Seeing Edward Monkford for the first time in “The Girl Before”, we can tell how demanding he is. His gaze projects strength and certainty, his voice an absolute calm. This makes him appealing and annoying to Jane Cavendish, a single woman looking for a way to reset her life. But before they meet for the first time, Jane is intrigued by the house Edward designed. And to anyone watching his home visit, its towering grayness is tantamount to a red flag flying several stories high.
Edward, played with total understatement by David Oyelowo (“Selma”), adheres to an extreme version of minimalism, although he doesn’t think the term applies to him. “When you relentlessly weed out anything unnecessary or imperfect,” he tells Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), “it’s surprising how little there is left.”
The walls of his Brutalist-style rental house speak the truth – they are impenetrable masses devoid of embellishment. The place resonates with emptiness, although from a “good design” point of view, it is immaculate. Everything that interferes with form and line has been eliminated, including a handrail for the floating cast concrete stairs between the first and second levels. You know that silly flourish that would prevent a person from accidentally falling and dying.
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If it doesn’t scream, “Run, girl! Run!” the rental conditions should have done the trick. As Edward’s agent explains to Jane, he sets an affordable rent for people to live in the house “as he intended”. This means adhering to a list of over 200 prohibited objects and activities, including no snacking, no pets, no pictures or ornaments of any kind on the walls. No carpeting or carpeting. No books. No coasters or trinkets. No children.
Storage space is minimal and absolutely nothing should be left on the floor. Bizarrely, Jane is willing to sign on the dotted line, even after learning the price the tenant is paying to live inside this architectural marvel, at well below market value: providing her business with full access to its data in real time. The house monitors their preferred temperature and helps optimize their sleep patterns.
Other aspects are more in-depth and possibly violent, such as when the house bars Jane from essential duties such as running water until she takes a quiz to assess and affirm her compatibility with Edward. Then there’s the matter of the house’s keyless entry, controlled by a slender bracelet that looks eerily like a chain link.
Television and film have a subtle history of making coded statements through design, but a common equates minimalism with meanness. Minimalists baffle us, in that they are usually portrayed as men with means. Their lack of amenities has nothing to do with an inability to afford them; rather, their Spartan way of life is a choice. It makes a person wonder what kind of devilry he is hiding; after all, if there is literally nothing to see in front of us, it is surely that it is hiding elsewhere.
Westerners like to surround themselves with heirlooms and comfortable furniture. Our accent pillows are comfortable; our upholstered chairs. This is true even of the average modernist. But even the most snug homebody can be drawn to the peaceful appeal of bare surfaces and open interior spaces, otherwise Marie Kondo’s “Tidying Up” wouldn’t have been such a hit.
But as a recent Salon article points out, Kondo is no minimalist. She’s an evangelist for keeping only items that “spark joy” and for finding peace by organizing your surroundings.
Certainly, the cinema allowed the heroes to capture the spare design in the right context. Who wouldn’t want to live in an ultra-modern glass box suspended over water like the one built for “The Lake House” in 2006? Scratch that – who wouldn’t want to live there with Keanu Reeves?
More often, however, the on-screen minimalist is written to be eccentric at best, or perhaps insensitive, like the upper-class family in “Parasite.” At worst, they’re Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” or use their pristine homes to cage their wives and lovers, the way Martin Burney isolates his abused wife Laura in 1991’s “Sleeping with the Enemy.”
And where does Julia Roberts’ Laura escape once she walks away from her ruthless husband? A homey Victorian cottage cheerfully cluttered with grandma’s touches, like throw pillows, frilly curtains and a clawfoot tub. Such design elements evoke femininity and motherly comfort, a direct rebuke to the toxic masculinity of cinematic minimalism.
Despite all this, Edward has likable qualities that Oyelowo, an actor known for playing heroes, portrays by exuding sweetness between the character’s cold bursts. He tells Jane that he is a widower and has lost a child, as she did, creating their first point of personal relationships.
Naturally, Edward has darker parts of his personal story that he edits from his self-portrait that are easily detectable online. But he doesn’t actually cheat on Jane, as most of the sinister traditions of his life are attached to this house.
David Oyelowo in “The Girl Before” (Amanda Searle/HBO Max)
As the title of the series suggests, Jane discovers that the former tenant, Emma (Jessica Plummer), died on the property under mysterious circumstances. Since the series takes place in Emma’s and Jane’s timelines, frequently cutting the two together, we retrace Emma’s steps and witness Edward’s very patterned and off-putting habits of courtship.
He takes Jane to the same places he took Emma at the same times in their relationship. He makes the same offer to everyone, offering a relationship without the hassle of the romantic gesture, without attachment or encumbrance, and only to last “as long as it is perfect” and not a moment longer. Even scarier is how similar Jane and Emma look. . . and Edward’s deceased wife.
Edward lives his life as he designed this house, with obvious efficiency. He does not appreciate the suggested changes to the plans he makes, nor the delays, nor the deviations from the schedules. And he demands assurance that his tenants, each of whom turns into lovers, meet those expectations.
Minimalist men – movies and TV teach us – are peculiar and stubbornly weak in empathy. They are driven to master their world by shaping everything in it precisely to their specifications, including people. That’s why Christian Grey, the S&M hunk from “Fifty Shades,” could never thrive in a craftsman – he’s got too many cozy nooks and crannies.
For the same reasons, Martin Vanger’s home in 2011’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is made without concern for comfort, and the tech CEO’s secluded lair in 2014’s “Ex Machina” strikes us both as impressive and sinister. Minimalist men create dungeons, not shrines.
It’s also why, in real life, our collective image of Brad Pitt as the dream ship was tarnished by that famous profile of Jennifer Aniston from 2006 in Vanity Fair when she revealed that in the house she once shared with Pitt, chic was more important than comfort. . “Brad and I used to joke that every piece of furniture was either a museum piece or just uncomfortable,” Aniston told the interviewer.
I ask you what is the greater crime: living in a dysfunctional marriage without a decent couch to retreat to on your worst days, or having the husband who insisted on buying that couch cheating on you with Angelina Jolie?
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Considering all of these examples, that’s why “The Girl Before” creator JP Delaney, who also wrote the 2016 novel the series is based on, has a brilliant antagonist in the fiercely minimalist Edward: We Them. would see as a villain whether or not he committed the crimes of which he is suspected. It has secrets, this elegant and sterile house tells us, because if it had none, it would fill the place with comfort and sweetness. But the rugs and wall hangings tell the stories and absorb the memories that slide across every surface of her space.
He has a zealous dedication to control, treating his creations and the people within them as canvases onto which he can project his desires. It makes him seem protective, proven by every woman, at some point, telling him how safe she feels in his presence.
But this ability to let his guard down makes him as dangerous as that floating staircase. “Let’s face it,” Jane said, “Anyone who could build this place could probably do just about anything they set their mind to.” It’s a scary thought. . . but honestly, a bit of liberation too, like all clean slates should be.
All four episodes of “The Girl Before” air on HBO Max. Watch a trailer for it, via YouTube.
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