Parallel Histories in When Marnie Was There and Love and Mercy

by tigermanifesto

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Parallelism is a potent storytelling tool. Though lesser stories paper over their own bankruptcy with meaningless repetition, it’s also one of the primary raw materials for theming. Two recent releases to arrive at my local theaters are When Marnie Was There and Love and Mercy, two films that have little in common at the levels of style, plot, and subject matter, but that explore similar themes using comparable narrative devices. To be brief, we can split this discussion into two: the common narrative device and the common theme.

The Common Device: Parallel Histories

When Marnie Was There is a genealogical story connecting the lives of two girls named Anna and Marnie. While Anna, a Japanese student from Hokkaido, is spending a therapeutic summer away from her foster mother and her urban home in Sapporo, she meets Marnie by some marshes that divide a splendid but abandoned mansion from a village. The catch is that Marnie is an apparition of some kind––whether a ghost, a memory, or a dream figure is never stated outright––who invites Anna into her own time and place. In Marnie’s world, at night, the mansion is full of dancing and song, as her jet-setting parents return from their frequent excursions to celebrate a few days at home per year with their daughter. We gradually learn that her idyllic party life is the only true life she leads, as the rest of the year is marked by Marnie’s psychological and physical abuse by the maids, who enjoy tormenting her.

Anna’s troubles, meanwhile, are both physical and psychological. They are, respectively, asthma and a detached mode of living, expressing no emotions and withdrawing into herself and her sketchbook. She has no meaningful bonds, even with her foster mother. The latter disconnect is the main sore point for her, the “problem” that she as a character needs to overcome. On top of that, her blue eyes give her away as a mixed-race person, causing social friction between her and the other children in the village where she stays. As she learns more about Marnie and tells more about herself, she recognizes the parallels between their lives and begins to open up not only to Marnie but also to people from her own time. Near the end of the film, we learn that Marnie was Anna’s grandmother and the woman who raised her until she died and left Anna with her foster mother. Anna’s biological mother died in a car crash one winter soon after Anna was born. The key to unraveling Anna’s psychological difficulties, then, is meeting Marnie and understanding her life and the life that her mother led, helping her to cope with what she saw as a chain of abandonment: her mother and grandmother died, and her foster mother is no substitute.

Love and Mercy employs a similar device, but rather than having two generations of people meeting each other, the film follows a single character in two mostly isolated time periods. We meet Brian Wilson, young leader of the Beach Boys, who pursues his dreams of creating the greatest pop album of all time. Working feverishly in the studio despite the skepticism of his band mates and the snide disapproval of his father, he eventually collapses due to overwork and mental illness. He is ultimately unable to complete his masterwork. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Wilson is trapped by his psychiatrist Eugene Landy, who uses his legal guardianship over Wilson to exploit the aging musician and raise his own social status. It is established that Landy and Wilson’s father are repressive and controlling twins, father figures who care much more about cash flows than harmonies and composition. Eventually, though the Brian Wilson of the 1960s, like Marnie, must leave what he treasures behind, slipping into death (literal in Marnie’s case and a functional death in Wilson’s), the 1980s Wilson, like Anna, finds a significant relationship that helps him escape the alienation and despair he’s caught in.

There are differences in how the films resolve their protagonists’ internal struggles, however. In Marnie, sexuality is present but is left relatively fluid and dynamic. Anna never fastens onto a boy; in fact, her life is almost devoid of meaningful connections to men both at the start and at the end of the film. She has a mostly-absent foster father, her biological father’s face is never even depicted, and all of her significant relationships in the plot are with other women or girls. Her relationship with Marnie is, of course never sexual in a direct way, though it has romantic overtones, but it’s the Platonic friendship that matters the most. In Love and Mercy, meanwhile, we have a more traditional story where the most important connection our male hero makes is with a woman who helps him to find a renewed life. They settle down in happy heterosexual bliss, with the boy-man Wilson of the majority of the film finally free from his childhood bed and inserted into a marriage bed. Don’t get me wrong: he is far from the protagonist of the 1980s part of the film, but he is also the only major character who has a sustained presence between the two time blocs. It is his story that we want to learn, despite the most active agent in the 1980s part being Melinda, the woman who rescues and marries Brian Wilson.

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The Common Theme: The Community of Money

Anna and Brian Wilson’s most critical relationships are undermined by money. In Wilson’s case, his father sells off the Beach Boys’ song publishing rights for a fraction of what they would eventually be worth. His doctor and his father, the two father figure-antagonists in Love and Mercy, are both attached to Wilson for the money. Of course, his relationship with his actual father are rather more complicated, since the latter was also physically and psychologically abusive and impresses on Brian that he will never succeed or achieve anything noteworthy despite his obvious talents. In Marnie, Anna’s source of alienation from her foster mother is not their lack of biological similarity but instead the fact that the latter receives state subsidies to pay for Anna’s expenses. And this has been kept “secret,” though Anna found out herself by accident one day. Traditionally family bonds, then, are corroded and even replaced by the community of money, The residual connection has a nightmarish effect on the protagonists, who feel guilty and trapped by their relationships despite their misgivings. Ultimately, though, both films resolve this in their own way. For Wilson, as mentioned, the escape hatch was a “real” relationship, untainted by a whit of care about money.

For Anna and her foster mother, the answer is resignation and acceptance. The truth is finally outed, and the two are able to continue living together. When Marnie Was There thus directly comments on the obsession with blood relations and conventional relationships: that they don’t ultimately matter. What matters is the relationships that endure for the benefit of both people, and the success of those has little to do with blood and everything to do with communication and proximity.

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