In 1953, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme met in Christchurch, New Zealand. The two girls grew so attached it frightened their parents. The Hulmes made plans to remove Juliet to South Africa, indefinitely separating her from Pauline. But Juliet, 15 at the time, and Pauline, 16, were determined not to be parted. Identifying Pauline’s mother as the primary obstacle to their scheme, the girls resolved to murder her and frame the death as a tragic accident. They arranged an outing to Victoria Park on June 22, 1954—Pauline recorded it in her diary as “the day of the happy event.” After tea, they lured Mrs. Parker to a secluded hillside and, wielding a brick inside a stocking, bludgeoned her to death.
Pauline’s diary—the source of the narration for Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures—was discovered during the investigations, its contents revealing the girls’ intentions. Both Pauline and Juliet were brought to trial, found guilty, and imprisoned. They were released five years later, but on the nonnegotiable condition that they never reunite—never reignite a friendship whose intimacy begot insatiability, a love dipped in terror. Pauline and Juliet are a case study of panic: the legible lesbian panic in their parents’ desire to separate them, as well as their motivation for killing Mrs. Parker. There’s panic whenever young girls reveal their capacity for bloodlust. And panic wraps itself around the center of Pauline and Juliet’s bond; they fear being alienated from each other, and will do anything to avoid it.
Jackson’s 1994 film features the debut performances of Melanie Lynskey (Pauline) and Kate Winslet (Juliet). Lynskey’s Pauline scowls from beneath a mop of brunette curls, her chest pulled tight, her expression stemming from barely suppressed fury or, alternately, euphoric joy. Her face softens only when she looks at Juliet, near-idolatry engulfing her eyes.
In turn, Winslet’s Juliet basks in this bald adoration. She is golden-haired and petulant, brash to her schoolteachers, who she mocks as idiots. Chin aloft, she speaks deliberately, accentuating her English accent as a mark of superiority amongst the New Zealanders. She lords over Pauline too, partly because it’s her natural inclination and partly because Pauline is a happily rapt devotee. But Winslet’s performance reveals the cracks in this confident facade. She collapses at the news of her parents’—and her—imminent departure, from New Zealand. Her ferocity and her love reveals her hunger.
Pauline appears as unconscious of Juliet’s palpable desperation as Juliet does of her friend’s buried rage. Together, Lynskey and Winslet perform this barbed, mutual love—one that can never satisfy. Both of them, since childhood, have been working around a deep-seated dread of isolation. When she was a child, Juliet’s frail health inspired her parents—wealthy intellectuals unhappy in marriage—to send her away to warmer climates. Now as a teenager, living with her parents again, she grasps for their elusive attention. Pauline barrels through the school halls, head down, keeping a brisk pace that conceals her solitude. Her parents, an earnest, working-class couple, devote themselves to her well-being—she, too, was sick as a child—but their lack of refinement aggravates her.
The two girls first encounter each other in the classroom, where Juliet’s irreverence draws Pauline’s attention, sparking a fantasy that’s crystallized at the first sight of Ilam, the Hulmes’ splendid Christchurch residence. Pauline halts her bike, dazzled first by the house and then at the sight of Juliet on a bridge, sun-dappled and laughing as she flings petals into the stream beneath her. She’s dressed regally—gauzy gown, crown atop her head—but Pauline, her face rinsed with enchantment, registers Juliet’s play as authentic. We understand that, for Pauline, Juliet will henceforth exist as a fairy princess trapped in reality’s squalor.
So often we think our interpretations are fact. In Jackson’s scheme, the light that bathes Juliet functions as metaphorical illumination, a kiss of truth that transforms her into some splendid creature that only Pauline can recognize. There’s nothing especially bizarre about this dynamic: Literature is dotted with women who seem exquisite byproducts of luxury—and, as a result, bewitch the lesser at their feet. In Jane Austen’s Emma, Emma Woodhouse exerts deleterious influence over pretty, dithery Harriet Smith. Dainty, coddled Ash Wolf elicits Jules Jacobson’s love in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. That affection is barbed with jealousy and covetousness—but neither reaches the level of Heavenly Creatures, in which a girl would crush her mother’s skull.
The film being based in a real-life narrative makes it even more easy to wonder what went wrong. How could Pauline and Juliet possibly glorify their love, and each other, to the extent that other humans seemed to live only for and at their mercy? But it may not be worthwhile to plot cause and trajectory on a movie or on real life. There’s never total coherence, no meaningful tipping point. We can’t ever pause on the timeline and say, “Here—here’s where the bloodthirst became possible, when she finally knew she’d strike.”
Murder, like love, exceeds the sum of the evidence. As she narrates, Pauline even articulates the motivation—but we can never grasp what transforms an instinct into an event, how impulse mutates into brutality. The obscurity surrounding murder is terrifying in any case; what’s often illuminated is ultimately just our prejudice about what sorts of people commit crimes. The mythology surrounding the Anglo-Saxon schoolgirl renders Pauline and Juliet’s capacity for violence unthinkable. The schoolgirl is archetypally sweet, naïve even at the first blush of sexual awakening. If she is dangerous, that danger inheres in her desirability, perhaps even in her awareness that she has been objectified. Schoolgirls giggle mischievously—as Pauline and Juliet do—they might even traipse through the woods in their underwear, or assemble a shrine to their most cherished Hollywood celebrities (Mario Lanza, in this case). No matter how brazen the fantasies, the schoolgirl friendship never fully sheds its mantle of innocence: fresh curiosity and saddle shoes, full-hearted earnestness and notes on loose leaf. We know these clichés are false; that’s why pop culture is always dismembering them.
Pauline and Juliet are most unusual in the voracity of their love, one plagued by endless need—for each other, and for refuge in a world of their own creation. Dissatisfied with the world and inhibited by parental limits, they create and cultivate the kingdom of Borovnia, populated by hedonist characters they sculpt together out of Plasticine. The girls spin a mythology that grants them access to this fantastic world, permitting pleasures alien to good Christian schoolgirls. And with this perceived supernatural mobility comes self-deification. The human world refuses to “appreciate [their] genius,” Pauline writes, and so their intimacy serves as a means of worshipping themselves. The line from which the title comes is telling: “Tis indeed a miracle one must feel that two such heavenly creatures are real.”
The fantasy may be alluring, but its atmosphere is porous. When Pauline travels to Borovnia, her fears and vexations dog her. Bored during an mundane sexual encounter, she hurtles her consciousness inside Borovnia’s castle walls. Pauline is enthralled by the company of her Plasticine characters—now lifesize—and tickled when her lover appears (also rendered Plasticine), and brutally sliced in half. A moment later, she gazes into a far corner where one figure transforms into bright, laughing Juliet. They share a flush look of mutual admiration, but after a moment, Pauline’s eyes brim with tears.
Even here, in this fantasy, Pauline’s cannot disentangle her love of Juliet from her tragic awareness that she will always be chasing after her, perched on the brink of loss. However fervently they intertwine their lives—reinvent themselves as Borovnian royalty, bathe together, conspire to escape to Hollywood—Pauline lives in unshakable anxiety. Safeguarding this relationship is not simply a function of love, but of a wretched, fundamental knowledge that it is too good to be true. Juliet—uniting with Pauline against the world, providing a means of access to a world Pauline venerates—is as much fantasy as flesh. Pauline, unaware of how strongly Juliet’s father dislikes her, even daydreams in black and white of racing into the embrace of Juliet and her parents, who beam with pride as the two girls share a deep kiss.
These are not just desires for intimacy, but for absorption into a refined world full of intellect and art. They are dreams of a past erased, of parentage annihilated. In more tempered varieties, these fantasies aren’t uncommon among best friends. When I read the Babysitter’s Club series as a child, I relished the plotline of Mary-Anne and Dawn, girlfriends who become stepsisters and housemates. Even those of us fortunate to have a happy home couldn’t help but dream of a different family, one that we could inhabit while retaining aspects of our own. But it’s in the nature of a dream to exceed the possible.
And so, Jackson’s film runs on pursuit. Pauline’s first visit to Ilam leads to a chase sequence throughout the grounds. Daytime frolics throughout the woods surge into playful games of tag. When Pauline indulges in the far-fetched, cherished vision of joining the Hulme family, it begins with an eager race down a ship’s deck. The girls are locked into a chase, never allowed to stop for breath. Looking for more than can be found in a single person, they can never take all that they want from one another. And, as youths suspected of a so-called unnatural attachment, their parents’ suspicions keep them from inhabiting this process in peace. Pauline is forced to visit a doctor who solemnly diagnoses her as homosexual. Disruptions in the Hulme household—plans for divorce, Dr. Hulme’s dismissal from the college in Christchurch—inspire Juliet’s parents to leave. For Juliet, the plan is unfathomable: her parents are abandoning her—again—while demanding that she forsake Pauline.
Their togetherness in jeopardy, Pauline and Juliet seek satisfaction one night by making love the way they imagine their favorite celebrities—those they worship as “saints”—do. To some degree this turn to sexual intimacy results from a night at the movies. After seeing The Third Man, starring actor and “saint” Orson Welles, the girls’ exhilaration glides into arousal and starts floating freely. It’s erotic, but the girls are young; it’s not difficult to read this relationship as one that eschews the strictures of heterosexuality without applying the totalizing stamp of “lesbian.” We love to make intimacy legible, but all bonds often veer into unplottable territory. And it’s tempting, because their narrative is so bloody, to read Juliet and Pauline as exceptional. In many ways they are not. That night, with Juliet’s departure imminent, they are just seeking union—to glut themselves on another, to beat back what beckons next.
Killing Mrs. Parker, the girls reason, will ensure they’d never have to do this again. They’ll travel together to South Africa, to Hollywood—who will stop them when the woman they loathe as a troublesome pest is dead? Conspired murder thus becomes comforting oversimplification. Reinterpreting Pauline’s mother as their enemy, a flight of fancy seems instead their only actual means of escape. “People die every day,” Pauline assures Juliet as they share a post-coital bath. She’d write, “Compared with these two, every man is a fool. The world is most honored that they should deign to rule.”
So, together, Juliet and Pauline bludgeon Mrs. Parker in the quiet of the woods. Her daughter goes first, but each takes a turn crushing the brick deeper into the woman’s skull. With each thrust of the brick, they visibly come to realize that this botched and insufficient plan could only work in Borovnia, where desires can be witched into fact, ideas into events, where the world always aligns with your reading of it.
The film staggers to its end, the bleeding mother weeps, and so do Juliet and Pauline. We return to the launching ship, the vision in black-and-white turned nightmare. Juliet stands on the deck, flanked by her parents, while Pauline is on land. The girls cry for each other, and as the boat pulls from the dock Juliet moans, “I’m sorry.” She’s chosen the love of her parents as the one she’ll pursue. She’ll have to resign herself to mourning Pauline.
And so, Pauline is left where she began that first day at Ilam, adoring her princess from afar, and this time knowing—wretchedly, definitively—that the gaping maw she sought to close was always determined to rip apart. She sobs violently. When the scene returns to color, the camera clutches Pauline’s blood-streaked face. “No!” she screams. Her chase is finished, but not because she’s free. Out in front of her has always been futility; she only needed to acknowledge it for the race to be won.
Images via Miramax. Contact the author at email@example.com.