The Five Provocations
Not five obstructions, but five provocations. Five apparitions – possibly projections from the unconscious – that interrupt the lives of characters who move in a crisscrossing network of activities, occupations and relationships. These provocations come, almost magically, in moments of high crisis or blockage: in their sometimes enigmatic but often exuberant way, they point to the need for free expression, letting go, letting rip, being honest.
Angie Black’s independently produced film offers an intriguing and disarming mix of elements. Within its first minutes, we pass from a lyrical, nature-based vision of lesbian love – for a moment there, it evokes a remake of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) with the queer subtext outed – to the type of inner-suburban, baggy-middle-class, slice-of-life drama familiar from a TV series such as The Secret Life of Us (2001-2005).
We are amidst the lives of lawyers, artists, “creatives”, people who want to own and run a bar. One married couple has a daughter living in Paris studying curatorship; a woman faces pregnancy alone, now that her yoga-teaching boyfriend has skipped town; a single father and his young daughter face the looming problem of facing and transcending grief over the dead wife-mother – and that woman is the one we glimpsed in the dream-flashback belonging to Marlena (Sapidah Kian in a splendid performance) presented at the very start.
One level of the film is devoted to the relatively naturalistic depiction of interactions and encounters of these and other, diverse characters. As paths cross, other lifestyle possibilities emerge – it’s a fluid, queer vision of the everyday merry-go-round, grounded as much in friendship as in sexual desire. A special value is placed on the virtues of open conversation, acceptance, sharing and forgiveness. The narrative is divided up into titled sections mostly named after the characters, but this still leaves room for ample surprise concerning who will turn up where in the unfolding network, and why.
At this level, the film is well directed, crisply shot (by Matt Jasper), smartly edited and scored. The acting is, across the board, subtle and engaging. The Five Provocations has an attractive, TV-style excellence that is becoming more common in low-budget, digital feature production today. But the provocations take the project to a second, more distinctive level. They come in various forms and shapes: Sarah Ward, for instance, performing in the persona of Yana Alana, gives a show-stopping rendition of “One Woman Show” – a bursting-into-song fantasia that would not go astray in the equally queer TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019). Another provocation is a dance piece set in a church. Elsewhere, Maude Davey stumbles into the story like a cool phantom from an Olivier Assayas movie, leading Marlena through nocturnal woods …
It is interesting to see here how Black acts upon an impulse that has attracted many experimental and independent filmmakers around the world, Australia included: like James Clayden in his jagged thriller With Time to Kill (1987), Black takes the bold step of including diverse, more-or-less pre-existing elements from the neighbouring cultural worlds of performance art, cabaret, and so on. Including them just as they are – not bending or taming them to fit neatly within the defined boundaries of the everyday fiction, as so many more conventional films would do (see just about every Hollywood film that has made a big deal of including performance or video art, usually as the expression of a sick or misfit mind!). The Five Provocations “stretches” itself, in various ways, whenever it introduces one of these surprising segments – and the resulting frisson is salutary.
In some sense, there are really three levels at work in the film. Because – and without giving too much away here – there was an extra element of surprise at work for the actors themselves, an improvisatory factor in their confrontation with each provocative insertion. This adds another, conceptual aspect to the production: its style has to shake itself loose, each time, to cope with the veritable screen-event that unfolds. At these moments, the film transcends tele-naturalism and resonates with, on the one hand, Jacques Rivette’s film experiments of the 1960s and ‘70s and, on another hand, the post-1990s artworld inclinations of Miranda July, Josephine Decker or Lena Dunham.
Needless to say, The Five Provocations immediately wins a rather unique place in the history of Australian cinema – there’s nothing else quite like it. Let’s hope that the film-cultural scenes of other countries take some notice of it, too.
© Adrian Martin February 2019