Strange Colours

(Alena Lodkina, Australia/Italy, 2017)


Anyway, Here We Are


The strange colours flagged in the title of Alena Lodkina’s remarkable debut feature are first glimpsed in a banal, everyday setting – a shop window. Opals are on sale inside, which cues us to the fact opal mining is the main activity in the remote place to which young adult Milena (Kate Cheel) has travelled by bus: Lightning Ridge in northern New South Wales. The immediate motivation for Milena’s trip is the heart attack recently suffered by her now hospitalised father, Max (Daniel P. Jones). But the looming issue of how Milena and Max will come to terms with each other emotionally is sidelined for almost half the film; meanwhile, Milena will wander around this place, encounter its people, and spend some reflective time alone.


Lightning Ridge, as we see it here, is an intriguing place. Its inhabitants often remark on its peaceful quiet, and its welcome distance from the stressful rat race of the big cities. Everybody knows and helps out one another, but also respects the desire to be left in restful or pensive solitude. Strange Colours takes its stylistic cues from this environment: it is a patient, contemplative film, keen to record details of place and time, and to evoke the emotions and impressions it arouses.


Just as the soundtrack leaves room for delicate moments of complete silence, the images (cinematography is by Michael Latham) dwell in a spectrum of shifting colours – much like those refracted by a turning opal – and are often content to approach total darkness, of a kind that is impossible in our artificially illuminated urban centres. Lodkina’s embracing of these qualities of silence and darkness gives certain moments – especially the occasionally wordless interactions between Milena and Max – the gravity and force of an Andrei Tarkovsky film, and a highly painterly quality.


Strange Colours is an elliptical, restrained, understated work. Whatever lurks in the past between Max and Milena, including the details surrounding the mother’s death, is something we will never know. The characters’ inner thoughts can only, for the most part, be inferred, as the camera studies their silent faces. The script introduces several arresting complications at its midway point – particularly in relation to Milena’s friendship with another Ridge local, Frank (Justin Courtin) – but then lets these issues float without any great dramatic resolution or conclusion. Lodkina focuses on maintaining the inherent mystery of people and of places.


The peaceful qualities that make Lightning Ridge appealing to its long-term residents also have a seductive, slightly supernatural aspect – without the film ever tipping over into the horror-fantasy genre. We hear repeated variations on the theme that the Ridge is a “hard place to leave” – that, once installed there, people tend not to budge from it. In this, Strange Colours recalls (intentionally or not) Bernardo Bertolucci’s great film based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”: The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), in which the imaginary Italian town of Tara functions as a lure that catches the story’s nominal hero in its trap. The final images of Bertolucci’s tale – very likely a direct influence on the ending of Ted Kotcheff’s Australian classic Wake in Fright, made the following year – show the central character waiting eternally on the local train station platform, giant weeds having, long ago, grown over the tracks. In these examples, a town’s aura of permanence and its weight of tradition become oppressive.


Strange Colours draws a different theme out of its seductive location. On many levels, the film compares and contrasts two different ways of living in the present moment. Milena’s way, at the start, is to be loose, weightless, free, available to whatever is happening – “what’s here and now”, as she describes it. This also means, as Max remarks, that she is effectively “bouncing around the country like a tennis ball”, that she’s uncommitted to anything, untethered to any sense of home, family or belonging. Is this sense of belonging what Milena is unconsciously looking for in her decision to visit her father in Lightning Ridge? The film neither makes this motivation explicit, nor resolves it in any clear or clean way – for it is very much the mode and mood of the project to hang suspended; to leave us, at the end, still in the middle of a difficult and ambiguous emotional and psychological transition.


The community of Lightning Ridge, however, runs on an alternative notion of the “here and now”. One resident casually remarks: “Anyway, here we are” – but the rough-and-ready, spontaneous poetry of his remark (like so much of the film’s dialogue) hints at a deeper understanding. To be truly present in the Ridge means to be rooted, to sink oneself deeply into the earth and its natural cycles. Mining, far from being a sign of pillage of the land (as it could easily have been portrayed), here represents a type of communion with it, a familiarity with its unique contours and properties. Tellingly, a key moment in the developing relationship between Milena and Max will literally take place below ground, in a mineshaft.


When Strange Colours premiered in 2017 as part of the production program of the Cinema College of the Venice Biennale, the eminent scholar David Bordwell, as part of a panel of expert witnesses, was called on to publicly respond to it. Comparing the film to an Anton Chekhov play, he rightly stressed its eschewal of the “plotty propulsion of a conventional family-problems movie”. The script “avoids those traumatic flashbacks that often supply backstory”, and the deliberately parsimonious narrative intrigue “never creates conventional suspense”. (1)


More pointedly, the film also deftly sidesteps the particular forms of suspense that many spectators might immediately expect from the tale of a young, city woman in an isolated Australian town. It is completely free of psychosexual menace, and of any Gothic sense of Nature itself as a threatening presence – as most famously elaborated by both versions of Long Weekend in 1978 and 2008, not to mention the central enigma in the 1975 film and 2018 TV renditions of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. This refreshing absence in Strange Colours needs to be underlined: there is no rape (physical intimacies go no further than a tentative kiss between Milena and Frank), no uncomfortable sexual encounters, and no evocation of (to cite the American title given to the Long Weekend remake) “nature’s grave”.


A subtle series of details traces Milena’s gradual acceptance that her new lifestyle – for however long it lasts – is no threat. Despite forever waving flies and mosquitos away from her face, Milena quickly learns that the snake inside Max’s house is not venomous, and that the frog at her feet in the shower should be regarded as just another whimsical, eccentric, bush companion. She even takes to sleeping outdoors, under the stars – thus connecting her personal evolution to the film’s recurring images that pan across the night sky, and her father’s lyrical, hospital bed soliloquy on the Orion constellation.


Strange Colours offers a fascinating and original portrait of Australian masculinity. Although a few other women can be glimpsed as extras in the background of a pub scene, the film deliberately stylises and abstracts its principal situation to the extent of showing Milena as the lone woman in a world entirely comprised of men, all of whom are older than her (most of them considerably so). Moreover, this male enclave is solidly a “white Australia”, without any evident indigenous input. Lodkina has cited as an influence here another classic of Italian cinema, Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), which featured Ingrid Bergman as the foreigner and cultural outsider in an oppressively patriarchal Italian fishing village.


Bordwell finds Strange Colours’ male characters, from his American perspective, “hard-edged”, “gruff” and “flinty”, a bunch of “lean and raggedy coots”. (2) Yet the aura that these men exude is very different from the highly-strung, aggressive, even psychotic vibes that we associate with the outback males of many Australian classics, from Wake in Fright to Wolf Creek (2005) and well beyond. Despite their casually salty language, the men in Strange Colours are not driven by misogyny or homophobia. Even their mocking humour is gentle, rather than brittle or cruelly sarcastic.


These may be blokes of few words, laconic or stoic creatures, but they do not strike Milena (or us) as repressed, bigoted, or acting blindly on the basis of defensive projections; they are not, in short, “ocker” stereotypes. Nor are they identical in their values and behaviour – another metaphor that comes courtesy of the town’s opal mining business is that no two individuals, just like no two opals, are ever exactly the same.


As we will learn near the end of the story, some of these men are indeed emotionally damaged by incidents in their past – “fucked up a bit”, as one local puts it – but they are quite aware of that, and have relocated to Lightning Ridge in order to slowly recover from their psychic wounds. These men (Max in particular) are unafraid to assert their feelings, and even philosophise (in Frank’s case) about the “life force”. The landscape around them – above all, the starry night sky – seems to connect them to a sense of the cosmos, of infinity and eternity. This is especially true of Max, superbly incarnated by Jones (previously seen in Hail, 2011).


Lodkina, as a Russian-born Australian and as a woman, brings a special viewpoint to this rare breed of Aussie male. One can well sense that the time Lodkina spent at Lightning Ridge (she previously made a 2016 documentary, Lightning Ridge: The Land of Black Opals) has allowed her to discover not only a different kind of landscape and atmosphere, but also a unique type of temperament and personality. Her film goes beyond what Meaghan Morris has identified (in Les Murray’s poetry, for instance) as the “masculinist Celtic/Australian tradition”, routinely projected today as a conservative and “repressive regime”. Rather, Strange Colours plunges us (as Morris wisely advises we must venture) into the “gaps and ‘incommensurables’ in play” between what we, as students of media and culture, theorise in our critical discourse, and what we feel or experience in our everyday, human encounters. (3)


Lodkina does not simply celebrate the “ordinary Aussie male” as embodied in the special case of the Lightning Ridge population. There are nuances and complexities in this portrait: even without a general air of menace, Milena still experiences her father’s stoicism as somewhat fearsome, and she cannot help but recoil from his intensity. In the larger community, too, there is the troubling presence of a sole outsider – a thief who has, for his trouble, found himself splattered by unremovable purple dye planted as a trap by Max. Is this rather unfortunate and pathetic fellow the symbolic, sacrificial scapegoat for underlying, unspoken tensions in the town? (4)


There is much to admire in both the art and craft of Strange Colours. The sparse musical score by Mikey Young blends with Livia Ruzic’s careful sound design to provide transitions and enhance atmospheres, rather than to underline emotions or hammer plot points. The ensemble of performances seamlessly blends trained and (one presumes) largely untrained actors. At the film’s centre is Milena, and Kate Cheel’s face is made for cinema. By this I mean that her expression, whenever viewed at a different angle or lit in a particular way, registers a specific inflection of mood or feeling – even when her performance is subdued, relatively inanimate, and far from the typical histrionics of melodrama.


Lodkina has, for several years now, been part of a loose filmmaking group that includes her co-writer Isaac Wall, the prolific Amiel Courtin-Wilson (director of Hail), and producer Kate Laurie. Strange Colours was made under a strict deadline: it had to be ready within a year for its Venice unveiling. This pressure has, ultimately, served the project well; it certainly saved Lodkina from the fate of so many Australian filmmakers, caught in the notorious development hell of constant script rewrites that might never reach the point of production.


Looking at Strange Colours, seasoned observers of the Australian film scene, and especially its independent sector, may recall that fleeting moment in the late 1990s when an initiative known as “million dollar movies” led to similarly scaled features by Belinda Chayko (City Loop, 2000), Vincent Giarrusso (Mallboy, 2001) and Neil Mansfield (Fresh Air, 1999). But Lodkina hits a higher level of artistic achievement than those previous efforts; although she has yet to reach the age of 30 (born in 1989), her viewpoint and sensibility as a filmmaker are already well-formed, and her ability to marshall the skills of her collaborators toward a common vision is impressive.


Australian cinema has not, in my opinion, shone so brightly since Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011). Let us hope that, unlike Leigh, Lodkina is able to move with relative swiftness on to her next feature.


A version of this essay first appeared in Metro Magazine (Australia), no. 197 (July 2018) published by Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) – for further information, see http://www.metromagazine.com.au


1. David Bordwell, “Venice 2017: College Days”, Observations on Film Art website. back


2. Ibid. back


3. Meaghan Morris, Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes (Sydney: Empress Publishing, 1992), pp. 109, 111. back


4. For an influential theory of this mechanism in cultural narratives, see René Girard, The Scapegoat (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989). back

© Adrian Martin April 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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