The Soul is right up there with death, light, and darkness as one of art’s most profound symbols. Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives and The Lighthouse are two films with unique approaches to existence by using the Soul as an indirect symbol. The motifs of repetition show how experiences can evolve or devolve a soul, helping it to learn from all that life has to teach.
Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) – Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Boonmee lives on a farm in northern Thailand with his sister-in-law Jen and Tong, his nephew. Boonmee is dying from a kidney disease. During his final weeks, the ghost of his wife, Huay, returns to comfort him and offer emotional support to Jen. His long-missing son, Boonsong, returns as a black creature with red eyes. He tells the family that he mated with a Monkey Ghost and forgot the ways of the world from which he came, now thriving in the jungle and, apparently, other planes of existence. Sensing death is near, Boonmee expresses regret for how he lived his life and wonders whether his disease is the result of karma. We get to see parts of his previous lives, like the time when he was a vain princess in love with the reflection of her younger days, interspersed with his repeated kidney treatments. Boonmee also investigates a dream about a future city and the future meaning of authority. Boonmee can’t remember whether he was born in a cave that Huay later leads him to, but finds comfort in whatever the afterlife will bring. After Boonmee’s funeral, Tong and Jen go out for a meal, and Tong is disturbed by the sight of himself, Jen, and a family friend sitting in a hotel room.
The Lighthouse (2020) – Dir. Robert Eggers
In the late 1890s, Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake are the “wickies” assigned to man a lighthouse far off the New England coast. Wake is a crabby old experienced sailor, and Winslow is a young timberman who wanted better pay for labour offshore. The two men live in close quarters and don’t get along, with Winslow doing all the manual work, and Wake possessively taking the night shift so he can man the lighthouse alone. However, Winslow discovers that Wake is up there communing with the light, and what may be a tentacled sea monster. The men eventually start to get to know each other, although Wake is relentless in his taskmaster treatment of Winslow. Winslow one day kills a gull, which Wake admonishes is bad luck, as a seagull is thought to be the reincarnated soul of a sailor. Not long after, a wild storm cuts the men off from being picked up from the island, and all they have left to consume for the foreseeable future is denatured alcohol. As drunkenness and fighting take over their time together, Winslow makes a sudden confession: his name is actually Thomas Howard, and he didn’t take this job for better pay. He took it because he killed a man at his last job because he constantly insulted him. Winslow continually loses his grip on reality and wants to know what is in the light that Wake so fiercely protects, ending up killing the old wickie. When Winslow gets to the light, he screams in a delighted terror and falls down the spiral steps. He is later eaten by seagulls.
Also known as the anima, the soul is the essence of a living thing. It defines spiritual and metaphysical existence and provides a connection to God, nature, Earth and all places beyond. The value and judgment of a soul, in (most) religions as in art, comes down to the sum of a soul’s experiences and what was done through these.
In Boonmee, the soul absorbs experience like ink and carries its lessons and passions from one life to the next.
Responsibility, caretaking and stewardship play strong roles here, and the characters are always thinking or talking about how they relate to each other or the world at large. They understand their part to play in life isn’t only bound to the now, but to the past as well as the future. The transformation and transcendence in the main narrative and other stories isn’t off-putting; it shows that the enduring nature of the soul can take many forms and impart many layers of knowledge. The more one experiences as an animal, a tree, a person, etc., the better one’s soul becomes. These are the cycles and consequences that show a kind of pleasure to having a soul.
On the flipside, The Lighthouse depicts the burden of the soul.
There are loads of audience theories and semi-mysterious interviews with Robert Eggers about the intent of the film. Your humble blogger will stand by her own interpretation: that this film is about a soul in purgatory. In the opening scene, the boat drops off Wake and Winslow and then vanishes into a dense fog, resembling a vanishing into another dimension. The two men look into the distance – but more into camera, in a way, at us – as if being presented for judgment. There’s the feeling in the dialogue and several sequences throughout the film that we’re not looking at two men, rather two sides of the same man.
Wrestling with the guilt that drove him to murder, Winslow keeps hoping for salvation (there are a crazy number of shots of him looking up), while doing things that keep him in a downward spiral. These are the irresistible temptations that his ego can’t seem to overcome, which keeps his soul pinned in purgatory. He is taunted by the gull until he kills it, allured by a mermaid until he has sex with it, is obsessed with the mystery of the light until he kills for it. He wants to be good, follow the rules and forget, but he can’t help himself.
Thomas Wake is Winslow’s teacher, tormentor, father figure, archetypal housewife, harbinger, sailor, and judge – voices in Winslow’s head that drive him to do his day’s work but torture him with the idea of a pure, albeit unattainable, source of pleasure and respite (the light/salvation). By Winslow revealing his true name to be Thomas, Thomas Wake becomes a play on an imperative: “Thomas, wake!” He must not only confess what he did but release himself of the guilt over it; a challenge that he fails with the murder of the old wickie.
The aspect ratio the film was shot in was designed to make the viewer feel trapped and claustrophobic throughout. Applied to the argument that this film deals with damnation of the soul, the oppressive feeling of the film is a reminder that Winslow/Wake is stuck with himself. He can’t get away from all he’s done.
When he finally reaches the light and looks into it – and again, not just into it but into camera, at us – his oil-covered face looks like it’s covered in mud or blood. This has connections to the fall of man – man being something born of the earth, born again and screaming that the ordeal of his experience is not yet over and must be repeated with no access to his proverbial heaven. Is he screaming from disappointment? Is it that he’s rejected by the higher power of the light and cast back down to start again? Will he become one of the gulls which eat his body?
Now that you’ve done this bit of light reading, check out The Lighthouse and Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives on your favourite platform. Later, with all your heart and Soul, write your next amazing script at Raindance.