Critics have an advantage over other filmgoers when it comes to understanding Paul Cox's films. They have the luxury of reading the official plot synopsis contained in the press kit.
In regards to Human Touch, the press kit tells us that it concerns Anna (Jacqueline McKenzie), who is "intoxicated" by the "dense artistic and erotic environment" inhabited by her unlikely patron, Edward (Chris Haywood).
It tells us that posing nude for Edward's photographs "starts her on an intimate journey of self-discovery". All this, unsurprisingly, impacts on Anna's partner, David (Aaron Blabey), who slowly "responds and starts to understand what is required of him".
All this and much more that is spelt out in the kit is hardly evident in the film itself. Cox's movies often skip what might be deemed essential dramatic scenes, and skimp on the explanation of the sketchy scenes that remain.
However, unlike such masters of cinematic art as Robert Bresson or Abbas Kiarostami, Cox is unable to suggest the sorts of clues that allow a viewer to fill in the picture, intellectually or emotionally. The substance of Human Touch, like many a Cox film, tends to vanish in the gaping holes between scenes.
Cox's films always tackle the Big Themes: Love, Age, Death, Art, Compassion, Redemption. But these themes are too big for the slender dramatic scaffolding that supports them. Even what the film boasts it is about – human touch – is fuzzily articulated. (Again, the press kit conveys more than the film, indicating that Cox was inspired by news reports of teachers and other professional carers being banned from touching the children in their charge.)
Most scenes in Cox's films are bare conversations, poorly written and listlessly staged. The characters do little that is physical as they talk (apart from occasionally pouring a cup of tea or tinkling a piano), and the camera pans and tracks without purpose or conviction.
There is much talk here of the need to ascend from the physical to the metaphysical, from the flesh to the spirit – although it is hard to be convinced that any of this is happening within one-dimensional characters like Edward's wife, Desiree (Rebecca Frith). The single moment when something resembling dramatic action occurs – involving David and an oily Frenchman, Bernard (Simon McBurney) – the event is incoherent and absurd, merely laughable.
Any random ten-minute slice of Human Touch will give you the best and worst of Cox's cinema.
On the positive side, McKenzie gives a soulful performance that, for a change, puts a living creature at the centre of a Cox film instead of the usual paper-thin seeker-hero. There is a lovely passage (however clumsily set-up plot-wise) when Anna and David, now decamped to the Green World of the French countryside, decide to relate without speaking; the beguiling play of light and natural sound mercifully take over from the invariably leaden dialogue. And, as often in Cox, there is a special poignancy attached to the depiction of the agonies and ecstasies of the elderly, such as Edward's mother (Phyllis Burford).
But for every nice scene there's a clunker – especially an astonishingly heavy-handed counterpoint between a domestic argument and the sound of the gardener raging around with the lawnmower outside. Please!
And, although there is much that is European in Cox's sensibility, his strange sense of humour is wholly Australian – leading to odd, unsuccessful scenes regarding an ex-butler (Norman Kaye) who might almost be something out of Sunset Boulevard (1950), a Confucius-sprouting psychiatrist (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) and a blokey, sex-obsessed art dealer (Aden Young).
Cox's grasp of movie-making and storytelling craft has developed very little in the past three decades. On a fundamental level, his films are facile. He seems to assume that if he stuffs his films with enough great paintings, classical music (mocked up by Paul Garbowsky), fine antiques, delectable fabrics and sublime natural landscapes, we will all bask unquestioningly in this borrowed aura of Grand Art and Profound Beauty.
Tellingly, when he dares include something a little less canonical and more modern, such as Asher Bilu's chicken-wire cone sculptures, Cox finds it necessary to insert an over-the-top artist figure, Ouspensky (Terry Norris), to explain to us that we should be experiencing a "glimpse of the infinite".
© Adrian Martin April 2005