Written by Rebecca McCallum
The Older Woman
There is one woman with whom Don has exchanges with that are refreshingly based on more than just sex and physical attraction; however, this relationship is regrettably underexplored. Not long after his arrival at the house, Ellie (Karen Woditsch, a woman perhaps old enough to be his mother) approaches his porch to welcome him. She is, we learn, a Pastor of the local church which is handily situated within view of the house. Sat together sipping from a bottle of bourbon and offering the new tenant some earnest advice, there is a fleeting sense of having a female character present who feels like a real person. Nodding in the direction of the church, she offers Don the chance to learn more about faith but this is never picked up on again and therefore the inclusion of this discussion feels aimless.
There is no sexual dynamic between Don and Ellie which makes their conversations feel more evenly balanced and multi-layered. Don, who usually exhibits a bravado based, flirtatious approach with women reacts and responds to Ellie with respect and humility and this momentary glance into a potentially different side of him evokes genuine interest. The reason why Don alters his behaviour in Ellie’s presence is never explicitly confirmed. However reading these scenes based on the evidence of his previous interactions with women it feels like a distinct possibility that being an older woman, Don treats her as an equal, as a human being, because he does not desire her and she represents no sexual conquest to him.
Burying the evidence: asserting control with violence
After their last interaction, Don assumes that Sarah has ‘got the message’ and adhered to his threats to stay away from the house. However, her murder of Milo (unbeknown to him) is a warmup exercise in preparation for her main objective; to seek revenge on Don for his systematic using and discarding of her. Seeming to get further inside the house each time she visits; initially she is outside, then in the kitchen and now in the main living area, Sarah remarks: ‘I hate what you’ve done with the place’ and thus emerges the theme of the house representing the body feminine; the further inside Sarah gets the more control she has. He apologises to her, professes love to his wife and wheels out another speech that is absent of responsibility or acknowledgement for his unfaithfulness and violence: ‘I wish I was stronger’. Despite this regurgitation of excuses devoid of accountability (which we are realising is a favourite tactic of Don’s), any potential for this being sincere is negated by what follows when he launches a violent and abrupt attack on Sarah.
Clubbing her over the head, Don demonstrates his inability to tolerate being part of an unbalanced relationship with a woman. Being in control and asserting his masculine power (both literally through the act of violence and psychologically through the choice he has made to carry this out) is his only means of dealing with situations as they arise. As seen previously in the ultimatum he issued to Milo, Don is not able to communicate with people (men and women) when things don’t go the way he wants and in this case, Sarah doesn’t even have the choice to stay or go as he promptly dispatches with her. When faced with a problem, Don’s approach is to do whatever necessary (which often includes taking extreme action) to eradicate any threat that might exist to prevent the outcome that best suits his needs.
Not content with knocking Sarah unconscious he goes to disturbing levels to maintain control and tapes up the body, only appearing satisfied once he ensures that she is totally restricted; even in death he is still asserting power over her. As he is in the process of putting Sarah’s body within the (yet to be sealed up) walls of the basement, Liz unexpectedly calls to check in on how the renovation work is going. Don quickly loses his cool and becomes impatient with his wife, yelling at her that he needs to: ‘get back to work’. The ‘work’ that Don is referring to is not as Liz expects and we notice that all renovations to the house have ground to a halt in favour of his mission to remove Sarah from his life. Don’s outburst at Liz also suggests a less than ideal marriage; if this is the woman he has killed for he is not showing many signs of valuing their relationship. Don might feel that he has assumed power but this does not last long and following his call with Liz, he finds that the body has disappeared.
The house as a female space
A space associated with domesticity and maternalism and therefore routinely gendered female, the house itself can be read as another female character in The Girl on the Third Floor. For much of the film’s duration we see Don alone in the house and thus this becomes a symbolic stand in of his interaction with women. With echoes of Aronevsky’s Mother!, where walls and floors play host to vaginal holes and substances seep from places they shouldn’t, we see similar gooey liquids reminiscent of bodily fluids leaking from within; a representation perhaps of something oppressed seeking to get out. Both films also explore the notion of hidden spaces within the house which both Don and Him (in Mother!) discovering areas of their homes that they were previously unaware of.
Cast in shadows and with uncomfortable glimpses of dolls, the attic space that Don uncovers is reflective of the dark world where repressed and secret fears are ever present but also tucked away, always threatening to come out at any time. If we were to concede that the house is representative of the female body then it would follow that once inside the attic, Don is (figuratively speaking) inside the female mind, a place that he cannot spend an extended amount of time in because it inspires feelings of alienation and detachment. Don’s attempts at renovations also act as symbolic actions connected to a rough-natured attitude to sex and objectification of women as he first rips off wallpaper (the clothes a woman wears) before drilling forcefully and twisting the tool into a hole in the wall (a stand-in for penetrative sex). This also comes to represent his relationship with Sarah as following the sexual conquest (or in this case the drilling into the hole in the wall) he takes a hammer to the wall (as he likewise takes to Sarah’s head) in order to demolish it.
Come back next week to read the third and final part of Rebecca’s in-depth look at The Girl On The Third Floor!
Did you miss part one? Go and read The King of the Castle: Toxic Masculinity in The Girl On The Third Floor Part 1.