Mademoiselle and the Doctor

(Janine Hosking, Australia, 2003)


Amidst the public arguments over the quality of Cate Shortland's Somersault (2004), the display of pride over Harvie Krumpet's Oscar, and the fizzle of both AFI and IF awards ceremonies in 2004, the best Australian film of the year managed to sneak under just about every radar.

Janine Hosking's Mademoiselle and the Doctor is a documentary, but it is not in any of the non-fiction modes that are currently fashionable on our screens. It is not an aggressive, finger-pointing essay in the Michael Moore style. It is not a hyper-stylised dramatic recreation in the vein of Errol Morris. Nor does it strain to tell a heart-warming story with lovable characters, like so many contemporary documentaries eager to fit a television format.

If anything, the film fits into the more old-fashioned genre of the observational documentary, close to Nicholas Philbert's Every Little Thing (1996). It takes its time, and risks a structure that demands strict attention from viewers.

Hosking traces the parallel paths of two people. The Doctor of the title is the controversial euthanasia campaigner, Dr Philip Nitschke. The Mademoiselle is a seventy-nine-year-old Perth resident, Lisette Nigot. She plans to end her life, and in doing so she will make use of advice from Nitschke. The film gently takes us to the occasion of their meeting – and its aftermath.

This is a restrained, matter-of-fact, sometimes surprisingly humorous document. It avoids sensationalism at every point, and refuses to get hysterically worked up over its hot, divisive topic of "assisted death".

In many ways, the film takes its cue from Nigot herself – a remarkable woman who talks both candidly and tactfully about her splendid life. Her reasoning for wanting to end it all is simple and plaintive: she has achieved everything she intended to, and wants to die before the inevitable deterioration of mind and body sets in. She answers the filmmaker's questions about her wish to die with disarming directness: "Do I look depressed?"

Nitschke, on the other hand, is a man who can sometimes come over as cold and brusque. He is shown embroiled in the everyday tasks of his chosen vocation, such as pulling over during a long drive to conduct an international radio interview on his mobile phone, or (in a wonderfully daggy sequence) testing the prototype of his death-assistance machine with the humble materials at hand. There is something a little comical about him. But, once more, the film takes its cue from Nitschke's own understatement, his unostentatious commitment to a profoundly humanist, compassionate cause.

There is something about the rhythm, the attitude, the balance of bemusement and stoicism in this film that is profoundly Australian. No other country or culture could have produced such a documentary with exactly this tone. In all the strenuous and sometimes spurious debate over the need to "tell our own stories in our own voices", this is one movie that nails both a uniquely local story and a uniquely local way of conveying it.

Mademoiselle and the Doctor is a beautifully constructed piece of cinema, with a cumulative emotional effect that is rare in Australian film. I can only speculate that the reason it has not, to date, been more grandly embraced and acclaimed by the local industry is because of the intense discomfort-factor inherent in the subject it broaches, and its refusal to indulge in facile moralising.

But great films invite us to ponder uncomfortable thoughts, and take us to places where, on first blush, we might rather not go. By this criterion, Mademoiselle and the Doctor is indeed a great Australian film.

MORE Australian documentary: Facing the Music, One Way Street, Carlton + Godard = Cinema, Wildness, Mamadrama, Original Schtick

© Adrian Martin November 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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