The Problem With ‘Reimagining’ Lizzie Borden

Photo: Roadside Attractions

It’s been 126 years since someone took an ax and gave Andrew and Abby Borden 29 whacks with it — and we’re still talking about whether or not that someone was Lizzie Borden. “Why a 19th Century Axe Murder Still Fascinates Us,” wrote Rolling Stone in 2016. “Hacking Away at Our Ongoing Obsession With Lizzie Borden,” declared Broadly in 2015. “One of the Most Mysterious Murders in History,” wrote the Akron Daily Democrat in 1895, three years after Lizzie’s father and stepmother were found, axed to a pulp, in their gloomy Fall River, Massachusetts, residence. No surprise, then, that we’re getting a new Lizzie Borden movie just in time for fall: Lizzie, produced by and starring Chloë Sevigny.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the Borden murders still grip us. They’re unsolved, they’re grisly (one onlooker compared Abby’s head to a “badly dressed steak”), and they involve a very strange woman. Lizzie Borden was an unemotional spinster who loved animals, a rich girl who shoplifted, an angry daughter who gave her father a beloved ring. Murderous theories abound: She wanted her inheritance, she chafed under her father’s rules, she was a victim of incest, her father thwarted her love affair, she killed during two epileptic fits spaced 90 minutes apart. So did she do it? The jury said no, but historians — and artists — almost always say yes.

If you believe the blurbs, Lizzie is designed to give us a fresh Lizzie, a queer Lizzie, a feminist Lizzie. “Takes a legend and blows it up from the inside,” one critic writes. “The Lizzie Borden story for the modern generation,” writes another. “A suitably 2018 version, befitting of the #MeToo generation,” says a third. The New York Times describes Sevigny’s character as “literally smashing the patriarchy (in the face, with an ax).” We, the audience, are being groomed to welcome this Lizzie Borden with open arms: She is furious, she is justified, she is us. But is bringing Lizzie Borden into the 21st century really the best idea? Or do we risk disturbing the dead?

Though the art about Lizzie frequently veers into the ridiculous — consider Lizzie Borden’s Revenge, in which Lizzie “terrorizes a sorority” — Sevigny’s film completes a trifecta of serious or serious-ish films about the crime. Like this year’s Lizzie, both The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) and Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014) make good use of airless hallways, creaky stairs, and the ubiquitous shots of Andrew and Abby Borden’s bodies posed with gruesome historical accuracy. All three films stick fairly close to the Borden canon (pears, mutton, pigeons, morphine, and so on), and all three assume that Lizzie is guilty — so the driving question of each movie is not whodunnit, but why?

In The Legend of Lizzie Borden, we meet a Lizzie, who’s both enigmatic and fiery, both sympathetic and horrifyingly alien. The actress who plays her, Elizabeth Montgomery, looks eerily similar to the original Lizzie with her heavy-lidded eyes and cleft chin, and in fact, after the movie came out, a genealogist discovered that the two were distantly related. During the film, the camera lingers on Lizzie’s face as the audience is forced to interpret her glances — when her mouth tells her sister that she didn’t kill her father, are her eyes telling us that she did? “You’re a most unusual woman, Ms. Borden,” says a journalist. “Difficult to penetrate.”

Legend wades gradually toward the most disturbing theory of the Borden murders: that Lizzie was a victim of incest at the hands of her father Andrew. But the film leaves much to the imagination, and as we see their relationship swing between cold and eerily romantic, we’re left wondering who, exactly, is the truly creepy one. Montgomery’s Lizzie never fully explains herself, which is perhaps the most historically accurate part of the movie. The real Lizzie never quite made herself knowable, either.

The creepiest moment in Legend isn’t the murder sequence, or even the scene where Lizzie slowly kisses her dead father on the lips (!!!). It happens at the very end, when Lizzie’s sister asks again if she was the murderer, and Lizzie turns around, very slowly, and just stares at her with those famously inscrutable eyes. The music swells, and we hear a chorus of ghostly children singing an old nursery rhyme: Lizzie Borden took an ax / gave her mother forty whacks / when she saw what she had done / gave her father forty-one…

Interestingly enough, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax has an almost identical ending: The sister asks if she did it, and after a bloody flashback showing that she did, the nursery rhyme starts plinking along. Aesthetically, though, we get a far different Lizzie, played by Christina Ricci: She’s rail-thin, bug-eyed, and openly psychopathic. Ax gives us repressed party girl Lizzie, who sneaks out of the house in plunging gowns to chug Champagne at house parties, who weeps wildly when the murders are discovered, and who utters lines like: “I just wish I had the freedom to live the life I’ve always imagined.” (Translation: I killed my dad!)

Both Legend and Ax spend a lot of time on the inquest and trial, which are key pieces of the real Borden puzzle. It was there that we heard many of Lizzie’s famous lines, there that we saw how a jury of 19th-century men were never going to believe that a Victorian lady was capable of ax murder. And it was there that we discovered just how odd Lizzie could be: changing her story, shopping for poison, burning a dress covered in “paint,” eating pears in a boiling barn … but also a woman who loved her father, a Sunday school teacher, and quite possibly a traumatized daughter who’d just lost every parental figure in her life.

In contrast, Sevigny’s film doesn’t spend much time in the courtroom, instead focusing on the events that may or may not have lead up to all that bloodshed. In Lizzie, a tremulous Irish maid named Bridget Sullivan (played by Kristen Stewart) arrives, Andrew Borden begins to repeatedly molest her, Lizzie and Bridget begin a hushed romance, Andrew Borden sees them embracing in the barn, and eventually the two girls hatch a plan to kill. (The film also unearths an old theory, set forth in the 1967 book A Private Disgrace, that Lizzie suffered from epileptic seizures, though Lizzie uses the seizures as a way of building Lizzie’s character into someone brittle and trapped, not as an explanation for the killings.)

The movie is beautifully done: Golden sunlight suffuses the barn where the two women finally kiss, while the dark hallways of the Borden house are illuminated only by hair-raising flickers of candlelight. Like Legend, the camera always seems to find its way back to Lizzie’s face, as though it might be able to finally read some century-old answer there. The killings are satisfyingly brutal, and Sevigny’s face as she kills her stepmother ranges from terrified to bloodthirsty to grief-stricken. Most notably, the women’s plan — to strip nude and then kill — feels not objectifying, but empowering. Sevigny wanted the scene to be “carnal.”

The nudity, the queer love story, the downfall of the patriarch. A “suitably 2018” Lizzie Borden, indeed — or is it?

The problem with “reimagining” the story of Ms. Lizzie Andrew Borden is that, by 2018, there is nothing new under the Fall River sun. Unless you’re willing to produce something like Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter, any artist who decides to retell the story is left shuffling and reshuffling the million pieces of Bordenalia that we have from the trial, and all the weird theories that historians and biographers have come up with over the decades. Lizzie is a well-done film, and yet nothing about it “takes [the Lizzie Borden] legend and blows it up from the inside.” In fact, every theory it presents has been done before. The theory that Lizzie was a lesbian emerged in an 1984 novel, the suspicion that Andrew Borden was at least domineering, if not outright abusive, has been around since the murders. And the idea that she killed in the nude? It may seem of-the-moment, but it’s actually so widespread that both Legend and Ax filmed their Lizzies stripping naked to do the bloody deed.

In fact, this romanticized idea of a nude Lizzie Borden is a fitting synecdoche for the problem with all the fictional Lizzies we’ve seen over the years. Sure, a naked woman discovering what it feels like to split a human skull in half is a compelling image to use onscreen. But if the real Lizzie did it, and if she did it in the nude, it wouldn’t have been because she was feeling “carnal.” It would have been an icily practical decision made by a woman who knows how to keep her hands clean. Ax murder is messy. Blood washes off skin much easier than it does out of clothes.

In constantly reimagining Lizzie, we end up crafting narratives that fit with what we think happened — and more importantly, what we think makes the Borden murders permissible. All three Lizzie movies have the same agenda: They try to show not just what could lead a woman to kill her father and stepmother, but how she could have done it in a way that still lets us root for her. The real Lizzie Borden becomes secondary to the imaginary Lizzie Borden, who becomes a vehicle for our beliefs about what women want, and what they’d do to get it. Granted, that’s just what art does, but the problem is that there is no single model for what it means to be a woman, a spinster, a rich girl, a bored girl, an angry girl, a murderess. So why do onscreen Lizzies always seem to end up naked, splattered in blood? To really blow up the story of Lizzie Borden on film, someone should convince us that she was innocent.

The Problem With ‘Reimagining’ Lizzie Borden