One of the things that immediately gives away mediocre Australian films is their ill-chosen titles. Irresistible: in the abstract, that’s a snappy, intriguing, single-word hook in the vein of Derailed (2005) or Malicious (1995).
But not far into the movie, you cannot help wondering: who or what in this story is meant to be irresistible? Is it the foxy young Mara (Emily Blunt) – new assistant to Craig (Sam Neill) – who appears to have a strange obsession with Craig’s wife, Sophie (Susan Sarandon), and their kids? Or is it Sophie’s own murky past which returns to her in cryptic flashes of dream and memory – and which she must face in order to produce illustrations for a book titled, with thundering unsubtlety, Return of the Repressed?
Either way, the title does not stick. Mara, alas, is no Sharon Stone from Basic Instinct (1992); and the revelations about Sophie’s teenagehood that eventually come our way are not nearly as shocking or disquieting as we might have hoped.
Nonetheless, the field in which Irresistible wishes to play is perfectly well signposted: this is a mystery-thriller in the vein of Single White Female (1992), from which it conspicuously borrows a few elements – or, indeed, several hundred other movies since the early ‘90s that have squeezed their frissons from extravagant violations of domestic intimacy.
Like many thrillers, Irresistible is a commentary on gender roles. Sophie becomes so paranoically convinced that Mara is repeatedly breaking into her house and potentially threatening the welfare of her children that she in turn becomes Mara’s stalker – leading to a court interdiction.
As for the effect of all this on Sophie’s marriage, it is very like the stark gender war portrayed in the Laura Linney-Gabriel Byrne thread of Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne (2006): misunderstood women become hysterical, while their men stay stolid and eventually turn a little violent. Sam Neill is perfectly cast in this part: he has virtually made a career out of playing thick-skinned, beastly husbands or lovers, from Possession (1981) and The Piano (1993) to Yes (2005).
All mystery-thrillers contain red herrings – hints and suggestions, designed to mislead or distract the audience, that are eventually discarded as the plot moves towards its conclusion. The best filmmakers (such as Claude Chabrol) in this genre know, however, that no red herring need be wasted: the more general implications that can arise from the passing suspicion that X is a killer or that Y is a lover-in-secret can resonate, disturbingly, with the overall theme of the piece.
Irresistible has not mastered this trick; its most intriguing suggestions of guilt, complicity or illicit desire are simultaneously its most excessive and least integrated moments.
There is a lot that is clunky in Irresistible. The plot seems to stay on one plateau for a long time. In Fred Walton’s brilliant B movie When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), the tormented heroine needed only to see one or two objects in her domestic space disturbed or missing before the story rocketed ahead; but here, Sophie seems to be spend a good half of the movie mooching around home, playing detective.
And then there are the kids, who are fairly pivotal figures in the narrative. Child actors tend to be awful in Australian movies – and the younger they are, the worse they get. You can hear in their line-readings that they have come direct from some hoity-toity elocution class, and you can see their eyes glaze over as their little minds struggle to remember those lines verbatim.
Australia’s mainstream, middlebrow culture, in the kind of commentary on films it routinely produces in the so-called quality press or radio, seems perpetually ill-equipped to make appropriate comparisons between local movies and their counterparts in other countries. Indeed, such comparison – which often produces unflattering results – is rigorously avoided. Yet we do Wolf Creek (2005), for instance, no favours by treating it as a supposedly meaningful film about landscape and national identity rather than as an ingenious Aussie cousin of the gory Jeepers Creepers series began in 2001.
Likewise, we are in danger of perennially overrating serious arthouse efforts like The Book of Revelation (2006) if we do not measure them against the bar raised by the likes of the Dardenne brothers (The Child, 2005) in Belgium or Michael Haneke (Caché, 2005) in Austria. And when a truly good, innovative Australian film like The Proposition (2005) does appear, we generally have to wait for the DVD edition to reach the erudite buffs of other lands before the necessary comparison with previous modernist Westerns by Monte Hellman or Alejandro Jodoworsky sets the work in its most illuminating context.
So let us be clear about the kind of circuit into which Irresistible, as a mystery-thriller, is plugging itself. It is a relatively modest Australia-UK co-production, featuring a range of actors familiar (Sarandon, Neill) or ascendant (Blunt from The Devil Wears Prada, 2006) within the world movie market. Of course, it is no blockbuster, and cannot hope to compete with the likes of Scorsese (The Departed, 2006) or De Palma (The Black Dahlia, 2006) at the box office.
So its destined realm, after what will probably be a fairly brief commercial release in various territories, is squarely that of the DVD shop, the in-flight movie, and cable television. This is where it sinks – or swims – in relation to those hundreds of other movies of its ilk.
There is no shame in any of this. Indeed, one way to discover what is valuable in some Australian movies is to align our film industry along on an axis that includes, for example, Britain, Denmark and Canada – all those comparatively small countries that tremble in the fearsome shadow of Hollywood, but sometimes manage to transform that anxiety into a clever, even brilliant, manner of tweaking a dominant generic template or formula.
Of course, this means knowing the formula inside-out to begin with. And where Australian cinema often falls down in its grappling with popular genres – whether thriller, horror, fantasy, action or romantic comedy – is in its evident lack of fluency with what others, elsewhere in the world, have been merrily doing to alter and update the old formats.
Irresistible, in fact, falls into a lumpy kind of semi-genre which is often to be found in the sorts of small filmmaking nations mentioned above: just enough like its genre, superficially, to pass under its label, but secretly hankering to be an arthouse commentary on, or critique of, that genre. One can sometimes sense a resentment lurking within these movies about having to play the genre game. This usually translates itself into a dutifulness, a listlessness, when it comes to delivering the requisite spectacle of shocks, thrills or sex scenes that are de rigueur for whichever genre is in question.
Some filmmakers from Britain, New Zealand and Australia specialise in this sort of compromised neither-art-nor-pop product: in the more Gothic type of mystery-thriller, one only need look at odd films from recent years like John Duigan’s Paranoid (2000) or Gaylene Preston’s Perfect Strangers (2003 – again featuring Sam Neill as Beastly Lover).
Irresistible’s writer-director Ann Turner is one of many people on the Australian scene who has had too few opportunities to develop her art and craft. Insofar as her signature as a filmmaker is visible, we can see it in Irresistible: there’s the frisson of lesbianism and the spooky, dreamlike images that characterised her early short, Flesh on Glass (1981); the twinning of personal trauma and social issues that worked to such intriguing effect in Celia (1989), her best-known (and, so far, best) film; and a level of satirical comedy of manners that went berserk in Dallas Doll (1993), her previous foray into co-production.
Whether or not she resents the genre she is dealing with, Turner’s grasp of what makes cinema cinematic begins to drain away whenever she approaches the violent or sexy scenes in Irresistible. One of these scenes – in which Sophie discovers a nasty swarm of wasps lurking within a piece of sculpture that Mara has helped deliver – begins well, with a slow, menacing build-up. But once those digital bugs start streaking across the screen, and Sarandon poses screaming at her window, it instantly becomes a flat, perfunctory homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).
The central sex scene of the movie is not only lukewarm, but also evasive (what really happens in it, how far do the characters go?) – too cautious in its handling, just when the plot promises to become interestingly dangerous. And as for the climactic set-piece of the story – involving a locked basement, a fight on the stairs, various weapons and a fire – it lacks any energy on the filmic level. (The film’s editor, Ken Sallows, is one the finest in the country, but he seems to have had little to work with here). Take a look at a Canadian equivalent, the proudly trashy horror-thriller Tamara (Jeremy Haft, 2005), to see how even the most formulaic genre film can really pull out all the stops when it comes to such obligatory showdowns.
Irresistible, by contrast, too often looks and sounds like the kind of telemovie thriller that makes it to midday television.
© Adrian Martin September 2006