Down the Well
1997 was not a good year for Australian cinema. I was variously bored, disappointed or angered by a succession of local films released then, including Zone 39, Blackrock, Fistful of Flies and River Street.
I was once asked a disarmingly direct question in public by a student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney: “What do Australian films lack?” A bald but pointed question, and also a perennial one. One part of me well knows that to generalise about any national cinema in this way – to diagnose its character, its symptoms, its problems – is truly a folly. But some other part of me, the frustrated cinephile part, does indeed wonder, much of the time: what’s wrong with so many of our movies, what is the magic ingredient (or ingredients) they seem to be missing? And if speculation of this sort seems justified, that’s because so many of the apparent problems come around again and again, in virtually every new batch of Australian movies.
Let me put this as simply as I feel it. Many – I’ll say it, most – Australian films lack an oomph, an élan. That’s to say, they lack a sense of cinema: some exciting, pleasing way that images and sounds, story forms and performances, are brought together and shaped up. The way films are conceived, developed, funded and assessed in Australia is overly bound up with the script – entailing very conventional literary and theatrical notions of what a good script is and does. I’m not an anti-script kind of critic; I certainly don’t (often) believe that movies are magically brought into being by divine, demiurgic directors on the set from out of thin air. Scripts are all-important as blueprints for movies, and there can be a great deal of craft and art in them – no question about it.
But when every thought, decision and dream about cinema revolves around the script – around characters, themes and personal and/or mythic journeys – we tend to get a very impoverished kind of filmmaking. And Australia is not, by any means, the only “small nation” (small in geopolitical influence, if not geographical size) that suffers from this syndrome.
Don’t get me wrong. When certain critics and cinephiles start pining for that old cinema élan, they often have a very aggressive, kinetic, spectacular style in mind: basically, an American style, the style of Scorsese’s dramas, or the Hong Kong style of John Woo’s action epics. There have been sweet moments of that style in Australian cinema – in George Miller’s Mad Max movies or Aleksi Vellis’ Nirvana Street Murder (1990), for instance. I love this high style myself, but I do not believe that it is the only one that defines cinema.
Quiet, laid back, minimal styles can have a special excitement and tension, using various experimental or contemplative modes. I’ve experienced that sort of frisson, sometimes, in our filmmaking history – in Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989), for example, or Jackie Farkas’ The Illustrated Auschwitz (1992). Both of those are short films; it is often shorts, rather than features, that offer some of the most thrilling cinema work done in this country – a fact which needs to be impressed upon so many local reviewers and journalists who fixate myopically on the feature film arena.
I’m not against simple, essentially naturalistic, character-based stories: we’ve sometimes done them well. But we’ve also done too many of them, still pumping them out, and not looking beyond these borders to other kinds of movies.
Genre filmmaking – thrillers, romantic comedies, horror fantasies, action films and so on – is particularly underdeveloped in Australia. Sometimes genre films do get made, but in a strange vacuum, with very little sense of the possibilities and conventions of the genre in question – and that ignorance leads to duds like Hotel De Love (1996) or Zone 39.
The problem with our naturalistic character dramas is that they’re not digging into the potentials of even that form. They are not gritty, minute, intense character studies like Mike Leigh’s work (whether you love it or hate it, it does stand for something). On the contrary, we tend to tread a very safe middle-path with our dramas – calling upon the very particular, rather old-fashioned theatrical talents of writers such as David Williamson, Hannie Rayson, Nick Enright and Louis Nowra.
With The Well, directed by Samantha Lang, we are forcibly returned to the problem of the so-called art film in Australia. Art cinema of the feature-length variety is a big disaster area here. Apart from Jane Campion’s debut feature Sweetie (1989), and one or two fine independent movies like Margot Nash’s Vacant Possession (1995), all we really have is the somewhat raw and naive personal filmmaking of Paul Cox (Lust and Revenge, 1996) and Rolf de Heer (The Quiet Room, 1996). The Well, however, aims for a more cultivated form.
Adapted by Laura Jones (who also scripted several Campion films) from the 1986 novel of the same name by Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007), it is an intense two-hander about the ambiguous friendship between two women, young, boppy Katherine (Miranda Otto) and the older Hester (Pamela Rabe). It’s a classic play-off: one is vital, crazy, impulsive; the other is stiff, neurotic, cautious. The two women are bound together in a complex tangle of need, want and favour.
Nothing is ever entirely spelt out in this relationship – certainly no explicit sexual desire or bond – but there’s supposed to be a great deal of tension, as well as many moves on the surface and in the depths, shifts in the power balance between these two characters. And, to put this whole relationship into relief, to heighten and cook up the psychological tensions, we have one of those parched, isolated settings sporting a run-down, claustrophobic house.
Straight away, outlining the intrigue of The Well in this fashion, I have a bunch of movies – mainly art films, to reluctantly go on using that dreadful, snobbish term – buzzing around in my head. Roman Polanski, for instance, and his claustrophobic films about escalating madness, such as Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965). Or Ingmar Bergman’s classic Persona (1966), about the cruel, mysterious symbiosis between two women; also R.W. Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), adapted from his own play, on the S&M psychological power games between a mistress and servant.
These are all films from (or with their roots in) the 1960s, and that leads me to say: if, in the Australian context, True Love and Chaos (1997) is full of the ‘70s (Wim Wenders, Leonard Cohen, etc.), then The Well is full of the ‘60s. But I do not mean that in a good way.
In its most achieved moments – when Lang’s direction is expressive, or Rabe’s performance is indelible, subtle and intricate in a highly physical way – I remembered another classic ‘60s homo-erotic two-hander, Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963). But The Well is highly ‘60s in another, negative way: it reminded me of the terrible, often hysterical prurience of movies from that period when dealing with the lurid combination of lesbians (or repressed, would-be lesbians), psychological sado-masochism and closed, hot-house environments. Gothic, overcharged films like Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968), for instance, that are not so easy to watch today, at least from a “sex-pol” standpoint. The Well brings back that slightly lascivious-yet-moralistic, creepy interest in what Raymond Durgnat called the skin games of ‘60s and ‘70s cinema.
But The Well is not a melodrama – although it tries, very unsuccessfully, to blend in some passing elements of horror-fantasy in the course of a poor pastiche of a typical psychological-scare dream sequence. Lang has tried to make an understated work, where the real stuff is going on in the submerged part of the narrative iceberg. But, to tell the truth, this is a movie that spells out not enough and too much at the same time.
So much of the story, with its twin character-portrait, seems jerky and episodic, launching off onto some new plateau of intrigue every 20 minutes or so. There is no sense of the deep logic or hidden drive animating these shifts in personal power – as there most certainly is in The Servant or The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. And, going in the other direction completely, Lang and Jones have decided to make real and explicit something that remains mysterious to the very end of Jolley’s novel.
The whole film spins around the intriguing question: what is down the well on Hester’s humble property? In the course of events, we see the two women run over a man on the road at night – in fact, we get a glimpse of that event at the very start, like a cheap telemovie pre-credits teaser. Once his body is in the well – and this is another horror/Polanski-style cue – his status, alive or dead, seems ambiguous; Katherine appears to be getting messages from him, talking to and feeding him, even receiving money from him. Here’s the central ambiguity: is Katherine going crazy, is the guy somehow still alive, or is there some other kind of psychological game going on? Familiar generic terrain, on one level, but still open to variation and inventiveness.
I won’t spoil any of that for you. But finally, it’s hard to care about the answers. The Well is extremely thin, attenuated on so many levels. It doesn’t move forward convincingly; and so many of its individual moments seems pale and poorly articulated. Unlike in Losey’s or Polanski’s work, nothing really cinematic is ever done, in a sharp or compelling way, with the contours of the claustrophobic space, or the uncanny, eerie airiness of the wide-open landscape. The actors, too – even though I think Otto and Rabe are both excellent players – are directed to perform in an externalised, theatrical, signposting kind of way. Their physical gestures are never turned into finely-tuned cinematic gestures.
Style-wise, the film has one glaring aspect: the colour effect known as a bleach-bypass, which desaturates natural colour, and gives almost everything a steely, ghostly, blue cast. For a while, this procedure is intriguing, OK on the eye. But then it quickly becomes monotonous, unmodulated, unsupple: it’s what I think of the tomato sauce approach to style, a single formal mannerism or tic plastered all over the film on the assumption that – in some vague, overall way – it suits the mood, feel or message of the piece. This is the bad legacy of Sidney Lumet’s filmmaking advice in Making Movies (1995) – and of “quality” TV production, which slathers the template of a handy, cohering “look” over literally everything.
And this is exactly the kind of thing I mean about not enough attention being paid to the stuff of cinema – and particularly to the art of direction – in contemporary Australian film. I’m not accusing Samantha Lang (whose earlier shorts were promising) of being indifferent to cinema, or cine-illiterate; all those abundant ‘60s references prove otherwise. And she’s not dwelling down in that didactic, very stagey form of naturalism that cripples and deadens local films like Cosi (1996), Blackrock, Hotel Sorrento (1995) or River Street. But Lang’s approach to style/form is not precise or specific; it’s laid on, as in a rock video, not keyed to the demands or possibilities of each unfolding moment of this strange drama.
In that regard, The Well reminds me of Monica Pellizzari’s Fistful of Flies, which I mentioned at the start of this review. Pellizzari is another young filmmaker with some sense of the formal spectacle of cinema: every shot in her extremely grotesque movie is shot like a horror story and scored like a melodrama, with hopeful visual metaphors (like the flies of her title) inserted like expressionistic dream-images at every turn. In both The Well and Fistful of Flies we encounter this curious mixture of a taste for histrionic genres (horror and melodrama) and an aspiration to art cinema – as well as, alas, the mixture of that combo with some very banal, static, underdeveloped diagrams of character interaction, a surface pattern without a deep-structure.
I may be getting myself into hot water here, in more ways than one. Criticising almost any Australian film, for starters, registers, for some, as the absolute in bad form and manners, endangering our fragile industry and stomping on our young, delicate flowers. Criticising an Australian art film, particularly one that was chosen by those folks at the Cannes Film festival desperate to locate the next Antipodean genius like Campion, can get a reviewer into deep trouble (I know from experience). And being a bloke criticising what are touted as women’s films – films by women, about women, possibly reflecting some specifically female sensibility or perspective … well, as they say, fools rush in.
But I bristle against what I see as the tendency within so many sectors of our film industry and film culture to over-protect Australian movies, to assigns them labels and auras, noble intentions and agendas, that are meant to deflect or dissuade any sensible or rigorous criticism. Our local movies, our national cinema, should surely be able to withstand a bit of rough, demanding, cinephile love.
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© Adrian Martin July 1997