It’s hard to believe that Eternal Beauty is only Craig Roberts’ second film as writer-director – and that he’s still only in his 20s. First coming to public attention as the disaffected teenage lead in Richard Ayoade’s Submarine (2010), his move behind the camera displays a visual sophistication and ambition that puts many a veteran to shame. 

Feature debut Just Jim (2015) turned a small-town coming-of-age story into a dark, borderline surreal fable that had critics citing David Lynch. Now comes this even more daring follow-up, starring his Submarine co-star Sally Hawkins as Jane, a woman battling the emotional demons that continue to haunt her psyche and strain relationships with her brittle family.

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Eternal Beauty (2019)

It’s a highly personal film for Roberts, the central character based on someone he knows well. Depicting mental health on screen has many pitfalls, but Hawkins’ sensitive performance and Roberts’ audio-visual élan artfully, and empathetically, evoke Jane’s experience of the world as a fractured, threatening place, as well as the perhaps unexpected resilience and power her condition can release too. 

“This is a very dangerous game to play, putting all my references out there,” Roberts wryly acknowledges. “Movies are a bit like diary entries and that can be very personal. So have your references but get rid of them by the time you start. And go on your gut because that’s what’s going to make you stand out.” Roberts is already well on his way, but it’s also fascinating to hear about the cine-literate influences helping him get there. 

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

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Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Craig Roberts: The main movie reference for the first 20 minutes of Eternal Beauty was actually Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Mainly because we wanted to play with the idea of ‘feeling blue’, and flip that on its head so that it’s not a sad thing: more that blue would be somebody’s superpower, essentially. The person that the character of Jane is based on definitely likes blue, so that really helped when trying to visualise it. 

We wanted for all the colour at the beginning of the movie to be drained out and feel almost eggshell and pastel, very muted colours. Most of Jeanne Dielman is set in a kitchen with that sort of colour palette, so that was definitely an inspiration.

We also wanted to make the rhythm feel like Jeanne Dielman as well. I really love the small, beautiful details from Chantal Akerman, how Jeanne has a routine and doesn’t really break it. And here too we’re watching Jane going around and around in this mundane roundabout. 

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

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Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Punch-Drunk Love is a reference for anything I do really, because it’s probably my favourite movie of all time. But here it was Paul Thomas Anderson’s approach to anxiety, somebody being socially anxious. Going back to the idea of Jane’s ‘blue’ superpower, there’s a myth that Adam Sandler’s character Barry Egan is actually [Superman’s alter-ego] Clark Kent. 

If you rewatch the movie in that light, the first overture piece of music you hear is almost like the sound of an alien shot to earth. And then throughout the movie, Barry is constantly collecting puddings to collect flyer miles so he can fly; he’s got this incredible strength that he can suddenly just smash windows with a punch! Then towards the end, he’s wearing a blue suit, with a red tie; and Emily Watson’s character is wearing all red; and at the end she wraps her arms around his neck to create a cape.

I just like the outlook of that and thought it was a really nice way to frame [the film]. So with Jane’s mental health condition, we wanted to turn it on its head and say, maybe it’s something else that you just don’t know how to control.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

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Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Another big reference was Through a Glass Darkly by Ingmar Bergman. Again, that was on the back of the Punch-Drunk Love Superman idea – that this significant presence could turn up at some point and be in a different form. At the end of Bergman’s movie, God turns up and it’s a spider. It maybe doesn’t have to be what we’re all told to believe. And maybe it’s closer to home than you actually know.

Thinking of the framing of that movie, cinematographer Kit Fraser and I had many discussions. Anamorphic lenses can make any movie look very beautiful. We actually chose spherical lenses, because anamorphic almost felt too glamorous. So we thought about holding the spherical lens in the frame, like Bergman does in a lot of that movie, and letting things play out. Bergman always puts the camera in the right place, which is incredibly annoying! When you look back at his movies, you’re trying to think, how else could you do that? Or where else could you put the camera? And there is nowhere else. It’s the right place every time. 

Martin Parr photography

A lot of people have mentioned Mike Leigh [as an influence], which is really interesting. I love Mike Leigh films, but he couldn’t be further away from what I suppose my sensibilities are, what I was trying to do. But maybe that’s what happens when I’ve got Sally [Hawkins] and David [Thewlis] who’ve both been in Mike Leigh films – it’s like the Mike Leigh film that never happened, or should have happened! So I can totally see why some people think that.

Rather than Mike Leigh, another reference was the photos of Martin Parr, mainly for production design and for costume. He takes very ‘normal’ photographs, but there’s an energy to them. And the colours are so beautiful. It’s not caricatured, but you get a sense of not just that person, but a whole world that they might inhabit as well. It makes you fill in the gaps: you’re constantly giving these people back stories, which is a key thing of any great photographer. 

Magnolia (1999)

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Magnolia (1999)

I was really struck by the film’s use of popular songs – ‘Blue Skies’ by Willie Nelson and Ricky Nelson’s ‘I Will Follow You’, for example. What provided musical inspiration?

CR: Again, Punch Drunk Love! Jon Brion’s score is just otherworldly, so special. I worked with the composer Michael Price on this and my first film, and that was a big inspiration for both, to be honest, for syncopated music throughout Eternal Beauty, and the sound design. And so was Magnolia. The Aimee Mann songs in Magnolia constantly give a feeling like they’re an inner monologue on the characters. That’s something special and something that we’re trying to do as well. 

Visually, too, although Eternal Beauty has certain very socially real influences, I didn’t want the grammar of the camera to feel typically British. We tend to do a lot of handheld and, I suppose, don’t move the camera very quickly sometimes. So American cinema like Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson were in my head in terms of how to tell the story. In Magnolia he does so many tracks and zooms into TVs and picture frames and it’s absolutely wonderful.

There’s another thing I love about Paul Thomas Anderson, and I hope I’m using the word correctly, but there’s so much gestalt in his movies: more than the sum of what it’s worth. You have a movie and there’s so many elements to it, everybody’s work. And then there’s something else, you can’t put your finger on it. But you know when you’re prepping for a movie, you’re just trying to find that something special that sits in its DNA and makes you stand out. That’s what you’re aiming for, absolutely.

  • Eternal Beauty, backed by the BFI Film Fund with National Lottery money, is in cinemas and on BFI Player from 2 October 2020

Originally published: 30 September 2020