Our task as (screen)writers is to find intriguing ways to tell the “same” stories. The issues of death (releasing the old) and rebirth (entering into the new) are at the core of pretty much every film. Employing a unique brand of visual lyricism through symbols will make your film stand out in both plot and subtext.
Symbols do the real heavy lifting of your storytelling, as they speak to the subconscious of your audience to drive points home in ways that dialogue and stage direction simply cannot. Let’s take a look at two films whose distinctive approaches to rebirth are exciting and terrifying: Stoker and The Fall.
And yes, there will be spoilers.
Stoker (2013) – Dir. Park Chan-wook
The womb, the moon, and water
When we first see India Stoker, we have no idea who she is yet, but she is already explaining that it’s not her fault: “Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be.”
India’s strange uncle, Charlie, has been sending her the same pair of shoes in proportionate sizes every year on her birthday. What’s more, the shoes, like Charlie’s newly overwhelming presence in her life, appear to be grooming her for something. At first it looks like Charlie’s motives are inappropriately sexual when she turns 18, until we find out his murderous tendencies have seemingly been inherited by India.
Charlie wants her to be his love and his protégé, as India struggles to contain a darkness within herself she is aware of, but doesn’t necessarily want to let it out in Charlie’s way…
Although the shot comes much earlier than when we discover Charlie’s intentions, Park Chan-wook’s visual storytelling sets it up with the shoe womb. The dominating hunter-prey theme and avian symbolism are huge here, complete with the headboard resembling a wing. However, I think the arrangement of the shoes connotes a womb more than an egg. Check it out:
India’s head position and foetal pose resemble a baby ready to be born – in her case, out of a stilted, repressed adolescence – and into a new life destined for murder.
There’s a sense of gestation and fullness in the increasing tension in her life, which comes to a head when she takes a local guy, Whip, to a night-time playground. After spinning around on a metal roundabout beneath a full moon, enticing Whip, she runs down into a dark grove of trees whose parting suggests a vaginal opening. On the other side of this opening is where she’ll attack Whip but ends up being overpowered, still clumsy and unsure of what she’s doing – like the early steps of a new-born.
Never far behind, Charlie appears and saves India as Whip lands on top of her. Sandwiching Whip’s body between his and India’s, Charlie strangles him with a belt. Later, India cleans herself up in the shower and masturbates while crying, thinking about the ordeal. Here, we get something of an orgasm by proxy – Charlie’s desire for her unites with her own integration of her dark needs. Her moans in climax also sound like she’s in labour (with the facial expressions to match!), resulting in “birthing herself” into her murderous new form.
The rest of the film dedicates itself to what she’ll do with this new identity when she faces a final moral challenge.
The key symbols in this rebirth are powerful archetypes: the womb, an ancient symbol for growth of new life; the full moon, often a harbinger but in this case an indicator of a completed cycle; and water, a powerful symbol for renewal and change. These symbols help to deepen the story out of being “just” about a girl with an inherited mental illness. We come to understand that she accepts her killer side as part of her nature, when it turns out the first scene we met her in is also the last, and she accepts the inevitability of her true self.
The Fall (2019) – Dir. Jonathan Glazer
The harrowing five-ish minutes of Glazer’s latest short are simple: a group of depraved people in modern dress shake a man out of a tree, put a noose around his neck, and toss him down what looks like a bottomless well. The victim manages to stop his fall a long ways down the abyss. He gets the noose off his neck before the rope continues its heavy hurtle into the echoing dark. Nameless, voiceless, his crime unknown, the man begins what feels like an eternal ascent back to the faint light of the world above.
Jonathan Glazer has said little on the direct meaning of the film but has alluded to a message about modern politics. The film’s lack of dialogue leaves us to work with the imagery, and it’s dense. Sticking to our topic, I see the man’s rebirth as some kind of renewed determination. We don’t know what he did to get into this mess – he could be guilty, he could be innocent, he could be persistent good, or persistent evil, or both, given the overwhelming grey palette. Yet the pit is so evocative of a well that I think he’s on his way to redemption.
Wells are symbols for transcendence; they unite earth with water, and the sky, when reflected on the surface of the water, or when someone is looking up from the bottom of it. Wells also unify a community for obtaining life-giving water. Their depths can also be secret-keepers, used by mysterious townspeople in many a tale to toss away something or someone they’d rather forget.
Although the film is entitled The Fall, I think it’s about the man’s precarious ascent. There’s a feeling that his efforts will result in the preservation of truth in his movement toward the light. That he is still willing to fight for his survival shows his rebirth from victim to survivor.
Always keep your audience thinking
India could have gotten up one day, shot her family, and then turned to camera and said she was just born this way. That would have said nothing about one of the many life questions that Stoker attempts to answer: do we really have control over what we inherit from our families?
The man in the well could have stood up on a platform and given an impassioned speech in his defence, then gotten killed. That would have said nothing about the human struggle of transcending our barbaric tendencies, or the need to fight against injustice like his climb does.
If your film asks profound questions like these, look for equally profound symbols that will stylize and deepen the film accordingly.
Films break down the big themes of our shared human experience into beginnings, middles and endings that – hopefully – impart some kind of valuable knowledge. These are the films people remember. Make use of Raindance’s screenwriting classes and explore how you can bring more symbolism into your work to keep your audience thinking.
Watch Stoker on your preferred streaming platform.