Strangely, Samantha Lang's The Monkey's Mask makes for an appropriate double bill with another concurrently released Australian film, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001).
Both films tell fish-out-of-water stories. Both lay out tourist-brochure vistas of city and country. And both are abominable.
The Monkey's Mask is adapted (by Anne Kennedy) from Dorothy Porter's acclaimed verse novel. In its own, game way, the book is a high concept project – it marries the poetic form, and the social scene of the poetry world as unlikely subject, with hardboiled crime fiction.
Porter also conjures a hot love story, tracing the affair between private detective Jill (Susie Porter) and literary academic Diana (Kelly McGillis).
The film works on none of these levels. As an investigative crime story it is laughably clunky; as a love story it fizzles. And what about the poetry? The fusion of poetry and narrative cinema has been achieved before – most spectacularly in Abraham Polonsky's film noir masterpiece Force of Evil (1948), a story of urban corruption spoken in highly stylised rhythms of blank verse.
Many of Porter's words survive in the film, both as dialogue and voice-over narration. Yet there is nothing even faintly poetic about the film itself. Flat and prosaic, it is like a series of inert postcards. Fans of the book are bound to be disappointed; those unacquainted with it will merely be puzzled.
Plot consistency and in-depth characterisation are apparently not on this film's agenda. It fumbles many aspects of Porter's story. In the movie, Jill doesn't know who Sylvia Plath is, and yet can identify the work of a "religious poet" the moment she looks at his book cover. She endlessly confronts others with angry words (taken from the book) about "rotting corpses", but at one point impassively watches as someone dies right in front of her.
None of the actors can fare well in such a poorly conceived and executed project. Porter emerges as the least scathed, but most of the central cast – McGillis, Abbie Cornish as the lost poetess Mickey, Martin Csokas as Diana's slimy husband Nick – are cringe-inducing.
Lang's previous film, The Well (1997), had its big problems, but this is far worse. Many scenes display prominent tourist icons – such as Darling Harbour or Kings Cross' Coca Cola sign – in the dead centre of frame. Not a single dialogue exchange flows easily or naturally; the dramatic rhythm is torpid, broken up by a self-conscious tableau effect and clumsily handled moments of temps mort.
The breath of life has long been expelled from this movie. In its place, an unintended absurdity reigns. By mid-way, every detail becomes ridiculous: the threatening voice on Jill's phone, which sounds like Darth Vader; Jean-Pierre Mignon in a near-incomprehensible cameo, popping and blinking his facial features like an Animatronic doll; the supposedly transgressive glimpse at a very fake-looking penis; the strained attempt at a happy ending.
For a movie that tries so hard to impress us with its casual nudity and apparent celebration of lesbianism, The Monkey's Mask is a bizarrely conservative piece on the sex-and-gender plane. Jill's best mate, Lou (Deborah Mailman), turns inexplicably predatory in a bookstore (another element mangled from the book). Diana's sado-masochistic tendencies are presented as the perverse aberration of a femme fatale. And don't even ask about the threesomes.
For all its obvious experimentation with voice, attitude and genre, Porter's The Monkey's Mask had an earthy and entertaining immediacy – essentially because it succeeded so well in inhabiting Jill's feisty personality. Sadly, Lang's version, with its Wallpaper-like aesthetic and its pale flecks of Foucault and Barthes, is exactly the kind of film that the cold, cerebral Diana might have made.
© Adrian Martin May 2001