Written by Rebecca McCallum
Shared narratives: women of past and present
The action begins to take a dramatic turn when Liz arrives at the house and now that we are given time with her and (importantly) with Don removed from the scene, we are able to form a true impression of who she is. Instantly, she stands in contrast to Don; she feels warm, human and genuine. As she explores the house she happens upon a mirror and seeing it adorned with naked women declares: ‘absolutely not’ this tells us that she is uncomfortable and refuses to be complicit with sexualisation of the female form. Furthermore, she also discovers that Don has been keeping from her news of a relapse in abstinence as she finds a collection of empty bottles on the floor. The removal of mirrors and the absence of Don, however, does not free her from being the object of his voyeuristic eye which glares up at her from the plughole in the bathroom, a place which should be safe and private.
Unsure what to do, Liz is not afraid to ask for help as she calls at Ellie’s house and confesses that she is worried. Unlike her husband she is able to seek the help of others and is comfortable discussing things honestly. She admits to the listening ear of Ellie that: ‘my husband is a fuck up’ revealing that he has defrauded a number of his clients out of their inheritance which casts another question mark over his character. When asked why she stayed, Liz remarks flatly that: ‘the alternative seemed worse’ and with no indication of what the alternative would look like we are left with nothing to compare her current situation to.
When Liz tells Ellie about her experiences with Don, we learn just how much she has endured -he has narrowly avoided 15 years in prison and cheated on her while they were trying for a baby. Ellie sums up Don perfectly when she says that: ‘life is a series of choices; cause and effect; it sounds like Don hasn’t learnt that dynamic yet’. Despite Liz sensibly and understandably resolving to: ‘wait for him to come home, sober up and then have a long talk about our future’ Ellie’s final words are: ‘if you want my advice, get your husband and your baby far away from that house’ again, bowing to the notion that it is the house that is accountable for the current state of affairs, not Don.
Liz returns at the house to find Sarah, who it transpires is a ghost from the time when the house operated as a brothel. Sarah, we learn, has been the victim of mistreatment at the hands of men for decades and was brutally murdered. What’s troubling here is that not only has Sarah been on the receiving end of sexual and physical exploitation both in her life and now in her life after death but the film also chooses to portray women who were previously sex-slaves (not by choice) as whores even in the afterlife reducing the character of Sarah to nothing more than an object for sexual gratification. As she says herself: ‘all men love is the power you give them’.
Whilst searching for her husband, Liz approaches a room and tries to enter but the door is locked and she therefore advances to the attic where she is told: ‘the show has already started’ and she finds a group of men gazing over Sarah who is performing an erotic dance. As she smiles teasingly and strips, the collective of men stare leeringly before Don appears dressed in a beak like mask. He also carries a branch which he begins to whip her with and Sarah no longer looks as though she is enjoying this. Unable to be complicit with this activity Liz cries out for the man to stop. She then happens upon a young girl who is making crayon drawings on the floor and the watches the beaked man give her a bag of marbles in exchange for her obedience, telling her: ‘that’s my girl’, a phrase that will be echoed in the final scene of the film. We hear how the owner of the brothel: ‘played with’ Sarah ‘for months and then dumped her body by the train tracks and the world moved on.’ Sarah, who was: ‘the star’ tells of how she was murdered by the owner and left in the house: ‘loved by the men who came through our doors but not one of them questioned my disappearance’. Sarah’s story of how she was on the receiving end of violence and used for the sexual pleasure of men reflects Don’s treatment of her and highlights how little has changed in the time that has passed between her death and the present.
Fleeing the attic Liz happens upon Don covered in deep cuts and he tells her while on his knees that he has: ‘fucked up again. I felt so small. I just wanted to be the man one more time. You understand that don’t you Bunny?’, begging again for forgiveness but this time Liz is able to see through this realising (as we do) that his reasons and excuses are devoid of any sincerity. He presses his hands together almost in prayer and pleads: ‘you just have to say that you understand and then it will be ok’ as though a single sentence would have magical properties and serve to vindicate all that has gone before. She looks at him fiercely and tells him: ‘no it is not okay’. Not only is she ‘not okay’ with his latest betrayal but also with the actions of the past an affirmation which she has been longing to verbalize. Liz’s rejection of him notably corresponds with his demise as we watch a marble (an object used somewhat flimsily as a symbolism for female spirits) get under his skin, forcing him to slash himself, before coming out through his eye socket, penetrating the very part of his body that he used to objectify women. Sarah then emerges from within his skin which casts a complicated light on interpretation of this scene; does this reduce Don’s accountability or is her possession of him a means of claiming back some power and realigning the troubling gender imbalance that hovers unpleasantly over the entire film?
Gone but not forgotten: the irrepressible male gaze
With Don now gone, Liz is forced to face a battle against the ghosts of the house alone in order to save herself and her unborn baby; it’s fitting here that she must fight off a woman who is protruding birth-like from the wall. With Liz succeeding in conquering the ghosts and freeing herself from her oppressive and unhealthy relationship, everything seems to be pointing towards a strong triumphant, feminist ending. Don’s hedonistic and self-serving behaviour will now be superseded with Liz being able to live a fulfilling future with her child removed from the misogyny and mistreatment she has endured. However, the film obliterates any notion of a positive conclusion in which Liz and her child can be free from through its deeply unsettling final shot. We see Liz place her new- born daughter into the safety of her cot before leaving the room. As the baby reclines serenely, content and innocent, we see a flash of Don’s face through a radiator grid as he whispers menacingly: ‘that’s my girl’. This sentence is a disturbing echo of earlier scenes of him visiting a porn site where a girl declared: ‘hi Daddy, I’ve been such a naughty girl’ and the utterance of the man with the beaked mask to the girl playing with crayons. On one level, Don is now a ghost who is trapped within the confines of the walls. However, on another much more unsettling and disconcerting level he continues to watch and to (as the comment ‘my girl’ stresses) assert ownership over another female in his life, his daughter.
The pervasiveness of the mistreatment of and disregard for women in the character of Don are abound in The Girl on the Third Floor. As this in-depth examination has shown, he is hedonistic and self-centred with an unsettling sense of entitlement, believing that he can take what he wants while failing to exhibit any accountability. Furthermore, through his male gaze he views women as objects for sexual pleasure and treats them without equality or respect. Within his marriage he is unfaithful and deceitful while his relationship to Sarah shows he is capable of being violent towards women and perhaps most disturbingly of all, that he can do so with ease as though he were performing a mundane task. Don’s inherent need to control people and situations by either lying or dispelling them from his life are counter balanced with his own lack of self-control which we see in his betrayal of Liz and in his continual, empty promises that he will change. In conclusion, toxic masculinity appears to bleed from every scene of the film but whether this is a study about male attitudes and behaviours oppressing women or if it is misogynistic itself is the most pertinent question. As highlighted earlier, a feminist ending where Liz is able to break free of the constraints of Don would denote that The Girl on the Third Floor is a criticism (not an embodiment) of toxic masculinity. However, the decision to include (a now deceased) Don remerging from the dead to declare in the final scene: ‘that’s my girl’ to his daughter (who as a baby represents incorruptibility and defencelessness), reignites his omnipresence and power. To add to this, the two women who we might hope to condemn Don’s behaviour both ultimately fail to do so. Although Liz might revoke Don in their final interaction where she declares: ‘it’s not okay’, she also tells Ellie in a candid conversation that: ‘the house has pushed him over the edge’. Ellie in turn takes up the same argument as her final words of advice to Liz are not to get away from Don but to ‘get away from this house’. In making these choices, the ideology that men can remain as dominant forces over women without consequence extend further than the character of Don and become an uncomfortable part of the narratives of Sarah, Ellie and most notably Liz and her baby. An alternate ending where Liz settles into her new house peacefully with Ellie (who is finally able to take a step across the threshold) for coffee or a bourbon would’ve been more empowering and forward thinking. Instead, we are left with the gut wrenching feeling that Liz and her baby daughter will be possessed forever more by the presence and the watchful, objectifying eye of Don.