The Art of Repression in Ti West’s ‘Pearl’

By Sydney Bollinger

Art: Liza Shumska

Previous Purity, Pleasure, and Liberation in Ti West’s ‘X’

Warning

The following contains spoilers.

If was about the tension between purity and pleasure, then Ti West’s , a character study starring Mia Goth as the titular character, is about repression: repression of sexuality, repression of aspirations, and repression of the true self. The events and Pearl’s actions in already frame her as a tragic figure, killing only because she has no other outlet with which to express herself.

In , we see the origins of Pearl’s rage, beginning with her life living on her family’s farm in the 1910s. Her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is off in the war, so she has to contend with her mother Ruth’s (Tandi Wright) piety, attending to her farm duties, and taking care of her disabled father. Stuck in a cycle of work and caregiving, abandoned by her husband, Pearl is trapped on the farm despite her “big city dreams.”

The film’s parallels to are no accident; both films share an optimistic innocence juxtaposed with the realities of maturing womanhood — and violence. Just as Judy Garland was forced to bind her chest (and her womanhood) to appear childlike for her role of Dorothy, Pearl’s womanhood was also taken from her because she had to be the “daughter” at her family’s home, a role that she often rebelled against because in her mind she was no longer beholden to the rules and customs that came with being a child.

Thus, Pearl experienced intense repression of her womanhood, her livelihood, and her sexuality. Often when something is repressed it will reveal itself elsewhere, and for Pearl, she only found relief in a violent physicality, something that is no surprise to fans of . Her intense rage at the confines of her situation prompts her to act out in a pointedly “unwomanly” way. At first, she takes to killing animals on the farm, which, while it is horrific, displays just how much rage rumbles beneath the surface. At first, these are quickly made decisions (a hay fork through the body of an animal and feeding it to the alligator to get rid of the evidence), but as the film progresses, the kills grow even more explosive with Pearl’s violent nature now the driver of her every action.

Her rage worsens after she meets the projectionist (David Corenswet) at the local cinema. While in town running errands, Pearl takes a break to see a film, a recording of a dance group similar to the Ziegfeld girls. Though dance groups like the Ziegfeld girls (and the existence of flappers) are staples when we think of the 1920s, there was still a conservative stronghold in the culture of the era, most prominently seen in policies like Prohibition. Though dancing was not outlawed — and it has definitely been outlawed in some places — Pearl’s Texas home was not part of the bright city lights and -esque idealized 1920s. Sexual liberation was off the table for Pearl because she would not only need to escape her parents’ farm but would have to escape Texas itself.

She leaves the projectionist, taking a flyer with her, and heads back to her family’s farm. On her way back, she enters a cornfield and takes a scarecrow off its post. Her sexual excitement due to her interest in the projectionist and the confinements she faces upon returning home, lead to her engaging in a play-act of sex with the scarecrow, her only release found in companionship with an inanimate object that cannot respond to her nor pleasure her. In this scene, Pearl does manage to take some power for herself, and her shameless actions reflect her greater wish to not be hidden, even though the cornfields cloak her action.

Later, Pearl learns of a dance audition at a local church from her sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro). Having been disappointed by the outcome of her marriage — her husband Howard did not finally get her off the farm — this is Pearl’s next chance at escape, and the opportunity to seek out her dreams. Hope is a dangerous thing, though, because Pearl is now attached to this idea of belonging to a traveling dance troupe and will not let anything get in her way.

The next day, Pearl sneaks out to see the projectionist and realizes that he is also a ticket out of Texas, perhaps even a path to becoming one of the modern women she watches on the cinema screen. But instead of the classy dancers on screen, he proposes something darker. He shows her a pornographic film, which she watches with both disgust and awe. This scene, in particular, is a nice nod back to in which Maxine (Mia Goth) seeks stardom as an adult film actress. For Pearl, pornography becomes an option but is still on the back burner to her love of dance.

At dinner that night, Pearl’s mother brings up that she found a flyer for the dance film Pearl saw in town just a couple of days prior. When the subject of the dance audition also rises to the surface, Pearl’s repressed rage erupts, and the end result is her mother’s grisly death after being burned and thrown into the basement by Pearl. Throughout this interaction, Pearl’s father looks on in horror and is the most alert he has been thus far in the film, signaling that Pearl can no longer revert back to any illusion of propriety — her true self is out in the open and fit with rage.

From here, killing becomes the name of the game because Pearl is out for the blood of anyone who stands in the way of her dreams. After a night with the projectionist, he drives her home and then waits for her as she collects her things for the audition. The projectionist grows increasingly frightened of her actions, seeing the raw energy that oozes out of Pearl. When he tries to leave, Pearl kills him with a pitchfork and then feeds him to the alligator — and then kills her father and steals one of her mother’s dresses before going to the audition! The dress Pearl chooses is red, a symbol of both passion and violence, representative of what’s pent up inside of her as well as how sex and murder have just become her, the desires never able to be satiated.

Pearl and Mitsy attend the dance audition at the local church. After her performance, the judging committee tells Pearl that she isn’t what they’re looking for, that she’s not All-American enough. After Mitsy’s audition, Mitsy accompanies a rejected Pearl back to the farmhouse to console her. Once there, they sit together, and an eerily calm Pearl tells Mitsy about her rage and her need to get out from under veiled terms before forcing Mitsy to confess that she had won the spot in the dance troupe. Pearl then murders Mitsy.

Having killed all those close to her, except for Howard, Pearl is now alone on the farm with nowhere to run. In essence, her own repression knocked her down even further, binding her to the farmland once and for all without a chance for escape. At the end of the film, Howard finally returns in the wake of Pearl’s days-long killing spree. Committed to her life on the farm, Pearl had prepared the house for Howard’s return, seating her parent’s bodies at the kitchen table in normalcy, because only “the way things were” could ground Pearl.

Howard, now horrified, looks at Pearl’s fake smile and resigns himself to stay with this woman who has committed horrific acts in an effort to be released from her inheritance. This final scene takes us back to when Howard says that he cannot satisfy his wife. Her chance to be “satisfied” by life or sex has long passed. 🩸

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