Fantastic Fest Review: Eileen
Novelist Ottessa Moshfegh gets her first adaptation
By Alejandra Martinez,
4:55PM, Wed. Sep. 27, 2023
Over the course of her writing career, Ottessa Moshfegh (My Year of Rest and Relaxation) has created tales of unfortunate, unlikable, and downright repulsive protagonists. Narcissists, weirdos, and outcasts litter her bibliography.
Her first novel, Eileen, established this character type for Moshfegh and coincidentally also happens to be her first novel to be adapted for film. With a screenplay co-written by Luke Goebel and Moshfegh and directed by William Oldroyd, this adaptation transfers over Moshfegh’s bleak wit and ethos well enough. Still, some of the compelling internal nature of her work gets lost in translation.
Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) is a secretary at a boys’ prison in 1960s Massachusetts. There, she helps the families of inmates check in and get their paperwork done pre-visit. In her spare time, she takes care of her brutal drunk father (Shea Whigham, doing a superbly wincing job doling out drunk insults.) and denies herself bodily pleasures. She chews and spits out mountains of chocolates, vaguely taking care of her “propensity for sweets,” and plays voyeur at the local make-out point until she gets too aroused and ices herself with snow. Life seems static for Eileen until the arrival of the new prison psychologist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway). Eileen is immediately taken with the glamorous new doctor, and the pair become close friends, finding company in each other they can’t get elsewhere. One night, things take a turn that will test their bond and change both of their lives.
Eileen does a fair job of capturing the mood of Moshfegh’s writing – dryly funny, matter-of-fact, and nonjudgemental about her characters. Still, I found myself missing the unhinged internality Moshfegh so expertly renders in her novels. This is, of course, always a tricky point when adapting books to the big screen, and the film tries its best to have us peek into Eileen’s inner world with abrupt daydreams showing us her wishes (mostly shooting her father), and then comparing it with the stark reality she’s facing instead. It’s helpful but still doesn’t contribute to a deeper inner portrait of Eileen.
Eileen certainly looks great, with gorgeous cinematography from Ari Wegner backing up the smart direction of William Oldroyd, who highlights the clear influences on the film (I thought a lot about Hitchcock and Todd Haynes’ Carol while watching) while making his own, distinct choices with the film. It’s a familiar and at the same time more dank, and darker take on those movies, using film language we’re all familiar with to deliver a new story.
Overall, Eileen is a pretty close adaptation of the mood of Moshfegh’s stories, even though some lost elements dull the author’s unique and singular voice. If the script meanders its way toward its unsettling end, it still manages to stay compelling.
Fantastic Fest Screenings
Thu., Sept. 28, 11:10am