The Last Days of Chez Nous

(Gillian Armstrong, Australia, 1992)


After the artistic and commercial failure of her American film Fires Within (1991), Gillian Armstrong's The Last Days of Chez Nous came as an enormous surprise. An accomplished, moving human drama, it carves a place as one of Australian cinema's finest achievements.

Beth (Lisa Harrow) is a successful writer who presides over a chaotic inner-city household. Her daughter Annie (Miranda Otto) is a carefree teenager distracted from her upcoming exams by new border Tim (Kiri Paramore). Her sister Vicki (Kerry Fox) arrives on the doorstep pregnant after a failed relationship in Italy. Her father (Bill Hunter) is a crusty, seemingly unreachable old ocker. And Beth's marriage to JP (Bruno Ganz) is slowly coming unglued.

The story is elegantly plotted, but it is the subtle, striking characterisations which take the foreground. The original (and fairly autobiographical) screenplay by novelist Helen Garner is superb. Beth is a complex, middle-aged woman, the likes of whom we rarely see in Australian cinema: all at once sensitive and insensitive, kind and bossy, yearning and complacent. Vicki, by contrast, is young and unformed, more heart than head, and the film offers a powerful portrait of the sisters' changing relationship.

Armstrong brings into perfect focus the painful wisdom which is at the heart of Garner's fiction. Life is presented as an unstoppable, communal dance; no matter how much individuals try to define and fix their relationships, human passions keep circulating, overthrowing everything. Everyone struggles to do their best by their partners, friends and family, but the inevitable rule of existence seems to be that all will be casually or deeply hurt.

Some reviewers have complained that The Last Days of Chez Nous is a strained European art movie in an Australian setting – because of the luminous presence of Bruno Ganz, and the earnest dialogues about God and the meaning of life. But this is not a Paul Cox film; its context is perfectly believable, and its details are true to an artistic, middle class Australian milieu. Best of all, it is an unashamed soap opera of contemporary manners, unswervingly fixed on the dramas of modern behaviour and relationships.

Chez Nous does not have, among its Australian neighbours, the dramatic novelty of Proof (1991), nor the crowd-pleasing high energy of Strictly Ballroom (1992). Yet it is superior to both. The collaboration of Armstrong and Garner has produced a finely chiselled, mature, unforgettable film.

MORE Armstrong: Oscar and Lucinda, Little Women, High Tide

© Adrian Martin October 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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