TIFF 2022 | Pearl (Ti West, US) — Midnight Madness

By Saffron Maeve 

Much like the maggot-licked suckling pig shrivelling on the front porch in Ti West’s prequel to this year’s porno-slasher X, Pearl is an increasingly meatless and eye-grabbing article, comprising the kind of prepensed exposition that could only follow a desperately self-ciphering film. Set 61 years prior to the events of X, backdropped by World War I and the Spanish flu, Pearl surveys the sexually dispossessed villainess in her youth. Living with a strict German mother and an incapacitated father while her husband is away at war, Pearl’s world shrinks by the minute. She’s absorbed by grand notions of being a dancer on the silver screen and is seemingly shell shocked by proxy; without the foreknowledge that she’d later traipse around a farm, haggard, nude, and homicidal, one might assume Pearl is a melodrama (all the fixings are there—the score, faux-Technicolor, and dialed-up monologues), spritzed with guts every half hour or so. 

There’s an obvious thread between the silent stag film Pearl laps up, or her dry humping a scarecrow in a cornfield, and her eventual pornstar kill spree in X. However, like every one of the film’s plot points, this is briskly smoothed over to make room for more vain intertextuality. Goth’s Pearl is defined less by an urge to kill than by an indifference towards violence coupled with a bitterness for her circumstances: She pitchforks a goose to dangle above her pet alligator without a thought; wheels her father out to the edge of a dock as a quick fix for his ailment; puts out the fire eating up her mother’s nightgown only to chuck her down the stairs. Pearl isn’t especially bloody, bearing only a handful of kills, but it’s the eponymous madwoman’s volatility which lends the film its horror bent, in what is otherwise a Sirk picture scantily drawn from memory.