By now, we are all used to a certain kind of domestic violence storyline. I grew up on movies like Julia Roberts’ Sleeping with the Enemy, where a woman flees her abusive husband, only to have him dead-set on finding her. The woman must become a warrior in order to face him and, ultimately, conquer his tyranny over her. In Hollywood, there is always that happy ending.
Nicole Kidman’s Celeste in Big Little Lies doesn’t do any of that. At first we see her flawless California-modern house and her adorably blond twin boys (who are the least precocious of all the children in a show brimming with precocious children) and the big glasses of Carmel Valley cabernets and the haute stay-at-home-mom wardrobe and, most of all, the hot husband. Perry, as played by Alexander Skarsgård, when not catching a flight for his unnamed corporate job, is feeling his wife up. Even when he’s out of town, she does a little strip-tease for him on camera.
At first this all seems enticing. Who wouldn’t want to live in that house, be desired by a man like that, and have the kind of marriage that one imagines will make the twins roll their eyes to future partners and faux-apologize for how their parents still act like honeymooners?
We soon realize that like so many appearances on Big Little Lies, it’s all an elaborate façade that hides a much darker truth. The fights are physical. Perry pulls her hair, hurls the kids’ toys at her, leaves bruises she must conceal with cover-up and sleeves. He punches her, and, in one scene, buries her face into a pillow as if to finally go through with it and kill her.
This is where the domestic violence script is flipped. Celeste, a former lawyer who doesn’t work at the behest of her husband—another way to control her—doesn’t start plotting her escape, lawyering up and squirrelling away savings. Instead director Jean-Marc Vallée puts us, the viewers, right up in it. He lingers on the arguments that escalate into physical violence and always end in sex.
It’s excruciating as a viewer, but you have to watch closely to see what’s really going on between them. Sometimes it seems like Celeste is consenting, even getting off on the power play and physicality of it all. And that gray area is scary and uncomfortable for an audience to take. Nuance and lack of clarity isn’t something we like in our domestic violence narratives, either. But as the series stretches on and we’re privy to yet another explosion of Perry’s insecurity, it looks increasingly like Celeste is playing the role of compliant wife all the way down to the rough sex.
Perry and Celeste go to marital counseling together, another flip to the normal abuser script. In their therapist’s lush and carpeted den-like office, they talk of the life they have created together, their passion, the rough sex, but not of the abuse. The therapist acts for a stand-in of us, and she can see right through their excuses and half-truths.
When Celeste returns for a session alone, the therapist urges her to find her own place and take the twins with her before Perry starts beating the children and kills her. And that’s when Celeste seems to finally get clear on her role in the relationship. It’s a pendulum, she explains. After he beats her, she has all the power, and she likes that. Once the bruises fade and Perry stops his apology routine, something new will trigger him and the cycle begins again. Instead of the typical domestic abuse narrative that goes in one direction, beginning with a woman deciding she’s reached her limit, the story of Perry and Celeste’s relationship is like a snake eating its own tale.
Celeste wears an armor of inscrutability in public. She doesn’t put on an aggressively happy face à la Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline, but instead seems Sphinxlike, unreachable, even a little mopey around her friends. This is compounded by the fact that mystique is Kidman’s specialty as an actress.
She is an actor known for thoroughly inhabiting a role. Her turn as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, complete with prosthetic nose, earned her an Academy Award. In To Die For, a breakout role, she played devious. In Eyes Wide Shut, she’s all neuroses. She disappears in her roles, something often credited to other actresses like Meryl Streep. But unlike Streep there’s no core sense of who Nicole Kidman is beyond her characters. She doesn’t have much of a persona and has never seemed to try very hard to get one.
Instead we’re left to wonder what she really thinks: of her ex-husband Tom Cruise; of Scientology; of the role of likability in an actor’s career; of what she really thinks of how her current husband, the Australian country singer Keith Urban, has committed to aggressively flat-ironed and highlighted hair. She has certainly undergone her own transformations. Remember the Kidman circa Days of Thunder, all ginger ringlets and fashion mistakes? She has by a seemingly iron will tamed all of that: her hair is smoothly straight and usually blond-to-strawberry-blond, her clothes red carpet ready. Even her face has undeniably changed over the years but as to how or why, she’ll never tell us.
Kidman will remain imposing: so tall as to look down on most of us, with her soft, breathy voice, eternally detached, the consummate observer. She’s the kind of actor who will demur that she wants the work to speak for itself. Celeste is another character she has chosen to occupy for a time and though we’ll really know why she chose it, as we learn in Big Little Lies, nothing is really an isolated incident.