Dance Me to My Song

(Rolf de Heer, Australia, 1998)


What is good about the Australian film Dance Me to My Song? Only one thing: it shows, in a direct and vivid fashion, a person with severe cerebral palsy within a narrative context that eschews excessive pity or sentimentality.

Heather Rose, confined to a wheelchair when she is not either in the bathroom or her bed, plays Julia. The idea for the story – an intensely melodramatic love-and-sex triangle – came from Rose and Frederick Stahl.

Julia is wholly dependent on her carer, Madelaine (Joey Kennedy), who abuses her in every conceivable way. But one day, out front of her suburban home, Julia aims her wheelchair at a passing, handsome stranger, Eddie (John Brumpton), and draws him inside to help her. The moment Julia loses her heart to Eddie and begins dreaming of a fuller relationship, the perverse and perfidious Madelaine starts peeling off her skimpy gear in order to seduce him away.

Rose’s first screen appearance was in Bad Boy Bubby (1994) by the same director, Rolf de Heer. Although Dance Me to My Song rather gamely declares itself to be ‘a film by Heather Rose’, it is unmistakably a film by de Heer. What he brings to this project is not merely a certain transparency that allows us immediate access to the physical and emotional life of the protagonist. De Heer – in the intriguing tradition of Werner Herzog or Lars von Trier – is unafraid of detailing the brute facts of disability, and he can fairly revel in black or scatological humour.

Dance Me to My Song‘s undoubted force as a plucky, humanist testament has tended to overwhelm any clear-sighted evaluation of it as a film. The fact is that de Heer’s undoubted vision or sensibility is far out of synch with his filmmaking craft. De Heer’s champions are willing to overlook a great deal that is dodgy in his work. Like Paul Cox, de Heer seems to cultivate a certain naïveté as a director. He aims for a childlike innocence and simplicity in his fairy tales for adults.

Unfortunately, his movies display a grinding, clunky amateurishness on virtually every level – as evidenced by the flat lighting, repetitive musical score, empty sound design and uninspired camera work. De Heer’s penchant for low-budget, off-the-cuff, guerrilla filmmaking has led him here (as in The Quiet Room, 1995) to box most of the action within a couple of dully dressed rooms. This oppressive claustrophobia would fit the subject better if de Heer (like Roman Polanski or Robert Bresson) could modulate and enliven his cinematic style.

De Heer is an especially weak director of actors. Combined with his fondness for stories with almost zero psychological plausibility or depth, this spells acute trouble for everyone in the cast except Rose. Brumpton manages to survive the proceedings best because he possesses basic, natural presence – a benefit, since his part lacks any character, motivation or background. Kennedy, on the other hand, faces an impossible task.

Madelaine resembles a character from a Grimm fairy tale, and de Heer unwisely hurls her at the viewer as an unremitting figure of the grotesque. When Madelaine is not behaving like a screeching, inhuman, fascistic, violent tyrant to Julia, she is a whimpering, neurotic, nymphomaniacal mess. The scenes detailing her date with her latest, rapacious Prince Charming are surely among the very worst in the annals of Australian cinema.

When at last de Heer reaches a punch-up scene between Julia’s tough lesbian sister, Rix (Rena Owen) – aided by her sullen, butch partner – and Madelaine, Dance Me to My Song briefly comes to life as a distant remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1964). The last vestige of sober realism is here discarded as de Heer begs us to cheer the nice characters and hiss the baddies.

It’s an enjoyable climax but – what with all the wild overrating and warm, fuzzy feelings that have been heaped upon this modest endeavour – I expected a little more overall from Dance Me to My Song than sheer pantomime.

MORE de Heer: The Tracker, Ten Canoes, Alexandra’s Project

© Adrian Martin October 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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