Gordon (Peter Fenton) suddenly wakes up in bed, gasping for breath. He is having an asthma attack. Gordon's new lover, Cynthia (Sacha Horler), looks on incredulously as he reaches for his inhaler – and then, a few moments later, lights up a cigarette. The desultory conversation turns to Cynthia's skin condition, eczema – so extreme that she bleeds at the merest touch. Finally, after an awkward pause, Cynthia asks Gordon to leave the room – "I wanna have a wank" – and he obligingly shuffles out.
Praise is the perfect embodiment of what is known in Australia at present as grunge culture in literature and cinema – mainly centred on displaced and disaffected youth. Andrew McGahan's novel of the same name was one of about half a dozen that, in the mid '90s, were lumped together by publicists and pundits as evidence of a new artistic movement. But McGahan's book lacks the angry punk politics of Christos Tsiolkas' Loaded (filmed by Ana Kokkinos as Head On ), or the wild, picaresque sex of Justine Ettler's The River Ophelia.
Praise is filled with ennui, alienation, non-communication and depressive languor. Yet, as befits a generation several removes from the original army of blank, amoral lovers who wandered through the spaces and places of a À bout de souffle or L'Avventura in 1960, Gordon and Cynthia at least know they are bored and unmotivated, and so approach their condition with a certain droll, laconic humour. All the same, they suffer ...
What John Curran's film version of Praise catches best is a particularly icky, all-pervasive sense of physical abjection. Cynthia moves into Gordon's room in a rundown Brisbane boarding house populated by various old and demented low-life types. Everything that happens in the couple's tiny, shrunken, enclosed world is addictive, unglamorous and banally awful: itchy skin, the sink in the corner doubling as a toilet, long days and nights marked by the idle consumption of beer, cigarettes, pills and, on occasion, harder drugs.
Sex – presented as a completely mundane, practical matter – turns out to be especially difficult to organise, or get in sync. Cynthia wants it non-stop; Gordon can hardly be bothered, and his indifference borders on impotence. In the film's funniest scenes, Gordon attacks this dysfunction as a clinical, mathematical problem – counting his thrusts aloud and claiming his delayed orgasm as a "victory for science". Later, the mismatch between them is presented in darker terms. When the couple have to abstain for a month after Cynthia's abortion, she senses immediately that Gordon is relieved: "You enjoy your little holiday, don't you?"
But, in its own, low-key, somewhat perverse way, Praise is a love story – and a meditation on the possibilities for romance in the modern world. Like in the films of Wong Kar-wai or Tsai Ming-liang, romance in Praise is a poignant, lost ideal associated with some faded old movie poster, a cheesy calendar or postcard rendition of a faraway landscape, a scratchy LP record. For all its grubby, physical, everyday detail, it is still a tale of longing – and of fleeting tenderness and grace.
Praise is a refreshing and original film in its national context. One of the abiding failings of contemporary Australian cinema has been its fundamental disinterest in emotional states. In such mediocre works as Head On, Hotel Sorrento (Richard Franklin, 1995) and Mr Reliable (Nadia Tass, 1997), stories of love and hate quickly become writ large, projected into clunky melodrama as emblematic "social problems" – reflections of issues pertaining to class, ideology, gender politics or national identity. Such posturing is preferable, it seems, to working from the inside out – that is, exploring the truth of intimate relationships as a way of groping tentatively towards some bigger picture, as many fine films do.
Typically, screen adaptations of grunge novels – as with the Generation X hits of a previous decade – cop out by imposing a happy or tragic destiny on the characters' wanderings, and by turning lifestyle choices (such as drug use) into thundering, moralistic crucibles. Praise, however, is an admirably plotless and non-judgmental portrait of a doomed, difficult love affair. Every time something potentially sensational looms, Curran instantly defuses it and moves on. In its wry but ultimately compassionate regard, the film, at its best, recalls the most intense and intimate portraits of amour fou among guttersnipes generated by European art cinema, such as Philippe Garrel's J'entends plus la guitare (1991).
Although Praise begins flashily – with the slow track-in camera movements and sledge-hammer musical counterpoint familiar from the work of the Coen brothers – it quickly finds a quieter and more exact tone. Curran's approach has matured considerably since his show-off film school short, Down Rusty Down (1997). Every detail of style – costume, setting, Dion Beebe's cinematography – is keyed precisely to the shifting, kaleidoscopic emotions of the characters. Not all the problems inherent in adapting a first-person discursive novel have been solved, however: McGahan's screenplay sticks essentially to what Gordon experiences and boldly leaves out everything Cynthia does without him, but the frequent (sometimes redundant) snatches of voice-over jar with views of other boarding house occupants beyond this anti-hero's seeing or knowing.
The film benefits from its close association with Australia's independent music scene. Fenton, lead singer of the band Crow, gives some uncertain line readings, but his gaunt face and lanky body superbly convey Gordon's genial but maddening passivity. The rich, rough score, weaving electric violin, guitars and drums in its reworking of folk tunes, is provided by The Dirty Three, recently Nick Cave's backing group.
It is Horler, however – since showcased in Soft Fruit (1999) by Jane Campion's protégé, Christina Andreef – who is the revelation of Praise. She turns a potentially unlikeable character into a sad, moving, often hilarious individual. Just watch, in an explosive scene where Cynthia hysterically confronts Gordon's ex-crush Rachel (Marta Dusseldorp), how many distinct, contradictory, volatile moods play across Horler's face and comportment in a matter of seconds.
MORE Curran: We Don't Live Here Anymore
© Adrian Martin April 2000