These visual qualities are worth observing closely because every director who has shot her seems to be obsessed with Goth’s face. In his essay ‘The Face of Garbo’, French theorist Roland Barthes described Audrey Hepburn’s visage as being 'constituted by an infinite complexity of morphological functions' – it is 'an Event'. Just look at the final shot of Pearl, the prequel to X directed by Ti West, in which Goth is held in tight close-up for several minutes forcing a smile so painfully that tears stream from her almost unblinking eyes. To see Goth’s face blown-up on the big screen has become 'an Event' in its own right.
Mia Goth isn’t in Kansas anymore
Mia Goth, by nominative determinism, was destined to be a horror movie star. Her natural English accent has the eerie whine of a Victorian orphan, used to maximum effect voicing the haunted child Mabel in Netflix animation The House (2022). Yet her physical appearance has a canvas-like quality that allows her to play characters across time and space, from Jane Austen’s Harriet Smith in Emma (2020) to an astronaut in Claire Denis’s High Life (2018). Her ethereal presence, naturally suited to an array of movie worlds, has rendered her a ubiquitous ghostly figure in contemporary cinema.
"Her ethereal presence, naturally suited to an array of movie worlds, has rendered her a ubiquitous ghostly figure in contemporary cinema"
"To see Goth’s face blown-up on the big screen has become “an Event” in its own right"
Goth, in the guise of Pearl, works through a wild spectrum of faces, from passive devotion to childlike obsession, as she tends to her ailing father on a remote ranch in Texas during the 1918 influenza pandemic. By the film’s final shot, Goth’s face morphs in front of our eyes, her skin wrinkling until her youth fades and the elderly Pearl of X appears. Both of the first two films in West’s ‘X Trilogy’ have a fear of ageing at their rotten core – in X quite literally as Pearl becomes a murderous ranch-bound hag; in Pearl as she has her dreams crushed when she is told at her dance audition that the company are looking for someone younger. Goth’s timeless star persona suddenly becomes finite, as resonant today as it was in 1918.
In the essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, the film critic and theorist André Bazin describes cinema as a form of embalming – that what is recorded is preserved, frozen in time. This is what the camera offers the porn stars in X and the titular character in Pearl, celluloid as formaldehyde. When Pearl goes to the movie theatre, it is an escape from her humdrum life on the farmstead, a moment out of joint from real time. It is Peter Pan’s Neverland, Alice’s Wonderland, Dorothy’s Oz…
"celluloid as formaldehyde"
That last comparison, to the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz, is most explicit in Pearl – Ti West insisted that Goth rewatched the film as preparation for shooting. X is visually muted, enshrouded in nighttime darkness by contrast to the poppy blues and reds of the Texan sun. If X is sepia-toned Kansas, then Pearl is the Technicolor land of Oz. Mia Goth is cast in the latter as a twisted Dorothy Gale, replete with pastel blue clothes and rag ties in her dark hair as she talks to her livestock. When she expounds her dreams of becoming a star, Pearl might as well be singing ‘Over the Rainbow’.
"the ephemeral nature of female stardom"
Pearl’s fear of getting old is directly attached to her fear of (becoming) her mother, played by Tandi Wright. Her puritan clothing and attitudes visually align her with Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the vile Almira Gulch in The Wizard of Oz, the human counterpart of the Wicked Witch of the West. Pearl posits Dorothy’s adventures in Oz as an extended murder fantasy of Gulch, murdered when Dorothy throws water over her and she melts away with a cry of, 'Oh what a world, what a world!' The scene is mirrored when Pearl’s mother catches fire and she throws a pot of boiling water over her, leaving her singed carcass on the floor.
The real threat which the mother poses is to Pearl’s sexuality. Pearl despises her mother for being married to a wheelchair-bound man whose sexual dysfunction she mocks, and for policing her fidelity to a husband absent in the First World War. By fleeing through the cornfields to Oz, Pearl stumbles upon a scarecrow, just as Dorothy does as she embarks on the Yellow Brick Road away from Munchkin Land towards the Emerald City. Unlike Dorothy, Pearl mounts the scarecrow and gyrates her pelvis against the hard straw to the point of climax.
It is her fear of losing her libido and desirability which drives the young Pearl to murder the cinema’s projectionist, her own Wonderful Wizard, when he goes cold on her, and fuels the elderly Pearl’s killing spree in X. The projectionist, played by David Corenswet, promises to take Pearl to Europe, where the clouds are far behind her, just as the Wizard offers Dorothy a place in the gondola of his hot air balloon. Hot air is all his words prove to be, but without her own pair of ruby slippers, no magic comes to whisk Pearl back home. Men operate the projector, hold the camera, and make the casting decisions, throwing women aside as soon as they have served their purpose. In Pearl, Goth throws back the curtain and plunges the pitchfork into the Wizard’s heart.
"In Pearl, Goth throws back the curtain and plunges the pitchfork into the Wizard’s heart"
The final film in West’s ‘X Trilogy’, entitled MaXXXine, will continue to explore the ephemeral nature of female stardom. Set six years after the events of X in 1985, the film will follow Goth’s other character, Maxine, as she pursues a career in Hollywood. By setting the three films across the twentieth century, they collectively tell a story of cinema’s history which has remained consistent in its fear of women who grow old, which in turn drives women’s fear of ageing. Goth exists at the heart of these films, developing her own creative voice behind the camera as screenwriter and producer, but especially through her extremely dynamic performances. Even after the tales of Pearl and Maxine are over, there’s no doubt Goth’s ghostly cinematic presence will endure. Something Pearl herself could only dream of.