The Death of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Posted by Liam Dodds on October 13, 2014 in Blog tagged with , , , , ,

An image of Amy and Nick from David Fincher's adaptation of Gone Girl

The books don’t matter. Accordingly, I had not read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl before I took my seat in the feted darkness of Edinburgh’s improbable and implausible Omni Centre. I had, however, briefly perused the novel’s Wikipedia article just so that, in the darkness, I could smirk my semi-knowing smirk in a pathetic show of one-upmanship over the twenty other people in the world who hadn’t read the novel as that twist was portrayed in beautiful, splendid Technicolor. I say twist. The old-timey Village actually set in the present day, the strange otherworldliness of a post-apocalyptic Earth, Bruce Willis being dead. In the end, it’s all just plot really. And, for me, as I luxuriated in Fincher’s glorious gothic farce, the plot of Gone Girl appeared exquisitely straightforward. It’s a romantic comedy, isn’t it?

The mythic reimaginings of Amy and Nick’s early relationship are prototypical (500) Days of Summer relationship fairytale. Spontaneous and quirky, with sprinklings of sugar-cloud first kisses and bookshop sex, mixed with impossibly endearing treasure hunts full of in-jokes and self-referential “I have never told that to anyone else” clues, inevitably leading to heartache-inducing, unreachable treasures; the early days of Amy and Nick’s relationship are portrayed as the epitome of “punch-it-in-the-face” coupledom perfection. The non-linear narrative structure and the repeated notation of the number of days Amy was “Gone” seemed to subtly reference the number of Days Before and After Summer. In (500) Days’ Expectations versus Reality segment, Tom imagines an improbable reunion with Summer, dreaming of reuniting with his enduring true love on a rooftop in Los Angeles after an evening spent in intimate conversation and easy familiarity, which is compared to the inevitable and crushing disappointment of thinly-veiled disapproval and an unexpected proposal. Expectations versus Reality. Gone Girl is the dissection of a relationship with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl taken to its logical, and bloody, extreme.

An image of Amy Dunne from David Fincher's adaptation of Gone Girl

Stunningly attractive, high on life and full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (with just a hint of childlike playfulness – that fluffy pen!), Rosamund Pike’s affectless performance brilliantly portrays the archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Amy helps her protagonist husband achieve happiness without, seemingly, ever seeking to achieve any independent goals for herself. Amy’s career nosedives as she leaves the life she knows in New York to support her husband as he returns to his hometown to care for his ailing mother, all to her own physical and emotional detriment. Why? There is the vague sense an encroaching recession cuts short a potentially lucrative and burgeoning Buzzfeed-style online-quiz writing career. There is the sense that an exploitative parent who mined Amy’s unexceptional infancy for inspiration to write a series of motivational short stories for children exists seemingly only to ensure that Amy could finance her husband’s dream of owning a knowingly postmodern hometown Bar. The truth is entirely absent, to ensure that the centre of Amy and Nick’s relationship dynamic cannot hold. With Affleck’s physique, winning smile, and easy-on-the-eye aesthetic, it is easy to imagine him as the small-town Homecoming King, the jersey behind the bar former-quarterback, who always imagined his life being just like this. I can almost envisage the doting soccer moms looking on as he loads groceries, the local automobile dealer who gives his former sports-hero half-off the latest models, or the well-marinated former classmate precariously perched on a barstool as they reminisce about State Championship games. Amy’s past? In the opening monologue, Nick voices a disquieting desire to open Amy’s skull to find out what she is thinking. Like Ramona Flowers, the only past we are allowed access to consists solely of hints at childhood vulnerability and a litany of former lovers for whom she has obviously delivered uncompromising adventure and life-changedness. Amy Dunne is unattainable.

Ok, for those who are familiar with the work, I should address the life-changedness of Amy’s former boyfriends. Admittedly, the life changes depicted in Gone Girl are slightly different from the life changes awaiting the screaming-in-the-rain Zach Braff in Garden State, or the getting-his-lifetime-ambition-back-on-track John Cusack in High Fidelity. Amy’s former partners were accused of a myriad of sexual misdemeanours ranging from stalking to sexual assault. In Gone Girl life changes require a lawyer with an exorbitant retainer fee, not dusting off your vinyl record player in anticipation of the new Shins release. As such, Amy’s former lovers count their blessings in years served, unemployment, bleak career prospects, and emotional scarring. Nick and Tommy compare wounds like shark-bites. And yet, in Neil Patrick Harris’ character, Desi Collings, we see the physically unassuming hero that we can only imagine as the credits roll in most modern romantic comedies. A sensational lakeside home of financial splendour furnished with all manner of gadgets and gizmos – surely, these are the trappings of a post-MPDG success story? Not quite. Harris seems to portray the inevitable insecurity of the post-MPDG hero that we never quite get to see, someone who has had unexpected, and perhaps undeserved, success thrust open him as the result of the actions of another, someone forever living in fear that it could be taken away just as quickly. Consequently, Desi hopes to recapture the one person that made it all possible as a talisman to ward away the evil spirits of misfortune: he wants his Manic Pixie back, and why wouldn’t you? Who else could ever hope to compare to such exquisite torture?

What did Bill Murray say to Scarlett Johansson in the iconic closing scene of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation? We can never know for sure, but, presumably, Bob might have mentioned to Charlotte that she had changed his life irrevocably, that things were going to be different for him from now on, and that she, and she alone, had helped him to learn something about himself at a time when he thought there was nothing left to learn. In contrast, towards the end of Fincher’s adaptation, a disconsolate Nick, his demeanour one of resigned hopelessness, slowly comes to realise that his utopia of perfect coupledom had festered into a marriage forever broken by distrust and fear of the significant Other. Nick cannot hope to leave his visceral American Sweetheart, he reasons, not now that she has been returned to him, and certainly not now that she has announced to the world that they are expecting their first child. Bound together, Nick resigns himself to a life forever clinched to separate bedrooms, locked doors, and hushed plans to escape in the night. And thus, the mythopoetics of the relationship as portrayed in a modern romantic comedy are unflinchingly laid bare. Expectations versus reality. Life with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl can never be Octopus and Scrabble.

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