With its penultimate installment, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part I (Summit Entertainment), the Twilight series finally spirals down into the psychosexual black hole it’s been circling for three films now. By any normal standard, this is a terrible movie, with stilted dialogue and leaden pacing—every 15 minutes or so, the action stops for a musical montage involving slow-motion handsomeness. But the Twilight saga stopped being normal a long time ago, and though it’s now a club reserved for members only—I’m not sure a neophyte could make head or tail of this movie’s deep mythology—I confess a grudging respect for this franchise’s willingness to plumb the darker reaches of the teen female psyche. Breaking Dawn, Part I (scripted, like the last three movies, by Melissa Rosenberg and directed this time by Bill Condon) is one seriously sick little blockbuster.
When we last saw Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), they had just gotten engaged—a radical step for a couple with an 87-year age difference (she’s 18, he’s 105). In this movie’s first big set piece, they celebrate their wedding on his family’s fabulously petal-strewn lawn. (It makes sense that vampires would excel as wedding planners, with their super-strength, super-speed, and super-style.) At the start of the ceremony, though, Bella flashes on a fantasy of herself and Edward covered in blood, standing on a heap of corpses: the entire human half of their wedding party. Her fear is that, if Edward grants her wish to be turned into a vampire, she’ll destroy everyone else she loves.
Bella and Edward’s nuptials are further disrupted by the arrival of Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the teenage werewolf next door, who’s been licking his wounds (sorry) since Bella announced her engagement. Because Edward understands that Jacob and Bella share a special connection, he drifts away to allow his wife of less than an hour to slow-dance in the woods with her lupine ex, a gesture of masochistic self-sacrifice that may be the movie’s high point for Twilight triangulation fetishists. Jacob begs Bella to resist vampirization and stay human, but she makes it clear that once they leave on their honeymoon, she and Edward are going all the way.
But what is “all the way” for vampires? As I understand it (and please forgive my ignorance in these matters; I’ve seen all the movies, but couldn’t make it past the first of Stephenie Meyer’s books), vampires in the Twilight universe have multiple options when it comes to humans. They can abstain from contact with them, living instead on the blood of wild animals, like Edward’s classy coven elects to do. They can drink humans’ blood and leave them for dead. Or they can nearly kill them, then use vampire venom to “turn” them at the last minute—the consummation that the love-struck Bella so devoutly desires.
As Bella and Edward learn during their honeymoon on a private Brazilian island, vampire-human relations can take another form as well. If the vampire in question is enough of a master of self-restraint (a quality the chaste Twilight series prizes very highly), he can ravish his bride the old-fashioned way, without either killing or “turning” her. Edward and Bella only accomplish this once, in a night of passion so intense they reduce a four-poster bed to a pile of lumber and drifting feathers. (The shot of Bella waking in the wreckage the morning after is one of several moments when the movie pokes fun at its own het-up silliness.) But one time is all it takes to get Bella impregnated with a fast-growing “immortalicum”—a human/vampire half-breed that saps nutrients from its mother’s body and shows up on ultrasound only as a black void.
It’s when Bella gets pregnant that things really start to go bonkers. Practically from the minute we learn she’s knocked up, Bella’s body becomes a house of horrors. (The scene in which she gorges on peanut butter and undercooked chicken, wondering why she’s so hungry all of a sudden, brought to mind Mia Farrow seeing her reflection in a toaster as she noshes on raw liver in Rosemary’s Baby.) The host-destroying capacities of the demon spawn are such that within weeks, its mother is reduced to an ashen near-skeleton, barely capable of standing and walking on her own. (Kristen Stewart’s already whippet-thin body was further whittled down by digital means—I hope.) Oh, and Bella has to drink human blood out of a Styrofoam cup through a straw. And her pregnant belly—for some reason this skeeved me out most of all—is covered in strange bruises, as if the baby were somehow beating her up from outside as well as in.
The anxieties about female sexuality—and, hell, about mortal existence in a human female body—that pervade this film’s latter half are so numerous and intense that Breaking Dawn becomes interesting almost despite itself. In the age of glowing celebrities with their well-tended “baby bumps,” there’s something refreshingly unwholesome about this film’s dark fantasy of pregnancy as an invasion that destroys its host even as she welcomes it. The birth scene—which involves, among other things, an amateur C-section done sans anesthesia—is genuinely, primally horrifying in a way no Twilight movie has been before. This vision of parturition as a form of demonic torture co-exists, bizarrely enough, with an abortion debate waged by the undead. Bella languishes on the couch with her hemoglobin smoothie as her vampire sisters-in-law Alice (Ashley Greene) and Rosalie (Nikki Reid) snipe at each other over what to call the thing Bella is carrying: a “fetus” or a “baby,” “it” or (as Bella herself insists) “him.” The prospect of a vampire-human hybrid also causes alarm among the high vampire council known as the Volturi, setting the scene for the intra-vampire wars to come in the last chapter.
In the book, I gather, Breaking Dawn’s unplanned-vampire-pregnancy plotline is something of a Trojan horse for a conservative, pro-life agenda: Apparently immortal mutant vampire life also begins at conception. Here, I wouldn’t say that’s a major factor (or if it is, there’s so much other allegorical weirdness in the air it’s hard to separate it out.) Breaking Dawn, Part I is too scattered to have anything like an agenda; it’s incoherent and dopey and feverishly overdramatic, like an annoying teenager who won’t stop talking on the bus. But it’s also good-looking and promiscuously perverse and brimming over with an excess of life, like the awesome teenager you once were yourself.