Aquariums & Bell Jars: Love, Death & the 8th House in Cinema
"The 8th House is much more than just other people’s money," writes astrologer/Jungian analyst Liz Greene. "It describes ‘that which is shared’ and the manner in which we fuse or unite with others. Elaborating and expanding on what has begun in the 7th, the 8th House is the nitty-gritty of relationships: what happens when two people – each with his or her own temperament, resources, value system, needs and biological clock – attempt to merge." In astrology, the 8th House is often called The House of Sex, Death, and Rebirth. It's the second of the transpersonal houses, building upon Libra's/the 7th House's focus on relationships, marriage, and partnership. It's the moment when two become one, fusing together in a consummation of the Alchemical Marriage, when we cease to be merely ourselves and become a part of a greater whole.
Love. Sex. Death. These things take us outside of ourselves, introduce us to the limits of our understanding. They point to the glass walls that stand between us, that prevent us from truly connecting, from truly understanding one another. Every once in a great while, one of the three punctures that veil, thrusting us into the Outer Dark, beyond ideas and conception, hurtling us outside of the known and the comfortable and into the wilderness of the Unknown, the Unknowable. It is terrible and awe-inspiring.
Art of all kinds is particularly adept at recreating this sensation. Film is particularly useful for representing this radical empathy. You are, by definition, looking through someone else's eyes, living someone else's experience. It also shows the limits of that awareness. We're always interpreting other people's experiences through our own lenses, our particular frameworks, our paradigms of understanding. We'll never know if someone sees blue the same way that we do. We'll never know how lemonade tastes on a sweltering day to even the closest people in our lives. It's a mystery.
That mystery is what pierces our armor, opens us up like a can opener, hurtles us into the maelstrom. Perhaps that's why we're so obsessed with love and sex. It breaks us out of our habits and routines, opening us up to fresh possibilities. It's exhilarating, and terrifying. This rich, often contradictory emotional condition all come together in the 8th House, the House of Scorpio, and its corresponding Tarot card, Death.
Writing on the similarities of love, sex, and death, Astrology.com comments, "Returning to this House’s emphasis on sex, it’s important to note that the French refer to an orgasm as ‘le petit mort’ or ‘the little death.’ When we reach that exalted state of communion, we leave a little of ourselves behind — die a small death. One can also choose to view this as growth, a new beginning, the rebirth of the soul or a gain for the partnership. The Eighth House is an equal-opportunity house, placing sex, death and rebirth on the same level playing field and acknowledging the viability and importance of all three. We will all experience death and rebirth as part of our lives: failed relationships leading to new ones, career changes, a new hairstyle. We are regenerated and reborn with each new phase and should welcome them."
Mike Nichols' Closer is a brilliant cinematic depiction of the many little deaths of love, sex, and relationships. One reviewer on Letterboxd summarizes the film as: "hot people in London can’t stop cheating on each other," and they nail it with that brief sentence. Closer focuses on two dysfunctional couples, Dan Woolf (Jude Law) and Alice Ayers (Natalie Portman), as one couple, and Anna Cameron (Julia Roberts) and Larry Gray (Clive Owens) as Couple B.
Closer begins with a dyed-hair Natalie Portman playing the standard manic pixie dream girl to Jude Law's boring obituary columnist. Alice gets run down by a taxi after locking eyes with Dan on a busy London street. He's the first thing she sees when she awakens with the words, "Hello, Stranger."
Strangers are a running theme throughout Closer, as they're also the subject of Anna Cameron's portraiture. Anna's a photographer who takes Dan's photo for his upcoming book, The Aquarium, based on Alice's life. One year into Dan and Alice's relationship, he makes a move on Anna the moment he meets her, setting a dramatic, and ultimately tragic, love rectangle into motion.
Dan becomes immediately obsessed with Anna. He's spurned by her rejection, as she finds out he has a girlfriend and she's "not a thief." Seeking retribution, he catfishes a dermatologist, Larry Gray, on a very early Internet sex chatroom. He sends Larry to the aquarium where he likely knows Anna will be, after a very explicit chat. Instead of embarrassing the two, however, Anna and Larry end up hitting it off (a testament to Larry's brutish charm). The pair end up getting married, jokingly referring to Dan as "Cupid."
All would've ended well had the chemistry between Dan and Anna been one-sided. Turns out Dan Woolf's a smooth-talking bastard. They begin a liason after Anna's art opening showing her portraits of strangers. "I'm your stranger," Dan comments smugly. He may be right. Regardless, it sets a series of events into motion that destroys numerous lives, but mostly Dan's.
Closer flash forwards a year. Dan and Anna have been having an affair since her gallery show. They decide they're in love, and they both decide to leave their respective partners. Anna's become wildly successful and she and Larry have gotten married. Dan and Alice are cohabitating, seemingly the image of domestic bliss. Until they're not. Alice leaves in a flurry of tears. Larry storms off in a bitter rage. Dan and Anna are together, but their relationship is born under a bad sign and it's only a matter of time until they reap what they sow.
Closer’s tagline notes that "when you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking." At one point, during a confrontation between Dan and Larry, Larry comments, "You don't know the first thing about love, because you don't understand compromise." It seems that some of the characters of Closer, mostly Dan and Anna, confuse love with attraction or the thrill of something new. The hormonal fireworks of new relationships don't last very long, however, but the fires they set can burn a life to the ground, regardless.
Dan and Anna seem to be the ones attracted to the shiny and new. Dan's looking for his manic pixie dream girl from the very start, looking for someone to break him out of the glass labyrinth of his life. He doesn't know how to exist in freefall, however, doesn't know how to navigate those murky waters. He's addicted to the idea of love, rather than the reality. In the end, Dan ends up with none as a result.
On Scorpio, Sylvia Plath, and the 8th House
The 8th House is ruled over by Scorpio and Pluto, as we've already mentioned. Being one of the most famous Scorpios ever, Christine Jeff's Sylvia (2003), a biopic of Sylvia Plath, is another useful illustration of both the possibilities and the perils of the 8th House, especially when those boundaries are unbreakable.
Sylvia follows the relationship of Sylvia Plath, exquisitely portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, and poet Ted Hughes, played by the charismatically boorish Daniel Craig. Much ink has already been spilled on their relationship, and the state of the world they existed in, the restrictive 1950s and '60s. Despite ending up as one of the most influential and beloved poets of the 20th Century, Sylvia Plath lived mostly in Ted Hughes' shadow during her lifetime, contributing to her death by suicide at the age of 31.
Sylvia is useful for its depiction of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes' poetry. It brings their words to life, leaping off the page into flaming, screaming life. It's the perfect opportunity to illustrate the dark, murky waters of Scorpio to light, as Sylvia Plath also had an Aquarius Rising and a Libra Moon, both of which are air signs. Her airy, cerebral nature is a searchlight into the depths of the human heart and the limits of it.
Ultimately, Sylvia Plath was unable to escape her glass prison, her “bell jar”—the cage that kept her locked in her life, her "self," or rather the world's conception of her. While she was alive, she always lived in Ted Hughes' shadow. She was never taken as seriously as a woman. She also was saddled with all of a woman's roles and expectations. However, she left us with her beautiful, powerful writing to describe her experience.
"It is so much safer not to feel,
Not to let the world touch me."
Sylvia Plath's life was a short, tragic one. Yet she produced some of the most moving words of the 20th Century. Her work was a picture of women's struggles in the '50s and '60s (that to this day maintains a contemporary feel), and of the psychological depths, the death and regeneration, of Scorpio and the 8th House. Christine Jeffs' Sylvia offers a chance to see those words, images, ideas, and the world that helped spawn them in moving, flickering celluloid life.
J Simpson lives in the interzone between criticism and creation. An independent music journalist, cultural critic, and academic writer, J peers into the darker realms of life, the strange, the looked over, specializing in the horror genre, the supernatural, and the occult. He lives and works in Portland, Or.