The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 might be the most beautiful and well made bad film in history. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro does wonderful work, creating lush and evocative images - the moment where the werewolf falls in love with a baby isn’t just silly beyond belief, it’s absolutely gorgeous. And director Bill Condon brings terrific flourishes to the material while turning the emotional volume to a deafening 11.
But the source material remains garbage, and no matter what talent is thrown at it, it will always remain garbage. This is a bad story well told, populated with boring characters, some of whom are passably portrayed. Yes, Breaking Dawn Part 1 is batshit insane at times, but it’s also often tedious and a grind.
The film opens with Bella and Edward about to get married. Bella has some cold feet, and in one of the movie’s most evocative and great moments, she has a nightmare where the wedding becomes a surreal slaughter, her friends and family piled high in a bloody heap while a grinning, splattered Edward stands at her side. The movie is dotted with moments like this, moments that make you wish that Condon was doing something better, or at least had more freedom to play with the substandard source material.
What he is able to do is play the entire film at operatic levels. Breaking Dawn Part 1 is the best of the series so far, and it’s because Condon embraces the almost parodic levels of angst and teeth gnashing at the heart of Stephenie Meyers’ moron book. Nearly every second of the movie is scored with huge, sweeping music from Carter Burwell (at least the seconds that aren’t scored with pop songs probably chosen by Summit marketing). Condon doesn’t play any scene realistically, but rather like a teen girl’s fevered idea of how the scene would play. There is no realism in Breaking Dawn, only the sweaty, over the top fantasies of 15 year olds. This is big, broad stuff.
Sadly Condon is saddled with the actors who have been in the franchise from the beginning. Kristen Stewart is okay, delivering her best performance as Bella, but she feels a little too small for the hugeness that Condon is conjuring around her. Robert Pattinson rises to the occasion, really out-emoing himself this time around. But neither performance is particularly good, just good by the standards of the subpar series.
Taylor Lautner really screws the pooch on this one, though. Lautner’s a rotten actor - when he emotes he often looks like a constipated FAS baby, and his line deliveries are always subtly, comically off. If you told me he was doing it on purpose I would hail him as a genius.
But worst of all he has no presence. Lautner is without charisma or charm, qualities that Pattinson has even when he isn’t trying (like in every single Twilight film). The script calls for the two to meet as rivals, but rivals on equal footing, and there is no way that Lautner holds his own against Pattinson. In the end the hunky werewolf is out-acted by a guy who is manifestly not even trying; the casting of Lautner may have been the second worst thing to happen to the Twilight film franchise (the first worst being the original novels).
Billy Burke continues to be a series MVP just for walking to the other side of the film without embarrassing himself, but he’s one of the few supporting players coming out clean. Anna Kendrick is loose and funny, almost like she's in a totally different movie. Michael Sheen, who appears for just moments, relishes the terrible material. But almost no one else is any good, with abject worst place going to Jackson Rathbone, who appears to have a serious brain injury. His first line in the film (which accounts for 50% of his dialogue) had my audience - of Twihards - erupting in laughter. I think Rathbone’s collected Jasper performances add up to make one of the worst in cinema history. He isn’t even convincing in a scene where he just watches TV.
Let’s be honest: you don’t care about the acting and all that stuff. You want to know if Breaking Dawn’s nuttiest moments made it into the film, and if they’re translated well. The answer is yes: this is perhaps the single craziest movie ever aimed at 14 year old girls. The film maintains the vampire C-section and the werewolf falling in love with a baby, and it plays them all huge, as blaring notes of absurdity in a symphony of silliness.
But they’re also some of the best parts of the film. It’s weird - the dumbest, goofiest moments are the ones where Condon really kicks some ass. The scene where Jacob imprints on newborn Renesmee is played completely as a love at first sight scene, but it’s such a great moment you nearly forget how creepy it is. A shot where Jacob, overcome by his love for this six minute old child, falls to his knees is stunningly composed and shot. Incredible artistry in service of something ridiculous.
Condon gets around the gore of the C-section by shooting the whole sequence from Bella’s POV. This actually serves to make the whole scene more intense, bringing the Twilight series into real horror for the first time. There’s a nightmare quality to the imagery here that’s chilling, and the set up - Bella laying helpless while Jacob and Edward hover over her - condenses the series in a fractal nutshell.
The scenes leading up to the birth are also remarkable; impregnated with an impossible half-vampire baby, Bella begins to wither away as the super strong fetus takes all of her nutrients. The scenes of Bella pregnant and slowly dying remind you of AIDS movies; a scene where she slips off her robe to reveal a bony shoulder, or where she sits on a couch bundled up in a big sweater while concerned, pre-mourning family hover around, pack the punch of AIDS imagery. As Bella lays on the couch in the gorgeous, expensive Cullen house medical machines beep away and tubes are taped to her, symbols of the way illness invades our lives and homes. The moment when Bella seemingly dies, her face ghastly and gaunt, her lip slightly receding to show her teeth, called to mind the controversial “Pieta” image that Benetton ran as an ad in 1991.
Other scenes are remarkable for totally the wrong reason; one sequence has Jacob, in CGI wolf form, having a debate with the rest of his tribe, also as CG wolves. The CGI wolves (looking better this time around) circle and snarl while the actors shout growly lines of dialogue at each other through ESP; the scene is played straighter than straight, rendering it highest camp. I was breathless with laughter by the time the dog summit concluded.
The Native American dogs play a major role in another delightfully silly scene, where the werewolves and the vampires finally have it out. It’s an honest to god BRAWL, with vampires punching wolves in the face. This fight is hilarious and stupid and, like the rest of the film, well shot.
But the extraordinary nuttiness only punctuates the rest of the grueling badness of the story. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has smartly turned this Part 1 into a downward spiral story - it begins with the ‘happiness’ of Edward and Bella’s wedding and collapses into the pregancy and dissolution of the werewolf/vampire treaty. The thing is that I get this intellectually, but it doesn’t truly play on screen. Instead Breaking Dawn feels formless and largely unstructured. Characters mope around and complain and bitch and worry and act like petulant children (Jacob) or ineffectual crybabies (Edward), but nobody seems to really DO anything. It’s the kind of movie where Edward first tries to talk Bella out of marrying him (which leads, by the way, to a great flashback featuring Bride of Frankenstein), then mopes about hurting her when they fuck (I don’t want to get into the horrible thematic elements of this series right now) and then wants to kill himself when Bella seems dead. That’s his whole character arc, such as it is.
It is the best of the series, which is small praise. I think Condon is the first director since Catherine Hardwicke to really get what the fanbase sees in these books, and he gives as good an approximation as could exist on film. Subtlety and truth have no place in Breaking Dawn; it’s a film where every setback, no matter how minor, is grounds for suicide, where every moment spent with your love is a rapturous convergence of all that is right in the universe. There are no small emotions in Breaking Dawn, no scenes that are underplayed.
The film builds to a crescendo of explosive goofiness, but there’s a credits sequence that hints at where Condon might take us next; the film ends with the Volturi, the Italian vampire overlords led by Michael Sheen, and this scene goes directly into Batman the TV show territory. I’m shocked it wasn’t shot with a dutch angle. I for one can’t wait to see what happens next (spoiler: not much, plotwise).
Breaking Dawn is the best bad movie of the year. The sad part is that while its greatness is often non-ironic - there are truly good bits of cinema in here - its badness is overwhelming. It’s the most watchable of the films so far, and it embraces the insanity of the book, but it’s still not really ‘good.’