Reflections on the Blue Lagoon (A Celebration of Puberty Without Shackles)
Jun 15, 2010
This article might contain spoilers.
The Blue Lagoon (1980) is a motion picture that depicts a coming of age story in a lush, paradisal setting, located far and away from modern civilization. Based on the novel of the same name by Henry De Vere Stacpoole, the movie presents us with two children, Emmeline and Richard, who grow up together as best friends and eventually end up finding themselves perplexed and confused across the emotional and sexual urges of adolescence. This bewilderment soon blossoms into a passionate, irresistible “first love” experience.
The island that hosts this story has two faces. On the one hand, we have the “Garden of Eden” setting full of all the gifts and abundance of Mother Earth. Food and fruits are aplenty. The crystal clear sea is alluring with its rainbow coral reefs and safe waters. The beach is almost spotless white and the sun rises and sets in a myriad of colors unimaginable. Every shot of this face of the island is a hot-blooded invitation of nature to become one with it, a tempting tickle of senses to go au naturel and let our modern conventions (shackles) go. The other face of the island is fierce, brutal and covered in crimson blood. Located on the opposite side of the island, hidden in the depths of the jungle, is a ritual spot of the cannibals where they sacrifice their captives to their idol, ie. their god. The sound of their tom-toms and their vicious rites reveal a beastly side of man, which is otherwise suppressed since it is honed and re-shaped by civilization. However, nature is far from being civilized -- it is relentless and cruel per se; a book made up of stories where only the strongest and most alert survives. All in all, the two-faced texture of the island is the same two-faced texture of nature.
The isle of The Blue Lagoon deserves attention not only because it calls for equivocal interpretations but also mirrors the two faces of adolescence (painful and blissful) as well as society’s ambivalent approach to puberty. Fundamentally, the island gives the audience the opportunity to witness a tale of pubescence in seclusion. In a neutral environment devoid of social conduct, roles, pressure and expectancies, The Blue Lagoon discloses the naiveté of all the urges that society renders sinful, inappropriate and intolerable. In that sense, it is quite a challenging movie and the negative responses it arose upon its release are a proof of the very fact that the “rawness” of puberty (ie. sexual drives in all its innocence or the impulse to touch, embrace, love and share with another) is a taboo, a no-no in the society. If the dark side of the island is the oppressive side of society, the edenesque side is the welcoming side that can be seen in prideful reactions such as “Our little boy is a young man, now”.
On a parallel note, the cannibals’ site on the other side of the island is almost like a tribute to the horrors of puberty. Menstrual blood (there are blood traces all over the altar of the cannibal idol), uncontrollable, primal urges (for the cannibals that is eating human flesh, for the teenagers this is sexual drive), irresistible curiosities (the location is initially “forbidden” to Emmeline and Richard but they cannot help but break “the law”) are symbolized through this ritual site where man-eaters carry out their inhuman rites. The “Garden of Eden” attire of the island, however, represents the flourishing feelings of love, natural beauty of a male and female and the continuity of human kind through the fruit of this kind of love. As our societies impose on us, the nucleus family Emmeline and Richard eventually forms is the utmost goal of puberty. However modern the world may get, deep down inside, it is still inclined to limit sex to reproduction alone.
This mindset is very similar to the “crisis heterotopias” revealed through the discourse of Michel Foucault in his essay “Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology”. Foucault states that:
“In so-called primitive societies, there is a certain form of heterotopias that I would call “crisis heterotopias”; that is, there are privileged or sacred or forbidden places reserved for individuals who are in a state of crisis with respect to society and the human milieu in which they live. Adolescents, menstruating women, women in labor, old people and so on” (Foucault, 179).
The island of The Blue Lagoon is a perfect example of such a crisis heterotopia and how, although they are “all but disappeared” (Foucault, 179), we still wish to isolate and/or suppress the naturalness of puberty and adolescence through social norms.
Within the lines of this article, I will not only elaborate more on the examples of “island as the bilateral embodiment of pubescent bliss and horror” but also concentrate deeper on the idea that societies would have been content if adolescents were isolated in heterotopias until they were young adults and left their chaotic exploration of their selves and their place in the world throughout their puberty behind.
In order to take a closer look at these notions, I would like to expand upon selected scenes from the movie itself and how they relate to the points I have made up until now. These scenes include little Emmeline, Richard and their pirate friend Paddy’s escape from the burning ship, children’s first taste of freedom through swimming, the picture called “subjugation”, the entrée of the mysterious tom-toms and their juxtaposition with an underwater hunt scene, introduction of “the Law”, the depictions of pubescent horrors (first period of Emmeline, leaving childish naiveté and beliefs behind), natural discovery of sexuality between Richard and Emmeline, the truth behind tom-toms (the vicious side of the island disclosed) and the death & birth cycle embedded in this part. The final scene I will be exploring is the scene where Richard and Emmeline are taken for natives by the members of a ship that is passing by the island.
The movie opens with our protagonists Richard and Emmeline sailing to San Francisco aboard a ship. An unexpected fire cuts this voyage short and little Emmeline and Richard can only escape the commotion with the help of Paddy the pirate. Soon after, however, the rowing boat they rescued with is enveloped by a thick mist, which separates them from the rest of the survivors. This scene is crucial in the sense that it successfully marks the beginning of a period that will pass in seclusion on an island and draws the line between a life in civilization and a life in wild nature. The fog that keeps them apart from their companions and family also keeps them apart from their past and their culture. This isolation is necessary for the next step in the story (a.k.a the island part) because just like Gilles Deleuze states in his essay “Desert Islands’’, “Dreaming of islands… is dreaming of pulling away, of being already separate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone’’ (Deleuze, 10). In order for them to embrace the freedom and naturalness the island will present, Richard and Emmeline have to leave civilized living and its various ways of “subjugation’’.
Ironically, subjugation is the title of a picture Richard finds within the contents of a chest that they pick up from amidst the remnants of the sunken ship. He asks Paddy what subjugation means and Paddy’s answer is ambiguous enough to reflect both his views on the “civilized’’ world and the situation they find themselves in. He says, “[Subjugation] is what I have been trying to avoid all my life!“. In the aforementioned faded picture is a woman reading a magazine and is totally indifferent to her resentful-looking husband who is standing by and holding two crying babies. The mother does not care about the babies, the father does not know what to do with them and underneath this scene writes, ‘‘there is no place like home’’. Paddy seems to be well aware of this ‘‘picture’’ and has chosen to lead his life away from the society, as a pirate, an outcast, to escape it as much as he could. The hypocrisy of society is reflected through the juxtaposition of a picture of an unhappy marriage and the caption ‘‘there is no place home’’. A similar hypocrisy is continued with the society’s soppy-stern treatment towards the youngsters. On the outside lies the positive opinion of ‘‘today’s the teenagers are tomorrow’s adults’’ yet on the inside, the parents (and society in general), not knowing what to do with them, choose to “subjugate’’ the youngsters, their feelings and their impulses until they are combed out. The secluded island will give Emmeline and Richard a chance to build their own world freely, without the interference or "subjugation" of their elders.
Nevertheless, the children still carry the memories of the civilized world and its imposed manners. Thus, in one particular scene, Paddy is seen running after the children along the beach, trying to convince them to swim in the ocean. The duo run away from him as Richard shouts that they can’t swim because they don’t have their bathing suits with them (and it would be improper to attempt swimming without the swimwear). Eventually, however, they cannot resist going into the water with their undergarments. As they take their clothes off one by one while they are swimming, they welcome the utmost freedom this act entails (so much so that Paddy is next seen running after them as he tries to convince the children to put their clothes on). Hence, the island’s paradisal face begins to weave its spell on little Richard and Emelline as it slowly continues the work the fog had started, namely cutting the children’s ties with the outside world, artificial ways of civilized living and readying them for the “indescribable intoxication’’ (Baldacchino, 247) of the island. Richard and Emelline reflect the fact that “We are obsessed, excited or terrified… by islands and their mysterious, haunting charm’’ (Baldacchino, 247). Thus, this particular island story does two things at once – it creates a crisis heterotopia where adolescents are kept away from the “orderly“ society and superimposes the “order-free“ island setting upon this heterotopia so as to drive the audience’s attention to an otherwise “disturbing’’ or “unsettling’’ environment of sexual innuendo. The fact that this secluded Eden is more than it seems is first revealed through the scene where a drunken Paddy hears the sound of mysterious tom-toms. This scene is of particular importance due to the fact that the obscure sound of the primitive, almost bestial rhythm is juxtaposed with an underwater hunt involving an octopus and a crab. The crab tries its best to run away from the preying octopus only to be caught with the fatal suction cups of its arms. Hence, the sound of tom-toms is implicitly attributed to death or danger although its origin is not known. It symbolizes the fact that although nature (and the island) is alluring and exquisite on the outside, it is governed by harsh and relentless rules on the inside.
In the next scene, we see Paddy wandering off into the jungle and discovering the bloody idol with the sacrifice altar. He hurries back to the children and forbids them to ever go to the other side of the island, saying that ‘‘nasty things going on over there – vile, evil, sinister things’’. He embodies ‘‘vile, evil and sinister’’ in the form of a boogeyman who lives on the other side of the island and eats children to further scare Richard and Emelline (considering that both the cannibals and the made-up boogeyman eat children on the other side of the island, one can’t say that Paddy is lying to these children – if they go there, they will eventually be eaten). He finally states that not going to the other side of the island is ‘‘the Law’’ which both Richard and Emelline obey for years. Still, the other side of the island becomes one of those rules that society imposes upon children and pubescent teens. Sentences that begin with ‘‘Do not…’’ are a part of the lives of the youngsters who, at one point or another, start to develop an urge to do the opposite, to find out the ‘‘why’’ behind ‘‘because it is so’’. The island’s darker face represents the curiosity of adolescence and its irresistible urge to break the laws in that sense.
As Emmeline and Richard grow up to become teenagers, the island gets ready to entwine and embody pubescent terrors and bliss. There is a natural, sheltered pool in the island where the duo likes to swim and play. One day while swimming naked in the pool, Emmeline realizes that she is bleeding. She is immediately stricken with terror and helplessness. She calls out to Richard who is hunting fish on the shore but when he comes running, Emmeline changes her mind in shame and wants him to leave her alone, saying she doesn’t want him to see her like this. ‘‘But you’re bleeding!’’ insists Richard to no avail. Hence, the pool that once hosted countless moments of childish felicity becomes the setting of an utmost horror for a girl who is unaware of the female menstrual cycle (the panic of Emmeline is reminiscent that of Carrie who is also a protagonist unaware of her sexuality and has her first period in the shower of girls locker room amidst the ridicule of her friends). That same pool will once again reflect sheer ecstasy when Emmeline and Richard discover sexual intercourse. Hence, not only the (two opposite sides of the) island in general but also a particular spot on the island has the potential to mirror adolescent horror and bliss, alternatively.
Likewise, in another scene, Richard and Emmeline sit on the rocks they used to sit as children and watch the sunset. However, as teenagers, they display an entirely different mindset. The spot they used to sit together and try to hear the sound of waters hissing as the sun sets is no longer a place of listening to fantastical, awe-inspiring (and non-existent) sounds. Richard and Emmeline talk about how Santa Claus never came and how there is no pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. Life takes a bitter turn from a dream and a never-ending game towards the real and the rational. Unfortunately, another place of happiness on the island turns into a place of pubescent melancholy.
Once Emmeline and Richard discover sex per se, the island becomes the embodiment of ‘‘a second origin’’, as Deleuze would call it. It is ‘‘not creation but re-creation, not the beginning but a re-beginning that takes place… From it everything begins anew. The island is the necessary minimum for this re-beginning’’ (Deleuze, 13). Hence, the story takes an Adam and Eve turn as the duo freely explores their sexuality, their natural impulses to touch, caress and kiss each other and, eventually, the need to love another. Since they have the liberty to experience sex without the restrictions and subjugation of society, they soon have a baby and create a nucleus family – the basic unit of society and culture. This is a brand new beginning on the island of The Blue Lagoon for humanity (maybe this time, there is hope for a better world where human beings are more in tune with Mother Earth and each other).
While there is hope for a new beginning with the birth of the new generation, there is death lurking on the other side of the island. Richard breaks ‘‘the Law’’ and witnesses the cannibals dancing a vicious dance before slaughtering a man on the altar. On the one hand, this is the ‘‘most intense subjectivity induced by the fear of others’’ (Richetti, 367) in Richard. He becomes extremely protective over Emmeline from then on and remains always on watch. Up until that point, the due has been living in their ‘‘seventh heaven’’, believing they were the only ones who existed in their small paradise. The introduction of ‘‘others’’ immediately brings in the fear factor. Just like the teenagers living in the modern world are constantly affected and inevitably shaped by the ‘‘others’’, Richard and Emmeline’s blissful existence is interrupted by ‘‘the dangers and persistence of nature’’ (Richetti, 367).
On another note, the first visual disclosure of the cannibalistic act of the savages coincides with Emmeline’s going into labor at another spot of the island. Hence, this is a representation of the natural birth and death cycle with death on the one hand and birth on the other. Symbolically, this also mirrors the conscious (continuation of the species through reproduction and birth) versus the unconscious (deviant acts of violence). Thus, this is the face of puberty that the society does not want to see (and isolate) since the hormonal surge might (and does, occasionally) cause uncontrollable, purely instinctive, destructive behaviors in teens that lead to dire consequences for both themselves and others. This is also the face of puberty that the society welcomes gladly because puberty means developing reproductive skills that will lead to the coming of new generations. These are the joys and confusions of adolescence all coming together upon a single island.
One day, the nucleus family finds themselves playing merrily in the mud and just then, a ship spots them. They think the mud-covered trio cannot be anything other than ‘‘wild men of the forest leading a bestial existence’’ (Abulafia, 43) as depicted by Petrarch and stated by David Abulafia in his book The Discovery of Mankind. In the book, Abulafia presents us with two different views regarding the natives of the islands discovered during the Age of Exploration. Abulafia explains that Boccacio believed the natives to be an idyllic community, living a life of contentment in the legendary ‘‘Happy Isles’’. ‘‘They were intelligent and physically powerful’’ (Abulafia, 43). They lacked materialism and lived in nakedness representing innocence. The beautiful side of the island, where Richard and Emmeline reside, mostly resembles this existence. Petrarch, on the other hand, believed that these men were brutes and ‘‘near-animals’’ (Abulafia, 43) due to their lack of sociability. Petrarch was mirrored by America Vespucci who believed that American Indians ‘‘were consumed by their sexual hunger and by hunger for human flesh’’. This is the side of The Blue Lagoon where the cannibals carry out their bloody rites. When naked and covered in mud (ie. Nature), white man is not fit for society. For him to be a part of the civilized culture, he needs to be squeaky clean, wearing proper clothes and act properly. Thus, Richard and Emmeline, however civil they may be on the inside, will never be fit for the modern world and its ways of living.
If the island represents the angst and happiness of puberty, are pubescent teens driven by innocence or beastly instincts? Are they to be blamed and secluded or cherished and welcomed for their feelings and behaviors? The Blue Lagoon poses these questions to the ‘‘modern society’’, which openly or discreetly decides and dictates who we can love, avoid, have sex with, marry, hate, disapprove, reward, punish and/or alienate. The Blue Lagoon is the call of freedom and the call of nature in a world of subjugation. The Blue Lagoon is coming across the innocent child that is locked up in every single one of us – that little child we abandon on a neglected, long-forgotten island soon after we enter the civilized world of adulthood and what Freud calls as ‘reality principle’.
The Blue Lagoon is a tribute to the innocence of human nature despite its bestial foundations.
Hence, inside every one of us lies a blue lagoon that is still waiting to be remembered and rediscovered.
· Abulafia, David. "Chapter 5, The Canary Islanders, 1341 - 1496." The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus. New Haven [Conn.: Yale UP, 2008. Print.
· Deleuze, Gilles. “Desert Islands.” Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974. Ed. David Lapouijade. Trans. Michael Taormina. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004. Print.
· Foucault, Michel. “Different Spaces.” Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume Two. Ed. James Faubia. London: Penguin. 2000. Print.
· Richetti, John. J. “Robinson Crusoe: The Self as Master.” Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Michael Shinagel. Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994. Print.
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The Blue Lagoon is a 1980 American romance and adventure film starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins, produced and directed by Randal Kleiser. The screenplay by Douglas Day Stewart was based on the novel The Blue Lagoon by Henry De Vere Stacpoole. The original music score was composed by Basil Poledouris and the cinematography was by Nestor Almendros.
The film tells the story of two young children marooned on a tropical island paradise in the South Pacific. Without either the guidance or restrictions of society, emotional feelings and physical changes arise as they reach puberty and fall in love.