(Paul Cox, Australia, 1986)


Continuing the Strange Case of Paul Cox. Although Cactus is probably the slightest of Cox’s features to date, it’s hard not to grudgingly admire something that might be called his auteurist integrity, or his resolute stylistic continuity.

Cox has certainly figured out the parameters of his filmic project and, by god, he’s sticking to them: the sustained stillness and silence of a mood piece; the thematic structure of fleeting and fragile human encounters hovering on the edge of an existential abyss; the ecstatically reflective communion with art, nature and classical music; the flickering subjectivities of perpetual reminiscence …

Yet one has to wonder whether the integrity of Cox’s perfect self-definition isn’t more like an immaculate and dubious withdrawal from all conditions and contradictions of social determination and historical crisis. In this respect, Cactus is Cox’s dream-film – he’s finally made it out, pure and clear, to the bush of the Dandenongs – and it’s profoundly and worryingly unproblematic: nothing much is at stake here beyond some typical guff about ‘finding yourself’ – a pristine, unexploded self – in a timeless haven.

One can’t help but feel that, although Cox has worked hard to carve out the space for his private cinema (a project that, in its fragile dream to capture and figure the surfaces and depths of tender intimacy, overlaps uncannily with Godard-Miéville’s Soft and Hard [1986]), the details of sensibility that now flood into this space come far too easily, relying on a cosily transcendental notion of art that reaches back through the institution of arthouse cinema (here indexed by the luminous Isabelle Huppert, complete with subtitles) to some bogus antique treasury of great, high and universal art (opera, etc).

Apart from these doubts, Cactus is a worry on several levels. What troubles is not so much the cheap dramatic metaphor of external blindness/internal vision, but the large amount of side material (various glimpses of marital and community life in the countryside) that Cox fails to make meaningfully relevant to the main story. One winces, too, at the here-we-go-again Super-8-as-memory passages, the arty preciousness of many scenes involving Huppert, the badly judged naturalistic effects (that maddening, ear-piercing whipbird!), the excruciating in-jokes (‘Pauline Cox’?), and the usual condescension of this high-and-mighty auteur towards an everyday life which he smarmily renders as grotesque. Robert Menzies is a terrific actor, but he can’t save the movie.

Cactus, as an empty wallow, an arty tremble and a moody glide through ninety minutes, is sure to find some rapt and appreciative audience members among the cultured middle classes. But its paltry pleasures are easily exhausted in a single viewing.

MORE Cox: The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, Human Touch, Lust and Revenge, The Nun and the Bandit, Vincent, Innocence

© Adrian Martin September 1986

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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