Sigmund Freud would have surely had a field day with writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein, who has now devoted not one but two movies to women with metaphorical steel traps between their legs. In Lichtenstein’s 2007 debut, “Teeth,” the woman in question was a sexually curious teen suffering from an acute case of vagina dentata. In his latest, “Angelica,” the focus is on a wife and mother whose fragile health demands that she abstain from all pleasures of the flesh — a dietary restriction that leads to many strange bumps (and humps) in the night. The result is a loony psychosexual potboiler with one foot in “Masterpiece Theater” finery and the other in outre camp abandon, never fully satisfying on either count, but at least partly redeemed by a finely calibrated star turn from Jena Malone. Lacking the shock scares needed to sate the mainstream horror crowd, the film faces decidedly limited commercial prospects. Midnight audience-participation screenings beckon.
Lichtenstein (son of pop-art legend Roy) himself adapted “Angelica” from the 2007 Arthur Phillips novel, a kind of cross between “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Rashomon” that recounted an alleged haunting in 19th-century London from the contradictory perspectives of four different narrators. For the movie, Lichtenstein has winnowed things down to a single narrative strand, but like Phillips, he remains less interested in supernatural hoodoo than in the perilous position of women in Victorian society. Those ideas are sometimes effectively integrated into the drama and sometimes sit awkwardly on the surface, like lumps in a poorly made bed. But at least “Angelica” is never boring. No movie where the main character is repeatedly raped by an ectoplasmic incubus sporting an anaconda-sized phallus could be accused of that.
Following a brief and wholly unnecessary prologue in which London stage actress Angelica (Malone) is ushered to the bedside of her dying mother, Constance (Glynnis O’Connor), the movie enters a long flashback in which we learn the details of Constance’s dark and stormy relationship with Angelica’s father, who mysteriously disappeared from Angelica’s life when she was still a young girl. We are sometime in the 1880s, and the young Constance (also played by Malone) falls for the charms of the handsome Dr. Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard), a medical researcher who keeps the true nature of his work far from Constance’s delicate eyes.
But it’s not just Constance’s eyes that haven’t seen much of the world, as evidenced by the tentative steps the newlywed bride takes toward her marital bed, while Joseph lies sprawled across it, leering at her in positively lupine fashion. In due course, Angelica (played as a child by Eliza Holland Madore) enters the world, but the traumatic birth nearly kills both mother and child, resulting in a most unusual doctor’s order: that Constance is to refrain from sex for the rest of her days and “find your pleasure elsewhere.”
Much talk follows about Constance’s “closed garden” (or, per Lichtenstein’s yen for dead languages, hortus conclusus), which she just can’t seem to keep fully closed. (“But he’s Italian!” she protests to her unforgiving doctor after once more falling prey to her husband’s Mediterranean mojo.) Adding insult to Joseph’s already injured male pride, Constance seems unable to extract herself from Angelica’s side for more than a few minutes at a time, even once the girl is well past toddler age and sleeping in her own bedroom. It’s during one of those nighttime visits that Constance first sees the otherworldly “flying man” — an apparent swarm of microbial bacteria in a vaguely humanoid shape, hovering over Angelica’s bed and attempting to penetrate her delicate body. When Constance disturbs the creature, it scuttles off into the bureau, leaving what can only be described as an ectoplasmic cum stain all over the door.
What, exactly, is this rough beast that stalks the Barton household? A demon? A figment of Constance’s imagination? Or, perhaps, the very personification of Joseph’s unquenched sexual desires? All such possibilities are entertained as “Angelica” heads into increasingly overripe territory, with Joseph pondering institutionalization for his troubled bride, and the arrival of a sham mystic (Janet McTeer, whose big, bug-eyed performance seems to have dropped in from a Mel Brooks picture). Material like this cries out for a filmmaker with the carefully calibrated perversity of a David Cronenberg, who explored similar ideas of female hysteria in both “A Dangerous Method” and “The Brood.” But Lichtenstein is at once heavier of hand and more literal of mind, and he never quite cuts loose of a certain staid, starchy yearning for Merchant-Ivory respectability, even when he’s filming his bacterial demon riding Malone like a bucking bronco (an undeniably funny scene, though not necessarily on purpose).
What holds “Angelica” together — to the extent that it does — is Malone, who charges so assuredly into the role that she can weather whatever loopy indignities the movie sends her way. At first glance, Malone would seem all wrong for such a part — too American, too contemporary, too assertive. She more than rises to the occasion, though, making Constance into a vivid, sympathetic presence — a woman whose real sense of terror derives not from her strange visions but from her dawning realization of how powerless she is to influence her own destiny in a society ruled by the whims of men. It is a performance deserving of a much better movie.
Lichtenstein has surrounded himself here with some of the best technical collaborators money can buy, including longtime Mike Leigh cameraman Dick Pope, Oscar-winning production designer Luciana Arrighi (“Howards End”) and composer Zbigniew Preisner (“Blue”), whose lushly orchestrated score is a standout.