Just before Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), tomboy romantic, trades her high-tops for high heels, she has a nightmare that bodes ill for her long-awaited union with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the courtly vampire who set her blood racing in the three prior installments of Twilight. But she forges ahead with the wedding, a fantasia of lacy wisteria, creamy chiffon, fondant icing, and premonitions of blood.
The fever dream that is Bill Condon's The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1, swoony to the point of delirium, announces its intentions in an extended opening sequence in which Virgin weds Vampire. It is not overstating the case to say that what The Lord of the Rings represents to young men, Twilight represents for young women. One is a heroic quest, the other a heroinic one that links sex and death with undying love.
I enjoyed it immensely, even while occasionally snickering at dialogue so wheezy it should come with an inhaler.
Think of Breaking Dawn Part 1 as an extension of Condon's Gods and Monsters, his haunting film about the erotic obsessions of filmmaker James Whale, who directed Frankenstein. Call this intoxicating brew, with equal parts Bride of Frankenstein and Rosemary's Baby, Goddess and Monsters. The goddess, of course, is Bella. The monsters are Edward, her romantic and sexual soul mate, and Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the werewolf who runs platonic interference.
Shot mostly in extreme close-ups that caress the faces of its attractive, mortally conflicted characters, the film sympathetically details Bella's journey from girlhood to womanhood, giving substance to her emotional turmoil. If by several lengths it is the best of the Twilight movies it is because it has the best story to tell.
What does it mean to leave her human family of origin for that of the Cullen family, an improvised vampire clan that preys on animals rather than people? How can she retain her own identity while merging body and soul with a most attractive specimen of the Undead? Will sex with the Other be dangerous or fun? (The PG-13 film suggests both the agony and the ecstasy: The morning after the four-poster resembles a pile of matchsticks and Bella the Mona Lisa.)
Is pregnancy a loss of self or a womanly fulfillment, even if the spawn is the demon seed? Will "changing" Bella into a vampire, a metamorphosis that Edward is reluctant to effect, alter what he most loves about her? In his work with the hugely gifted Stewart, Condon treats these questions without irony or shame, and with occasional humor.
"Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies," muses Bella, quoting the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, as she prepares to marry her vampire swain, to embark on the voyage to the adult kingdom of the Undead.
The film, haloed with fairy-tale light, woodlands, and forests (enchanted images courtesy of Pan's Labyrinth cinematographer Guillermo Navarro), speaks directly to the unconscious.
Will Condon's movie convert agnostics to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight cult? As with the later Harry Potter movies, Breaking Dawn's backstory and conventions are so dense that penetrating them is a challenge to newbies. Still, the film's tight focus on a young woman's passage from pubescence to maturity is universal enough to be clear as Condon's visual storytelling.