Rebecca Miller's "The Ballad of Jack and Rosie" Life With Father By Ninos Feneck Mikelides

in 55th Berlinale

by Ninos Feneck Mikelides

It was encouraging to find such an engrossing independent film as Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rosie in the Panorama Section of this year’s Berlinale — actually the film was the major contestant to the Panorama’s FIPRESCI prize winner Massacre.

The story takes place in the mid-80s on a small island off the East Coast of the United States and focuses on the relationship between a father, Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis giving an exemplary interpretation), and his teenage daughter, Rosie (a very attractive Lolita-like Camilla Belle) who live a communal life, the same one that Jack once founded on the island, avoiding the company of other people and enjoying a life of peace and happiness. Jack is over-protective whilst Rosie feels happy only with him. However, their personal Eden is slowly destroyed as Jack’s illness gets worse whilst the arrival of an estate agent (Beau Bridges) and Jack’s girl-friend (Catherine Keener), with her two teenage sons, come to stay on the farm.

At the same time a reflection on the hippie way of life and idealism that at a certain point went sour and a thorough investigation of a father-daughter relationship that verges on the incestuous, the film takes its time to build its main themes with care and understanding. Rosie is an innocent — but dangerous — young Eve, growing up in a special kind of Eden, with a Freudian complex, while Jack’s Adam avoids any kind of temptation finally preferring death to incest.

Miller sketches Rebecca’s innocence with little, often brutal, touches, as in the scene where, partly out of vengeance, she secretly watches her father making love to his girl-friend and partly out of curiosity, or when she walks into the room where we see one of the sons, and, while undressing, asks him straight in the face to make love to her, whilst the following day she provokes Jack by hanging the blood-stained sheet on the clothes-line. When she senses that her life with her father is threatened, Rosie is ready for anything as long as she can get rid of the others — she puts a snake in the room and pushes one of the boys out of the widow of the house, landing him in hospital. Although never openly provocative, Miller manages to create an atmosphere of real sensuality in many of the scenes.

Jack is presented as somewhat narrow-minded in his treatment of others, ready to shoot at any one who attempts to destroy nature and its surroundings, which would lead to the destruction of the commune, as we see in the scene where he shoots at the workers to stop the real estate development of the area or later when he visits the estate agent at his house. It is here that we actually witness the first major change in Jack’s character, who, now, face to face with a man that is no monster, and already frightened by his daughter’s sexual provocations, is ready to accept his shortcomings and is looking for a way out of the commune.

There is certainly a critique on the kind of communal life Jack & Rosie have been enjoying but there is also hope left as in the closing scenes with Rosie attending to flowers in a different kind of commune. The fire with which Rosie sets the house alight is used as a cathartic element to wipe out the past and open a door to a brighter future.