Natalie Erika James is obsessed with grief. In the mesmerizing finale of her first feature film, Relic, the emotion is laid bare when Kay (Emily Mortimer) accepts her elderly mother Edna for the person she used to be — and the stranger she is now.
This is, in its own way, a form of grieving. While Kay's mother isn't dead, in a spiritual sense she is already gone.
In Relic, available now to rent or purchase online, filmmaker Natalie Erika James adapts her personal experience watching a loved one succumb to Alzheimer's through the lens of a Japanese-style gothic horror movie. The result is a hauntingly beautiful picture with many ugly feelings: Abandonment, resentment, regret, and most of all, fear.
But grief is key to understanding the film's surreal ending. Just what is going on at the end of Relic? And how does grief help make sense of the rest of the movie? In an interview, James reveals the meaning of her visually harrowing metaphors.
"There's a lot of grief in the film," James tells Inverse. "For Sam and Kay, it's the grief of losing their mother and grandmother. For Edna who's actually going through the disease, her grief is in losing herself. Having to relive the loss of people she's already lost because of her lapse in memory. It's grieving what was, I suppose."
Warning! Spoilers for Relic ahead.
In Relic, Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) tend to elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin), Kay's mother and Sam's grandmother suffering from dementia. As Kay and Sam put their lives on pause, the two suspect there is something otherworldly lurking in Edna's home.
At the end of Relic, Kay and Sam survive a violent struggle against the entity haunting Edna. The two make it out of the house — a trope in most haunted house stories — until Kay finds it in herself to go back inside and tend to her mother.
What follows is nothing short of eerie. In Edna's bedroom, Kay peels off her mother's skin to reveal a weakened demonic creature with shrunken facial features and skin as black as soot. The film ends with Kay cuddling her mother/creature and Sam joining them.
A recurring motif in the film is an inky black mold that represents the disease. In the final moments of Relic, the same mold appears on Kay, implying Kay is to suffer the same fate as her mother.
Peeling as acceptance — James tells Inverse that the "peeling" of Edna's skin is a metaphor for Kay's acceptance of her mother in the grips of late-stage Alzheimer's.
"The peeling away of the skin for Kay is a real acceptance of how much she's changed," James says. "In a sense, she's helping to ease her load. What I think is the only thing that's scary in this film is the actual transformation and the grief and violence that comes from that."
Adds James: "In her final form, she's very fragile and very vulnerable. That reflects how a lot of us are at the end of our lives. It's harrowing to see people who have kind of wasted away and are close to death. In helping Edna transform it is a full embracing of the fact that it's still her mother."
The scene itself is a kind of adaptation of Japanese funeral rites. James, a Japanese-Australian filmmaker, was inspired to write and direct Relic based on her experience watching her grandmother succumb to Alzheimer's.
"She lived in this quite creepy Japanese traditional house that really scared me as a kid," the director says. "[For the film] we talked a lot about funeral rites. We played that scene similar to how, in Japan, you wash the body of your deceased prior to the funeral. Emily and I approached that in the same way. Even though it has this heightened genre element to it, we played it from as real an emotion as possible, that is acceptance but also grief."
Behind the scenes, Edna's final form was an animatronic puppet with a realistic "breathing mechanism" and facial muscles. "Even if the rest of the film stood up, if the ending didn't look right, it was gonna fall flat. There were a lot of high stakes."
"This ill will and neglect" — A motif in Relic manifests at the end is a black "mold" found throughout the house. It ties into the film's title — it comes from a relic, a stained glass window, that was taken and placed to infect Edna and her home.
"The origin of it relates to the story of the great grandfather in the cabin," James says of a revelation made in the movie. "If you think about ghost stories, these sinister forces are brought into the world usually from a wrong done. This great grandfather was neglected. By the time anyone found him, his body had putrefied."
From the cabin where the great grandfather died, its stained glass window was taken and transferred its sinister energy into Edna's home. "The mythology's logic is that it infected the house."
The director admits she's reluctant to get into the logistics of supernatural mold. "It gets dicey," James says. "It's more important in an allegorical sense. It represents this kind of inheritance and the kind of ill will and neglect that the grandfather suffered from and being passed on."
Ultimately, Relic is a dark movie with an unusually comforting soul. To James, no matter how monstrous our loved ones become no thanks to a rotten disease, we can still love them.
"No matter how frightening, when they have Alzheimer's, the best thing you can do is to be there for them," she says. "Have those rare moments of connection when they still seem to be there."
Relic is available now on VOD platforms.