Film Review – Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling: Tragedy and the Pursuit of Perfection 

Written by Georgia Smith

What does Victory mean to you? I would propose that it relates in some way to the unattainable or the unreal. Adapted from the script of Carey and Shane Van Dyke and with a screenplay by Katie Silberman, Don’t Worry Darling was destined to be hypnotic. Set in the Palm Springs of the 1950s with an opening scene suffused with an intoxicating blend of glamour and play (think Ray Charles’ The Right Time, abundant martini glasses and an overt sexuality), the experimental project of Victory is one of utopianism and submission. Most significantly it is composed of a multiplicity of deception. Wilde’s “candy-colored feminist gothic” has a palpability inherent to good cinema which is not lost on her expectant audience.  

Wilde’s tour de force follows Alice and Jack, one of several couples who inhabit the Victory Project. Florence Pugh’s depiction of Alice Chambers is stellar, flirting with the depth and range offered to her by her character, a claim which can’t be made of Styles’ mediocre and at times comic performance. Chris Pine’s cultishly charming Frank and his wife Shelley, played by Gemma Chan, lead the strikingly (eerily) synchronised couples in sustaining the ultimate form of visual perfectionism in which similarities abound. Chan’s character chimes: “There is beauty in control, there is grace in symmetry, we move as one.” As a sleek fleet of Chevrolet Bel Airs pull away, Wilde appropriately plays with the deeply rich image of the housewife as they blow kisses. As Dargis notes, the female smile is at once “shy, bold, coquettish or mocking”, its signifying quality almost seductive. She goes on to remark that “their lipsticked mouths (are open) so wide, it’s a wonder their faces don’t crack.” The disconcerting insinuation that they may “crack” is something which is too evident in Jack’s act of pressing his finger over Alice’s lips. In this do we see a sentimental affection or a form of hush?  

Wilde dares a poised inclusion of the macabre, the disturbed, the pathological. A sense of suffocation permeates the film: one of the housewives slits her throat, and Alice becomes pressed behind the glass window of her home, the music punctuated by the sound of her cracking bones. She wraps clingfilm around her head, wakes up having almost drowned in the bath. Allusions to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House are not lost on an audience for whom such symbolism defines an idea of female emancipation. The “Dollhouse Brass Band” plays as Dita Von Teese makes her cameo, performing Burlesque in a martini glass as she is iconic for. This is the ultimate amalgamation of the modern and the classic, as are the stylised cabaret girls modelled on Von Teese who permeate the liminal space between dream and unreality within Alice’s visions. The effortless blend of genres that exist within the film (dystopian, action, psychological thriller) is testament to Wilde’s brand of action which is as substantive as it is spectacle. The glorious jazz soundtrack and considered use of sound truly sustain the film, buoying the tension and embellishing each scene, supplementing the tangible quality of shock and trepidation which lays at the feet of the audience. 

The visual sublimity of Don’t Worry Darling is dependent upon the immaculate conception of design and costume by Kate Byron and Arianne Phillips. The enviable allure of midcentury design, architecture and fashion invoke a soothing yet jealous nostalgia. Wilde situates the audience within the ultimate referential image. The Kaufmann Desert House was designed by Richard Neutra in 1946 and has become the supreme signifier of high modernism; it is the architectural symbol of an idea of wealth, glamour, and progress. It is this house in which Frank and Shelley live. In terms of cinematography, the devilishly simple repetition of the act of making breakfast is as aesthetically pleasing as it is unnerving – especially when the coffee cup refuses to overflow. Circularity may be a simple device, resulting in the charge that the film is slightly lacking in depth, yet it appears effective in this case as repetition is one of the film’s central motifs.  

There is one deliciously simple symbol which pervades Wilde’s film – the eye. The invocation of a certain Orwellian frame of reference is marked. Wives spend their days listening to Frank’s “radio hour” and posters bearing Big Brother style insignia sway in the desert air. Alice always seems to have an itch on her eyelid. The constant symbolic invocation of the eye becomes not just about the act of witnessing, but also about the idea of consciousness – after all, the eyes are the window to the soul. This idea of consciousness plays on one of the film’s key allegories. Wilde’s audience is morally culpable. Styles’ Jack invokes a fierce sense not of disgust but of sympathy. At the lavish cocktail party, Jack becomes a puppet and Frank his puppet master. His frenzied tap dancing and vehement insistence that the world in fact belongs to him (a product of his perverse logic of sacrifice and deserving) is tainted by tragedy – he is just one of the toys in Frank’s sandbox. Wilde’s Victory is as much about male performance as it is about female subjugation.   

Prior to the film’s release certain charges of anachronism had been launched at the mélange of fashions, visual medias, and music to which the film is set. Yet it is precisely this which supplements the audience’s palpable feeling of discomfort and of shock. Playing with Marcuse’s idea of materiality as substitution feels particularly just here. Consumer products are substitutes for the pleasures which such economic structures deny; the meticulous image of 1950s consumerism portrayed in Don’t Worry Darling is the perfect example of this. Jack and Alice exist in a simulation as we all do. Theirs may be virtual, ours still material. Sexuality is too anachronistic. The degree of nudity practiced in Victory is unorthodox in the context of the United States in the mid-twentieth century. I would be inclined to read this choice as comment on a certain idea of male creation. We know Frank is a voyeur from the moment in his bedroom. Yet there is also a certain eroticism shared between Alice and Shelley at the ballet class. Victory is also a carnal project.  

One of the harshest ironies to strike the film has been the parallels between the film’s subject and some of its earliest receptions. Defending Wilde’s directorship is not an attempt to suggest that controversies surrounding the film are redundant or that there are not valid criticisms of Wilde’s behaviour to be made. However, the treatment of this film has been deeply revealing in noting how we approach women’s work in film – it is something to sensationalise or dramatise, without inherent value.  


Bibliography

Dargis, Manohla. 2022. ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ Review: Burning Down the Dollhouse. September 21. Accessed September 28, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/21/movies/dont-worry-darling-review.html?searchResultPosition=3.  

2022. Don’t Worry Darling. Directed by Olivia Wilde.  


Featured image credit: Don’t Worry Darling, 2022. Dir. Olivia Wilde. Copyright of Warner Bros, used under fair use policy.

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