Burning Man

Review by Jane Freebury

This is the story of a man grieving for his dead wife. It is intricately structured and edited, and gorgeous to look at but it isn’t for everyone. It is no gentle study in grief management, but a frenetic journey, travelling backwards and forwards in time until it comes full circle.

Burning Man tumbles off the screen, swirling shards of memory that take time to make sense of. Besides a young man’s emotional hurt, there is his confronting, explosive anger and his dereliction of duty as a parent. And there’s the sex, lots of it, as he tries to forget—or is it to resurrect?—the good times with his departed soulmate.

During these bad times, Tom (British actor Matthew Goode) does not show us a particularly attractive side of himself, yet he comes across as authentic, trying to make sense of what seems to make no sense – his beautiful young wife Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) has suddenly gone for good. Her breast cancer, apparently the aggressive type, has left him alone in life with their eight-year-old son Oscar (Jack Heanly) to care for, when he can barely look after himself.

Life was chaotic enough before this. Tom runs his own restaurant at Bondi Beach and is up early each day buying fresh seafood at the city markets, dreaming up new recipes and spending his evenings working at a relentless pace in the kitchen. However, he has some novel ways of relieving the pressure, in the way he deals with difficult customers that will give you pause about sending food back that you’re not happy with.

Manic energy in the workplace is matched by road rage behind the wheel of his beat-up VW. Common enough these days, but Tom takes it to a new level. On another explosive occasion that should have been his son’s birthday party, he lands in the lock-up to be bailed out by his long-suffering sister-in-law, Karen (Essie Davis). The question is, how long can these hooligan rampages go on?

How long you can go on making allowances for someone’s very bad behaviour while they come to terms with their grief, cutting them a bit of slack, goes to the heart of this complex and impressive film. At a recent Q&A here in Canberra, the filmmaker writer-director Jonathan Teplitsky revealed he has intimate knowledge of bereavement. His own partner died ten years ago and Burning Man has grown out of his own experience.

Ten or so years ago Teplitsky’s sophisticated relationship drama Better Than Sex announced an interesting new talent. His excellent crime caper Getting’ Square followed in 2003. It’s been a while, but this highly accomplished, beautiful heart-breaker has been well worth waiting for.

In a capsule: A frenetic, freewheeling movie about a young Bondi chef who is distraught over the sudden death of his wife, but behaves badly, testing the loyalty of friends and family. How long will they tolerate his excesses? How long can he tolerate himself? A highly accomplished and beautiful heart-breaker.

4.5 stars

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