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Long Weekend

(Colin Eggleston, Australia, 1979)


 


Long Weekend is a well-crafted thriller that very knowingly uses the conventions of a certain sub-genre of the fantastique. It is in the tradition of Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), Graham Baker's Impulse (1984) and J. G. Ballard's fiction – whose stories about beaches and drowning are especially recalled here by the undead dugong.

In this tradition, unusual and eventually fatal events occur which seem to have a supernatural cause. In Long Weekend, nature takes revenge on a brutish city couple, Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets). While the viewer is clearly, almost emphatically directed to this particular reading of the story, it is never straightforwardly or unambiguously confirmed.

The special cinematic potential of such stories comes from the fact that they simultaneously tend towards overdetermined meaningfulness (with every image and sound labouring to hint at allegorical or symbolic points) and its dead opposite – a queer, flat, surrealistic literalness, devoid of meaning. Everett De Roche's work as a screenwriter (Patrick, 1978, Heart of Midnight, 1988) has often exploited this dual tendency – but Long Weekend, in its filmic realisation of the required ambiguity, remains a rather unique achievement in Australia cinema. (Postscript: the film was remade by Jamie Blanks in 2008, again from De Roche’s script; Eggleston died in 2002, as he was preparing to make a film with Jean-Pierre Léaud.)

As Meaghan Morris has observed (in The New Australian Cinema, 1980), Long Weekend is one of many local films (like Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975 and Peter Kenna's The Umbrella Woman, 1987) that "makes poetry out of sexual polarisation".

The film is structured upon several sequences that intercut Peter and Marcia absorbed, alone, in the pursuits deemed appropriate to their respective genders: masculinity is equated with outdoor activities (rugged mountaineering, hunting, loud exhibitionism, phallic gunplay and surfing), while femininity is equated with indoor life (cooking, comfort, reading and auto-eroticism). This rigid polarisation – plus the thread of allegorical incidents and symbols suggesting that Marcia's abortion (resulting from a marital infidelity) is the principal crime which nature is avenging – seems to indicate a rather conservative view of contemporary sexual politics. Nonetheless, the film is hardly flattering to either character (in a sense it condemns both to death), and it glancingly portrays their malaise as social in origin.

Any unilateral interpretation of the film is in fact difficult to sustain, given its consistent and often minute exploitation of the modern fantastique style. Ambiguities are generated everywhere, and different symbolic possibilities are tried out in the course of the plot. For example: for most of the story it is suggested that only Marcia can hear the wail of the baby dugong (this subjectivity signalled through clever aural treatments) because of its significance to her – but at the end it seems that Peter hears it as well.

Or, on a broader interpretive level: although most of the film arraigns the signs of nature (insects, animals, weather, land formations, random occurrences) against the couple, the intercut surfing/masturbation sequence (especially the rising insect noises as she climaxes, and the psychic warning she appears to receive about Peter in danger) suggest (as Ben Crawford ventures in On The Beach, no. 11, 1987) the possibility of an ecological harmony between humanity and environment.

Long Weekend succeeds as a film because it cleverly restricts its elements and articulates them exhaustively. The numerous cutaways to ominous glimpses of the natural environment, employing extreme close-up and variable focus, are often effective. There are a number of strikingly dramatic camera movements, such as the one that first reveals the beach, or another that simulates Peter's slow discovery of Marcia's dead body in the morning light. The soundtrack integrates music and sound effects in a stylised, dramatic way, employing sonic surges, rumbles, reverberations and shock punctuations in the best contemporary-thriller fashion.

Overall, the film's clear awareness of the cinematic playfulness inherent in much exploitation cinema places it in a select, still underrated grouping of contemporary Australian B films, alongside Hostage: The Christine Maresch Story (1983), Sons of Steel (1989), The Chain Reaction (1980) and the oeuvre of Philippe Mora.

© Adrian Martin May 1991


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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