“She wants to be let out,” says a soldier, drawn, as if by a whispering siren call, to the wooden chest that his troop is transporting across the border to destroy. They are intercepted by another squadron, and the bloody skirmish that ensues – in which that first soldier acts as if possessed, and fights for the opposite side – introduces us to the life-or-death stakes at play in Automata. While this prologue may take place some three centuries ago, most of the film’s events are set now, even if the past keeps finding ways to bleed into the present. For this is a film about a haunting history, and a father’s erotic obsession with his daughter that resonates across time.
The ‘she’ who was being carried in the chest is, we infer, the antique, life-like automaton known as the Immortal Princess, and crafted in the seventeenth century by Alexander MacIntosh (Keith Robson) on commission from a German General (Jonathan Hansler) who wanted an exact replica of his daughter Talia (Alexander Nicole Hulme) to immortalise her as his possession, even beyond the real Talia’s mysterious disappearance. The miraculous clockwork doll, now redubbed the Infernal Princess after rumours that it was cursed, has been missing for centuries – but a Count (a wonderfully sinister Jon Vangdal Aamaas) whose ancestors once employed the General claims to have discovered the Princess hidden in a secret chapel beneath the MacIntosh estate, and offers MacIntosh expert and arch skeptic Dr Brendan Cole (Jamie Scott Gordon) a million pounds if he can verify the automaton’s authenticity.
Over the next week, widower Brendan stays on the estate, trying to to trigger the five incredible acts that the doll was programmed to perform. With him is his stepdaughter Rose (Victoria Lucie), now old enough to wear her late mother’s dresses – and there is an illicitly erotic frisson, evident from the start, between the older man and younger woman. Yet as they research the horrific history of the Princess, using letters and documents from the estate which are vividly brought to life in flashbacks, they also both fall under the strange spell of the human-sized doll, its incestuous tragedy merging uncannily with their own.
There is no mistaking Automata for anything other than a production from director Lawrie Brewster and writer Sarah Daly (who together run Hex Media) – for like their previous Lord Of Tears, The Unkindness Of Ravens and The Black Gloves, it is a mannered tale of resurgent mythology and disturbed psychology, with Gordon once again playing their confounded protagonist (Hulme is also a regular). With each feature these filmmakers grow ever more talented and audacious, and Automata, with its increasingly stylised, almost giallo-esque lighting, its disorientingly juddery cuts, and its fusion of present and past, dream and reality, hallucination and haunting, is utterly assured in its own idiosyncrasies, making it a very singular – and aesthetically pleasing – viewing experience.
One of the Princess’ tricks is to mimic writing text – and the poem which she produces turns out to be a ‘mash-up’ of verses by different authors (some, paradoxically from periods after she was designed). The film, too, is an amalgam of different influences: gothic, the Pygmalion myth, history, mystery, ghost story, romance and even (via some ‘Rosebud’ punning) Citizen Kane. It is an ambitious hybrid – and like so many hybrids, it is also a self-styled ‘abomination’ underpinned by unnatural acts. Speculating on the doll’s supposed ability to articulate phrases, Brendan says, “If she does speak, it’ll have to be pretty crude” – an expression that Rose wilfully, and flirtatiously, misinterprets with the comment, “You mean like, ‘Fuck me, Brendan’… That’s crude.” Likewise, Brendan reads from MacIntosh’s papers that the Princess’ various in-built talents are “as might befit a lady of polite society” – an odd phrase which immediately conjures in the mind other possible functions for a life-size doll that are rather less befitting, polite or ladylike, and which will indeed turn out to be an additional part of the automaton’s constructed repertoire. Everything here echoes with sexually depraved double meaning, even as the General’s unspeakable designs upon his daughter repeat themselves in Brendan’s relationship with Rose.
The form of this film’s title is not singular but plural. For the Infernal Princess is not the only automaton here, as Brendan and Rose too find themselves serving as puppets in a iterative drama whose words and gestures were written centuries before. It is a creepy chronicle of a father’s perverse possessiveness, and possession of an altogether different kind in which both mind and body are no longer fully one’s own but the doll-like playthings of others. Somewhere in there is a metaphor for cinema, where scripts are followed and acts performed for the viewer’s vicarious, sometimes abnormal entertainment. It is also a metaphor for the trap of patriarchy, and the desire, echoing down the centuries, of confined and constrained women finally to be let out.
Automata was seen and reviewed at FrightFest Glasgow 2019.