• Eileen Complicates the Relationship at the Heart of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Novel

    Emmeline Clein Digs in to the New Adaptation, from Page to Screen

    A girl, a gun, a glamorous woman. Unassuming and unadorned, the brunette is beautiful if perpetually perturbed, blood and rage rushing behind her eyes. The girl got the gun from her father, a casually cruel drunk whose misanthropic antics inspired his former coworkers on the force to remand the firearm from his possession, putting it instead into his dutiful daughter’s. What havoc could a sad, lonely little girl really wreak in this town?

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    She keeps the gun in the glove compartment. The car, like our protagonist, is on the verge of a breakdown, but it gets her where she needs to go. At work, she is awestruck by the elegant, intelligent blonde, who takes quick interest in her too, casting conspiratorial glances her way through a haze of cigarette smoke. Before the gun goes off, our girl falls in love and fumbles into feminist self-discovery, slips on a fur coat and a cigarette between her fingers. The blonde has found herself in a sticky situation, and the girl is going to get her out, gun cocked and eyes wide open. 

    Or: a mousy brunette finds the corpse of a dead field mouse on her porch, palms it, and puts it in the glove compartment. The gun never gets that far from her hand. She keeps it in her purse, touching it like a totem through a rough day at work, tucking it under her pillow after a depressing night with her widowed bully of a father. She strokes it, cold metal to calm hot nerves.

    In the morning, there’s another kind of heat in her crotch, which she quells with a handful of dirty snow, sitting in her car and spying on a couple canoodling before speeding off to work without changing her clothes. There’s a glamorous woman in this story too, but she’s far more than a first crush: she’s a friend, a role model, a conspirator, a user, a traitor, a teacher, a woman with secrets and a smoking habit. 

    Eileen, the 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, and Eileen, the novel’s 2023 film adaptation, re-written for the screen by Moshfegh herself and her husband, the author Luke Goebel, both follow a 24-year-old woman living with her lethargic, tyrannical father and working at a boys’ juvenile detention center. In both stories, she mopes around, miserably fostering fantasies of either suicide, patricide, or a tryst with one of the prison guards, until a charismatic, mysterious woman arrives as a new hire at the facility, sending Eileen’s lugubrious life careening thrillingly off course. 

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    In the film, this story is one of coming of age, coming out, and coming to conclusions about a rotten, misogynistic society—it is a pulpy, queer noir with a feminist twist and a delightfully dirty scrim on the screen, blurring our expectations. It is a riveting watch, telling a story at a slight angle from the novel’s, a slightly more romantic, optimistic narrative.

    The movie’s Eileen (played with brilliant sensitivity by Thomasin McKenzie) is a tulip opening against all odds, despite high winds and freezing temperatures. The book’s Eileen is a purpling bruise, stubbornly arcing toward healing and tender to the touch. Both stories are driven by hunger, and, like all bodily processes, as nauseating and grotesque as they are miraculous and moving.

    Speaking of blooms and bruises, beauty is central to both stories, serving alternately as a barometer, a currency, an escape hatch and a pair of handcuffs. Eileen, in the book, recalls spending years “languishing in the agony of not being beautiful.” Narrated not by its insecure 24-year-old star but by her 74-year-old self, the book recounts her last days in the small New England town of her youth. The older woman lives “gleefully” and finds life “precious” rather than purely painful (she remembers her younger self as “someone else,” someone “unhappy and angry all the time”), and knows “there was nothing really so wrong or terrible about my appearance… but at the time I thought I was the worst,” a conclusion perhaps drawn from her treatment by her father, who insults her constantly, or her coworkers, who mock her.

    Eileen incessantly analyzes other women’s appearances, attempting to locate herself in beauty’s matrix. She judges the mothers of the juvenile delinquents for their aesthetic failings (“she was repugnant, I thought, in her fat” she muses as one checks in for a visit). When a young “attractive” woman attempts to visit her incarcerated rapist, Eileen is rude to her, refusing her request. She was “envious. No one had ever tried to rape me.” 

    Then Rebecca Saint John (played by a fabulously unnerving Anne Hathaway) arrives, in a cloud of smoke and a form-fitting skirt suit, all grecian bone structure and luscious lips, “so beautiful I had to avert my eyes,” Eileen thinks. But also: she “must be an idiot, have a brain like a powder puff, be bereft of any depth or darkness” if she looks like that.

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    Eileen’s “envy and resentment” rev up, reminding her of her conviction that beautiful women are idiots, “floozies, tramps,” until Rebecca turns her world upside down with her glib wit and insistence that, in fact, she doesn’t care about her figure, even as she cracks coy jokes about her measurements. She tells Eileen she “admires how petite you are” in one of their first conversations, reeling in the insecure girl with the bait she’s been waiting for her whole life: a compliment. 

    Rebecca’s basic existence—a “beautiful, independent, professional” woman—unlocks a chamber in Eileen’s heart, somewhere hope has been hiding. The fact that this woman “could ever really care to get to know” her rips the floor right out from under her, and the reader falls with her, deep into a yawning cavern of yearning.

    he first time the film’s Eileen lays eyes on Rebecca, her expression is awestruck. Eileen stands at the back of the room, behind multiple men. Rebecca sucks on a cigarette and corrects the prison’s director, her aristocratic accent lilting domination. In the next scene, Eileen is standing nervously next to Rebecca, who is making conspiratorial eye contact and commenting on how alike she can already tell they are. Eileen is entranced by the other woman’s confidence, allured by her evident interest in her interiority. At home that night, she lights up a cigarette, copying her new crush-cum-role model’s habit.

    It is a riveting watch, telling a story at a slight angle from the novel’s, a slightly more romantic, optimistic narrative.

    Those early conversations—when Rebecca announces that she doesn’t care about her figure, when she compliments Eileen’s “gumption” after Eileen declares she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, and Rebecca notes their agreement on that front, approvingly—convey a sort of proto-feminist fellow-feeling that is more tenuous in the novel, nuanced and often undermined by Eileen’s insecurity and Rebecca’s self-interest.

    In both, Rebecca notes that most people wrongly assume women’s figures are all that matter about them, but in the book, she doesn’t stop there, going on to condescendingly condemn women who aren’t as smart as she and Eileen, “pathetic” women who fall for that trope. Eileen is enthralled, already imagining Rebecca as her “kindred spirit, my ally”—bonded to her by their shared disdain for other women. But mocking women for caring about their size doesn’t stop Eileen from getting helium high when Rebecca compliments her daintiness. 

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    Such contradictions barely register in the face of Eileen’s desire to connect with Rebecca, “that’s how impressionable and lonely” she was back then, overlooked and underloved. From their first meeting, the relationship between the two women is hypnotic and teetering, predicated on their respective positions on beauty’s ladder, their shared recognition that this is a competition, if one they’ve been entered into without their permission. Rebecca’s attention, even admiration, arrives as a benediction, a baptism, a rebirth for Eileen from grimy, glanced-over girl to alluring almost-woman, the type of person who might just make it out of this town. 

    By the time Rebecca catches Eileen pawing through grisly crime scene photos and asks her to meet for martinis after work, Eileen’s desperation for Rebecca’s “attention and approval” has reached a fever pitch. She performs beauty’s ablutions in preparation for the night, painting her face and shaving her body, putting on one of her mother’s best dresses. In the film, she stops in front of the mirror on the way out and cocks her chin, a spark in her irises, striking a pose heartbreaking in its gesture towards confidence. 

    Once she arrives at the bar, the novel and film veer away from each other. In the movie, Rebecca’s hand reaches for Eileen’s thigh almost as soon as she sits down. They talk, play a prank on a few men at the bar, and then they are dancing, pressed tight against each other. When one of the male bar patrons, who Rebecca had flirted with earlier, attempts to cut in, she hits him in the face and clutches Eileen to her body, before bringing her out into the snow, where she kisses her delicately and disappears into the night.

    But in the book, there’s no kiss, and Eileen is afraid to touch Rebecca as they dance. “Only my wrists pressed light against her body. I kept my hands stiff and stuck them out at an angle so that they wouldn’t touch her,” Moshfegh writes, and the men who watch them dance don’t require rejection: “none of them tried to dance with us.” 

    Watching the women dance, giggles on Eileen’s lips and a glimmer in Rebecca’s eye, her hands tender on Eileen’s hips, leaning into her and leading her somewhere new, I caught my breath, smiled. It’s a beautiful scene, as Eileen realizes in real-time that someone might want to touch her. Their kiss is a thrill, porcelain cheeks pressed together amid a maroon fog, a queer fairy tale wrapped in windchill. Moshfegh called the romance a “gorgeous new complication” born during the book’s transition to the silver screen, one she and Goebel didn’t write into the script but saw occur in real-time, the actresses’ embrace a revelation, simultaneously “unavoidable and unexpected.”

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    It is just this taut helix that winds through the film, begging the question of what kind of relationship this really is. Rendering a romance risks sacrificing a depiction of another kind of love, something dirtier and more fugitive: friendship. But in this movie romance distorts; love leers from dim corners and melts into something more complicated. 

    Moshfegh called the romance a “gorgeous new complication” born during the book’s transition to the silver screen, one she and Goebel didn’t write.

    In both the film and novel, the relationship is riddled with manipulation and betrayal, Rebecca seeing in Eileen something stunted, a stuck doorknob she knows just how to jiggle open, onto a room she plans to redecorate in her own image and use as an escape hatch. In the bar, Rebecca tells the men her name is Eileen, and introduces them to her friend Rebecca. In retrospect, Eileen remembers that it is here that she truly “managed to gain my trust,” by demonstrating her ability to win the game of femininity, but also her willingness to throw the match for a laugh. “First she solicited my envy, then she worked to extinguish it…by completely dismissing the men at the bar.”

    After Rebecca leaves, Eileen runs back into the bar in both iterations, in search of another drink and another cigarette, emulating the habits Rebecca casts as part of her nonconformist lifestyle. She blacks out and wakes up in a pool of her own vomit, in the car she’s parked haphazardly halfway onto her lawn. But where the women meet at work and commiserate about their hangovers in the book, Rebecca is mysteriously absent in the film, so Eileen sneaks into her office to page through her papers, run sweaty fingers over the same wood Rebecca touched as she replays the prior night’s date. 

    Another sexual fantasy opens the film, which begins with the protagonist playing peeping Tom, parked at a lookout and peering into the backseat of another car, where a couple kisses passionately. Eileen’s hand is buried beneath her tweed skirt, and then it is buried in a pile of muddy snow, which she shoves against her groin. She hits the gas, peels out of there, and drives jerkily toward work. Mere minutes later, we watch Eileen masturbate again, as she sits at her post at the prison, waiting for the daily procession of mothers to arrive for visiting hours with their incarcerated sons. Multiple reviews of the movie open with a discussion of one or both of these scenes—Variety describes Eileen as “a dowdy, downtrodden, compulsive masturbator.”

    Back in 2015, Moshfegh found critics’ preoccupation with the fictional Eileen’s looks and laxative-induced purges frustrating, telling one interviewer she “just got so sick of everybody saying how gross and ugly” the character was, and that she felt interlocutors constantly wanted her to “explain to them how I had the audacity to write a disgusting female character,” fixating on her character’s physicality over her interiority, the stultifying self-hatred Moshfegh was interested in exploring.

    The media fixation on the filmic Eileen’s predilection for masturbation at the expense of the movie’s myriad other themes recalls literary critics’ parallel fixation on her novelistic iteration’s obsession with defecation, both preoccupations perhaps proving that even in our age of the antiheroine, a girl enthralled by her own bodily processes still disturbs, exuding an abjection we can’t bear. 

    Hathaway—who describes Eileen the film (aptly and hilariously) as “Carol meets Reservoir Dogs”—has said “that line set me free.”

    While the movie at first plays like a noir romance, its central relationship shatters and tightens simultaneously as the film nears its finale, bending to resemble the dynamic between the women in the book, one that “blurs the line between romantic and platonic attraction,” as Moshfegh described it to me, fraught and uncategorizable.

    Near the novel’s start, Eileen declares that “this is not a love story,” but a prison break: the tale of one woman’s escape from the faux-innocent incarceration of small town girlhood to the expansive open plains of womanhood, where you might find yourself alone, but never lonely—after all, there’s always another woman looking out another window. That escape involves epiphanies about friendship and femininity, ones that would have been lost in a simple love story. 

    Before Rebecca, Eileen believed that “a friend is someone who loves you, and that love is the willingness to do anything, sacrifice anything for the other’s happiness,” a belief that left her distraught, in thrall to “an impossible ideal.” Post-Rebecca, she’s found something far more reliably livable than love: a possible ideal, a belief in herself and the knowledge that you can love someone and leave them, help someone without hurting yourself—revelations in direct contradiction with what she’s been taught by her abusive father, who ingrained the notion that “the worst crime I could commit…was to do anything for my own pleasure, anything outside of my daughterly duties.” 

    Drowning in the drudgery of those daughterly duties and small town quicksand, Eileen needs to be dragged out by something strong, a tool so sharp it might just draw blood. You have a big life ahead of you, Rebecca tells Eileen in both iterations, before begging her to help commit a crime. So Rebecca uses Eileen and leaves her in dire straits, yes, but perhaps she does so because she knows she’ll make it out, believes in the girl’s dreamy, rageful resilience and knows she needs an opportunity to prove her strength to herself.

    This is often how women help and hurt each other: motivated by envy or fear or desire or desperation, understanding that the other can handle it—“a grown woman is like a coyote,” adult Eileen notes. So she might end up worse for wear, but she got out, and she was always going to be better off elsewhere. When Rebecca abandons Eileen, as you know she will from the first time you see her, ashing onto the prison floor as Eileen glows under her gaze, she also frees her. She can’t stay here, where the house key she wears around her neck feels like a “noose at the ready.” By forcing Eileen on the run, Rebecca pushes her through a trap door to a new life. 

    Just before she tells Eileen her secret, movie Rebecca muses that “you can’t count on men for anything.” In a monologue from the book that doesn’t make it into the film, she says, “most women hate one another. It’s only natural, all of us competing. Mothers and daughters especially. Not that I hate you, of course. I don’t see you as competition. I see you as my ally, a partner in crime as they say.” Eileen “could have cried hearing those words,” finally cared for even as she’s cast as an accomplice without her permission. But no one ever asked us if we wanted to be pitted against each other, so why can’t one woman draft another in her war? Rebecca’s honesty burns to touch, hot as the barrel of the gun that will go off soon. 

    “If she seems insincere, she was,” adult Eileen thinks, not unadmiringly, of the charming, enthralling Rebecca. Hathaway—who describes Eileen the film (aptly and hilariously) as “Carol meets Reservoir Dogs”—has said “that line set me free.” Sincerely insincere, Rebecca pulls the wool over Eileen’s eyes, and it’s soft so Eileen sighs, but then she rips it off, unsheathes the blade she’s been hiding and stabs Eileen in the back with it. But this is a woman with great aim, and she was never going in for the kill. Eileen ends both the book and the film scarred, but stronger. Rebecca smokes Pall Malls. On each pack is a latin motto, which Eileen reads only to find herself “moved unexpectedly: “per aspera ad astra. Through the thorns to the stars.” 

    Back in the prison, even as she judged the delinquents’ mothers for their fatness and dishevelment, the supposed smallness of their lives, Eileen couldn’t help but feel for the women, so she invented a fake research project, complete with fake surveys for them to fill out, hoping to “create the illusion that their lives and opinions were worthy of respect and curiosity.” Questions included: “how do you see yourself in ten years,” and “how often do you fill your gas tank.” It works, the women sign their names clearly on these forms, much more legibly, Eileen notes, than they do on the visitor log. Like Rebecca did for Eileen when she begged for her help, Eileen gifts these women something we’re all searching for: significance, a story in which we might play a pivotal role. 

    At the end of both the book and the film, Eileen abandons her car with another woman inside it. She hitchhikes her way to New York City, leaving “my home and my hell” for somewhere she will live “happily.” The two iterations fork apart in the final scene. Eileen is crying, or she is smiling. Either way, she’s looking ahead, at a wide, open road. “What she realized by the end of the movie is exactly where she stands” and where she’s “looking,” Moshfegh told me. It’s a beautiful day outside. The sky is baby blue, and the girl has grown up.

    Emmeline Clein
    Emmeline Clein
    Emmeline Clein is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her first book, Dead Weight, is forthcoming from Knopf in February 2024, and her chapbook, Toxic, was published by Choo Choo Press in 2022.

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