‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’: Halsey’s film experience of bodily horror

still from Halsey's new film
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Grade: 4.5 / 5.0

Umbilical cords and pubic hair are only some of the bodily features that Halsey makes space for in her cinematic album “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power.” The 50-minute film, available to stream on HBO Max, invites viewers to step inside the record, drawing on fantastical and horrific elements to give voice to the beauty and terror of pregnancy. 

With visual influence by “Game of Thrones” and Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” it’s only fitting that the film begins with a suspiciously dead king and a massive amount of cleavage. Directed by Colin Tilley and written by the artist herself, the film follows Queen Lila (Halsey) on her journey through pregnancy and manipulation. She’s restricted by the patriarchal society that attempts to contain her, forcing her to seek solace from a blind forest witch played by Sasha Lane. 

Having recently given birth to her first child, Halsey blends her firsthand experience with motherhood’s physical and emotional changes into the film’s story. With little dialogue, the layered textures that launched Halsey’s sound in a new direction evoke her struggles with a changing sense of body and self. However, the addition of visuals brings out a new depth to the music.

Ticking clocks, a sudden gust of wind and extended breaths stack atop the haunting piano melody and rising vocals of “Whispers” as Queen Lila lies in lingerie atop her bed. Her body is covered in warm candlelight and shifting shadows when a mirror version of the Queen enters the room. Gloved hands of this double glide over her goosebump-laden skin amidst the chaos of abrupt camera changes, close-ups and flowing red silk sheets. It’s a literalization of masturbation that ends with murderous penetration, giving the song multiple horrific interpretations. 

Other songs are accompanied by lighter moments of visual appeal. The settings are rich with visual pleasure — from following Queen Lila on horseback through a vast forest of misty trees to zooming out into an aerial view of the castle engulfed by greenery and snow-capped mountains. They enhance the gaudy, high-fashion dresses pieced together by costume designer Law Roach, ensuring there is always something aesthetic to get lost in. Merged with towering hairstyles and Halsey’s makeup skills, each look evokes a mood that complements each song.

Darkness envelops Queen Lila’s body when she mourns the death of her husband, covering her eyes in blocked-out black shapes or dissipating widespread smoke — perfect for revealing bruises left by the abusive king. Other times, playful looks take the screen. When Queen Lila is out with her ladies in waiting, she resembles Marie Antoinette, swimming in mounds of vibrant green fabrics while covered in white face makeup that gives way to penciled-on eyebrows. Halsey’s versatile appearances reflect the emotional fluctuation in balancing trauma with societal expectations.

However, it’s the more stripped-down scenes that elicit heavy emotion. A freshly bathed Queen Lila looks in the mirror during her early stages of pregnancy, just before her belly starts to show. The sounds of “Lilith” fade away as a close-up shot of hands tear over her belly accompanied by screeching sounds reminiscent of a horror movie. It’s a quick moment before the song resumes, but the grisly image creates a lasting effect summoning the terror of lost control that comes with a pregnant body.

Full nudity is prevalent throughout the film, enhancing the royal setting and inadvertently highlighting Halsey’s numerous tattoos. The modernity of her tattoos sharply contrasts the medieval period in which the film is set, making total immersion difficult. But maybe that’s the point. The film gives agency to pregnant bodies by defamiliarizing them, tying its uncomfortable aspects to a fantastical reality. The fictional queen acts as a creative way of making stigmatized bodily struggles digestible, but there is no denying that she is Halsey and that these struggles are real.

Halsey’s vulnerability in honestly expressing the horrors that accompany pregnancy adds authenticity to her work as an artist. With motherhood underway and adjusting to a postpartum body, who knows what real-life horrors she will beautifully unearth next. 

Contact Amanda Ayano Hayami at [email protected].