The Bella-Edward-Jacob triangle at last lives up to the mass hysteria in Bill Condon’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1, the ferociously powerful first half of the last quarter of Stephenie Meyer’s series about a girl who gets under the skin of both a vampire and a werewolf and knows that going to bed with either one may get her ripped to pieces but what the hell. Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg waste no time building terrific tension, sexual and psychosexual, opening with an engraved invitation to the nuptials of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) that drives Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) to tear off his shirt and go bounding on four hairy legs to the Northwest Territories. Along with cultivating the usual bridal anxieties, like walking in heels under a long train, Bella has a vision of a cake layered with bloodied corpses of her loved ones. Alas, the reality proves ickier.
The previous three Twilight movies ranged from so-so to stultifying, but there was never a doubt that Meyer’s mythology came from somewhere deep. This was an erotic Mormon female meditation on motifs that Anne Rice finally wrested from Catholic boys, for whom the crucifix was all that kept their women pure and hair from sprouting on their palms. In Meyer’s universe, what could easily be Rice’s decadent white European sadomasochistic bloodsuckers come to the New World to keep their lust at bay and do good works. They’re further restrained by a clan of Native American werewolves with its own issues re: hard-to-control appetites and a sworn oath to police the frontier for vampires. At the center, of course, is the tension between a young woman’s compulsion to mate and her partner’s terror that doing so will unleash demonic forces that will eviscerate her.
Since the Twilight phenomenon exploded, Pattinson and Stewart have proven frail superstars, wilting under the flashes of the paparazzi. This actually adds to their onscreen credibility. Pattinson’s whey-faced Edward paces, frets, and looks incapable of bearing his own handsomeness while Stewart, even whiter and bonier than her ghoulish beloved, seems almost literally petrified by her passion. The wedding procession, in which Condon alternates shots from Bella’s point of view as she moves toward her intended with quick flashes of their courtship and shots of Stewart palpably shivering is a triumph of subjective filmmaking. In the toasts that follow, the words are double-edged. Anna Kendrick’s delightful, bubbly cameo as Bella’s high-school friend shows how far the teenage bride has come, whereas Edward’s romantic projections (“I’ve been waiting what seems like a very long time to get beyond what I am”) show how far her grown-up love is expected to go.
The PG-13 honeymoon off the coast of Rio is not quite the orgy of blood and bodily fluids we’ve been anticipating, but the pregnancy that follows is more visceral than any we’d dare to dream: a vision of Bella being consumed from the inside, hollows opening up around her eyes and under her cheeks, her only nourishment turning out to be blood she sips through a straw, her eyes briefly shining as she says, quietly, “It’s good.” The pregnant woman’s body knows what it wants. While the werewolves mass outside waiting for the unholy birth of the baby they’re pledged to destroy, the vampires wilt and Bella readies herself for her likely death. Is there a political message in Bella’s insistence that the fetus, however monstrous, is not an “it” but a child that must be delivered? I’m not ruling it out—but context, people. In any case, the last twenty minutes of Breaking Dawn are so harrowing that it’s possible to forget that most of the acting is soap-operatic (the guy who plays Carlisle is aging to look like Liberace) and the dialogue from hunger. The movie’s that primal.
Early on, there’s a flashback to Edward’s past in which he surrenders to his vampire instincts by becoming a Dexter-like serial killer of serial killers. It’s very dumb, but the sequence opens in a movie theater with a wonderful in-joke: Elsa Lanchester shrieking at the sight of Boris Karloff in The Bride of Frankenstein, at once a nod to James Whale (Condon made Gods and Monsters), a cheeky reminder of much worse marriages, and a sign that the director is in touch with the genre’s poetic high point—and the thin membrane that separates the honeymoon suite and the sepulcher.