In America, the '90s saw the rise of an intriguing trend dubbed the artist's movie. The term is odd, and possibly a little snobbish: cinema has always been an art form on a par with any other.
Even if we narrowly choose to define an artist as one who exhibits paintings, sculptures, photographs or installations in galleries and is acclaimed within the artworld, cinema and art have always been intertwined – from Ferdinand Leger and Man Ray to Robert Frank and Sophie Calle.
But so-called artist's movies in the past have been largely marginal affairs – short, experimental, usually not intended for mass circulation. The difference in the '90s is that such figures as Julian Schnabel (Basquiat,1996), David Salle (Search and Destroy aka The Four Rules, 1995), Cindy Sherman (Office Killer, 1997) and Robert Longo (Johnny Mnemonic, 1995) have made slick features with stars, stories and commercial intent.
Until recently in Australia, only the photographer Tracey Moffatt has approached this difficult dream of the artist's movie. Now, Davida Allen's film debut, Feeling Sexy, throws open new possibilities. An impressive and captivating work, it bridges the local spheres of cinema and art as no movie has quite done before.
Those familiar with Allen's painting and writing will instantly see how Feeling Sexy continues and extends the artist's long-held preoccupations and obsessions. Vicki (Susie Porter), a painter, enters into the adventure of marriage and family with passionate gusto. She wants it to be exciting, creative, fulfilling – all the time.
But with Greg (Tamblyn Lord) away at work much of the day and exhausted at night, and a growing fleet of children demanding Vicki's attention and draining her energy, things become complex. Vicki's intense, sexual fantasies lead her into situations that threaten her bond with Greg.
Allen's art has often been about this drive to square the wild, fantasy realm with a tranquil, domestic life. Always more or less autobiographical, it takes us inside the imaginings and rhythms of the artist's daily struggles and pleasures.
But Feeling Sexy, to its credit, can also exist independently of Allen's wider oeuvre. Its immediacy and force derive essentially from Porter's splendid performance. On screen for virtually every moment, she commands the frame with her wit, sassiness and spirit.
Given that Greg is a doctor and that female fantasy drives the story, Feeling Sexy makes an intriguing double bill with Eyes Wide Shut (1999). As in Kubrick's film, the children in this family drama almost disappear from view. Allen's alter ego is the kind of bad-girl who puts everything at risk for the sake of a higher integration.
This is an artist's movie in both its running time and style. Less than an hour, it is comprised of furiously condensed and cleanly separated vignettes. Allen brings her painterly eye to the sharp, off-centre detailing of bodies, objects and environments. It is a rich, full and satisfying film.
© Adrian Martin December 1999