suicide. The women spend much of Paint It Black stunned, unmoored, almost somnabulent in the present moment but alive in a past that flickers up, in elliptical flashbacks, on the screen behind their eyes. Tears smear their faces in exquisitely painful closeups. Sometimes they’re cruel to each other, at war over the memory of the deceased. Sometimes, the women are tender, each moved that nobody but the other could possibly understand her.
Sometimes, of course, they are each other. Broke-ass Josie has agreed to play the lead in a cheap-o indie film that’s every bit as derivative as Tamblyn’s movie isn’t; on set, in a flood-control channel of the Los Angeles river, the young brunette wears the older blonde’s dress and a golden wig.
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At first, Paint It Black scrambles the rules of noir hair-color evil, with the blonde mother attacking the brunette lover at the dead son’s funeral, a scene that Tamblyn dares to goose into harrowing slapstick. (The film is dark but never humorless.) But then the women tack between avenging themselves upon each other and offering a sort of malignant support, their relationship at once adversarial and sororal, incestuous and necrophiliac.
With beauty and horror, Tamblyn and her team (Brian Rigney Hubbard served as director of photography and Paul Frank as editor) layer the actresses’ faces atop each other, and then atop the son’s, a technique that might sound pedantic but in practice proves unsettlingly satisfying, like individual notes struck together into a sharply dissonant chord. The movie never tells us what to make of this, thankfully. Like Lynch, Tamblyn knows that the clues can reveal more than a mystery’s solution.
Paint It Black suffers from some rote and repetitive passages, but the layering and twinning prove arresting both in full scenes — McTeer is magnificent with some boozy, discomfiting monologues — and in grieving, dream-logic montage. Outside of some flirting flashbacks, Shawkat shuts down the nervous comic intelligence that has distinguished her TV roles. Instead, Josie is bereft, a body hollowed out but for a rage she’s surprised to discover she can relish.
Behold Shawkat’s face in those many piercing closeups, her mouth parted in trembling disbelief, her eyes leaking across those constellations of freckles. No matter her influences, Tamblyn has filmed for us something singular.