The missing child is an archetype that has long fuelled moral stories and fables, from Little Red Riding Hood to Fritz Lang’s M (1931). More recently it has become part of the mainstream media, with numerous high profile cases in Europe and the US. In the age of the internet and increasingly hysterical attitudes towards paedophilia, any contribution to a more rational study of the issue is certainly welcome.
Emma Wilson’s book Cinema’s Missing Children looks at the motif of the missing or murdered child in arthouse films. She believes arthouse films do not try to offer ‘easy solutions or redemptive closure’ – unlike, say, Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), which explores ‘the desire for recrimination and revenge’. She explains in her introduction that the book ‘contends that one of the central fears and compulsions explored in recent independent and art cinema is the death or loss of a child’. Such a statement is certainly contentious, since there seems to be little evidence to support it. Though Wilson calls upon a good number of films to illustrate her points, calling the issue central in today’s art-film world sounds somewhat exaggerated.
Nevertheless, the subject has been gaining momentum for a few decades. She quotes from Joel Best’s Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims, published in 1990, which states that "the recent wave of public concern over threats to children began with the discovery of the battered child syndrome in the 1960s, spread during the 1970s through campaigns against sexual abuse, adolescent prostitution, child pornography, and child snatching, and peaked with the missing-child movement in the 1980s".
Wilson then proceeds to blend film analysis with Freudian theory in a book that constructs an interesting argument but generally makes for a monotonous read. The main problems with the book are the use of over-academic language and too many undigested quotes (one film is always ‘reminiscent of’ another, a point is always prefaced by a qualifying ‘I argue’ etc). Wisely, however, Wilson weaves a large web of references through the book to beef up her thesis, which is well-intended and sincere throughout.
Perhaps the most relevant chapter as far as the subject matter is concerned is the one dedicated to the film Olivier, Olivier by Agnieszka Holland. Wilson uses the film to analyse the idea of loss as trauma, and she couldn’t find a more perfect text. It seems strange, then, that when delving into Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), she spends most of the time dissecting his work, diverting too much from the theme of the book.
Her defence of Happiness (1998) is also persuasive, and here she explores her own intellectual resources by offering a more subjective interpretation, enlivening what is otherwise a rather bland read. Among other film texts quoted are Three Colours: Blue, The Portrait of a Lady, The Ratcatcher, Jude, and The Son’s Room, together with a string of other films referenced more fleetingly – though it’s a shame the book was written before the release of The Son (2003), which would have provided a fascinating case study. Despite the style difficulties Cinema’s Missing Children is faced with, it is certainly an original book that may pave the way for more in the field.