Tag Archives: Features

Rolf de Heer: Dancing to His Song reveals man of vision

Dancing to His Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, launched on 11 March at Griffith Film School, Brisbane, is published as an advanced eBook, with film clips, by Currency Press.

The first time I watched a Rolf de Heer film was in the late 1980s while writing a column for Australian Society, a national affairs monthly. It was my first gig in film journalism, writing reviews of new Australian cinema that took into account the industry and the cultural context of the time.

After nearly a decade away in the UK, I was back home. As it turned out, the UK had been a vantage point from which to watch the Australian film industry grow in stature. I can remember being chuffed by the reaction of English friends to Newsfront and My Brilliant Career, and was proud to watch Gallipoli with fellow film studies students in London.

And there was a lot happening locally besides. The Year My Voice Broke, Dogs in Space and Dead Calm were to make a splash. Smaller and riskier films like Shame and Rikky and Pete were not being completely swamped by the likes of Croc Dundee II and Man From Snowy River II.
New talent announced itself with Sweetie (Jane Campion) and with Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (John Hillcoat).

Amongst all of this activity, Incident at Raven’s Gate appeared, part science fiction, part domestic drama, part supernatural thriller, directed by a virtually unknown Rolf de Heer. It was championed by David Stratton in Variety and the Sydney Morning Herald and by Tina Kaufman at FilmNews. An impressive mixture of genre it was handled with flair, but did not achieve the recognition it deserved.

Unfortunately, it did not get the release it deserved either. Had it done so, one wonders how de Heer’s profile as a director might have developed subsequently.

Not wanting to make too much of this, and hindsight is a factor, it did announce an interesting new talent. Incident at Raven’s Gate was so assured, so distinctive and told with verve and panache and imaginative use of sound.

Incident was written by collaborator Marc Rosenberg and in 1989 it was too early to talk about the qualities that become apparent over de Heer’s body of work, but re-reading my review reminds me how exciting it seemed then. It was of a piece, authored by a single vision.
Based on the Rolf de Heer we have come to know, this should surprise no one.

It wasn’t until much later—after Ten Canoes—that the idea of writing a sustained study of de Heer’s work took hold.
Some years before, I’d run with the idea of researching a study of Dingo and a group of other international coproductions. (Don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to Rolf.) But it was that glorious poster with Jamie Gulpilil standing in a canoe in the swamp that prompted me to begin writing a book.

Now was the time to talk about an auteur and his body of work.

Inspired by the challenge, I got in touch, flew over to Adelaide after he agreed to an interview. I was yet to write a word. Most interviews weren’t face-to-face but over the phone when I rang with my list of questions. There were around 30 such interviews, always lengthy.

A couple of years in, an Australia Council grant let me take time off work speechwriting to focus on developing the book.
It was agreed I could watch him on set during the shoot for The King is Dead! At times it was ‘excruciating’ (his word) for him, as he hates to be observed. Moreover, the set happened to be his home, so it was an intrusion on two counts.
The question that guided my research was finding the common ground among de Heer’s very diverse oeuvre. Chercher l’auteur and his authorial signature.

Where would I find it amongst the silent slapstick comedy, the Indigenous stories set in the wilderness, or the upheavals inside the home between husbands and wives, between children and parents and women with disability and their carers? Where amongst the stories of aliens in the outback, or dingo trappers with a passion for jazz, or old men hooked on romance novels in the Amazonian jungle?
De Heer’s penchant for unconventional protagonists and surprising genre choices has created an apparently disparate body of work. In this and other ways, he has made creative risk attractive.
The films frequently tell powerful stories about outsiders who interrogate the status quo, incorporate a strong moral position, and impatience with moral ambiguity and timidity. We were reminded of it only last week with the way he strode into a controversy over political language (‘lifestyle choices’).

And yet the stringent social critique is at the same time an argument for an inclusive community vision.

Despite some self-deprecatory remarks over the years and understandable reluctance to acknowledge his status as auteur, there is no doubt about the single organising vision that organises de Heer’s work. His team collaborate with him to maintain that vision.

The high standing his films have achieved internationally, especially Europe, is a major achievement for any filmmaker, let alone one working on modest budget. One of his most successful films, The Quiet Room, sold in 44 countries on the back of a budget just under $600,000.

De Heer’s singular films have found audiences around the world, sometimes in surprising places. Dr Plonk opened in Russia. Bad Boy Bubby was a big hit in Norway. Dingo went on release, intriguingly, in Sweden, and The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, not well received here, grossed more than €1.3 million in Spain. Dance Me to My Song screened in at least 23 international festivals outside Australia, more festivals that Ten Canoes.

Over the years, the limitations of budget have consistently extracted inventive and resourceful solutions from his practice and rejuvenated his distinctive authorial signature.

Few filmmakers set themselves a challenge in the way that this filmmaker does. Yet he hasn’t sought to solve the self-imposed challenges with more generous finance, but with ingenuity, and therein lies a key to the distinctive, innovative aspect of his work.
The book is written from the perspective of an observer of Australian cinema over some 30 years. There is a chapter covering each of de Heer’s 14 theatrical features, with sections within each on the production and reception context. It’s my firm view that the context of a film is as important as textual analysis and viewer response.

Some biographical detail is woven in as well. It wasn’t until much later in the process that I began to ask Rolf about himself. A film stands on its own merits, of course, but it’s not as though the personal history of the filmmaker is entirely irrelevant either, and throws light on the person behind a significant body of work and his vision.

This article was published in The Canberra Times and on the Fairfax website in March 2015.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2015

© Jane Freebury

Allons au cinéma, cinéphiles! There are 49 films to choose from at the French Film Festival this year. Even more options than last year. As the season unfolds during March-April in eight locations across the country, the easy part will be savouring the menu, the hard part will be making the choices.

French films have long had an enviable share of the domestic box office and a standing in world cinema to die for. UniFrance reported 111 million admissions for French films abroad last year. Within France, home-grown films wrested back some of Hollywood’s share of the box office, making 2014 the ‘second best year’ since The Intouchables were an immense hit in 2012.

It’s hard to get a handle on so much choice on offer at the AFFFF, but if popularity at home works for you, then The Belier Family, a movie that contributed magnificently to French box office last year, will screen be screening. French audiences also loved Asterix: the Mansions of the Gods and Samba. The pint-sized Gallic hero needs no introduction, but it will be interesting to see what we have in Samba. It is from the same writing team as The Intouchables, and features Omar Sy as one of the leads.

Gemma Bovery will open the festival. It’s Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary by way of Posy Simmonds and her graphic novel, Gemma Bovery, which can be said to be parody, stand-alone story and modern adaptation. The Anne Fontaine movie is set in a small town in Normandy, with British actors Gemma Arterton and Jason Flemyng in the lead roles as husband and wife. Fabrice Luchini (Cycling with Moliere and In the House) has a key part as the local baker who knows his Flaubert.

As festival guest in 2013, director Benoit Jacquot made an impression with his moody period piece, Farewell, My Queen, on the last days of Marie Antoinette at Versailles before her imprisonment in the Bastille. His new film centres on three women, a mother, with two daughters who have unwittingly become involved with the one man. The delicacy of the entanglement is heightened by the casting. Catherine Deneuve is the mother, Charlotte Gainsbourg one of the daughters, and Chiara Mastroianni the other. Mastroianni is Deneuve’s own daughter and how she looks like both Deneuve and her father Marcelo Mastroianni in equal measure!

Festival patrons this year are Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, who have made a selection of their critics picks. As to be expected, they have each drawn up a list of different films.

Jacquot’s new film Three Hearts gets a special mention from Margaret. She has also singled out the award-winning drama Far From Men, an existential survival tale about a French teacher (Viggo Mortensen) who helps a villager accused of murder escape the authorities in 1950s colonial Algeria. It is based on a short story by Albert Camus.

David’s picks include one of the greatest films ever, the 1937 anti-war classic La Grand Illusion. He has also chosen the latest from the great Volker Schlondorff who has continued to make fine films with a strong political flavour since his landmark films of the 1970s—TheTin Drum, Germany in Autumn and The Lost Honour of Katerina Blum. Schlondorff’s Diplomacy, is a historical drama with Niels Arestrup set in Nazi-occupied Paris.

Checking out the acting talent is another way in to the vast array on the AFFFF program. In French Riviera during the casino wars of the 1970s, Catherine Deneuve takes part in her seventh collaboration—remember her in Thieves and My Favourite Season?—with director Andre Techine. Breathe, about adolescent friendship on the verge, directed by actor Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) will also screen.

Other French actors with international profile such as Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Jean Reno (Leon: The Professional; Ronin) and Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace; The Grand Budapest Hotel) also appear. Amalric appears in The Blue Room, adapted from Georges Simenon’s crime fiction, a film he also directed. Romain Duris appears in The New Girlfriend, a psychological drama that ventures into comedy and thriller, as one might expect from the very interesting Francois Ozon (In the House, Swimming Pool).

Yet another film about Yves Saint Laurent appears, the second of two about the grand master of style to appear in 2014, though this one, Saint Laurent, was in competition at Cannes. However, if you prefer documentary in the area of haute-couture, there’s Handmade with Love in France that explores the work and lives of artisans behind the scenes.

The options are open, as always, at the French Film Festival.

British Film Festival 2014

© Jane Freebury

No fledgling event this, even if it only began a year ago. The British Film Festival has come to town with an impressive line-up just when Canberra filmgoers thought the frenzied festival season was drawing to a close.

The inaugural BFF breezed in around this time last year and held its own. Festival publicist Bettina Richter reports that ticket sales for the event in Canberra were the best in the country. Why so, we wonder? Any tongue-in-cheek conclusions about residual affection for the old country or closet monarchists, might be hard to square with the ACT’s rousing support for a republic in the 1999 referendum. And then the French film festival tends to do very well here too. But we digress.

British cinema may translate for many punters into films with reliably solid, articulate scripts and fine character acting, with a penchant for mad-cap comedy, political thriller and grungy social realist or period drama underwritten by high production values. This may well still be true, but nowadays a British film might have a French or Cambodian-born director attached, an American or a Swedish star, an Australian narrator, or benefit from other countries pooling their funding resources and making a coproduction together. Border creep is happening everywhere and like many other national film industries around the world, the British film industry rubs shoulders with the international industry as well.

Testament of Youth, and likely to impress, is a case in point. It explores the life of the British writer Vera Brittain, whose harrowing experiences during the First World War saw her become a deeply committed pacifist. She is played by the Alicia Vikander, the radiant young Swedish actress who was in A Royal Affair, to some rapturous reviews.

American actress Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty) appears opposite Colin Farrell in the latest adaptation of the Strindberg play Miss Julie. They are directed by the grand dame of Swedish cinema, Liv Ullmann. Australian Toni Collette can be seen in the nervy role she usually aces in A Long Way Down, Pascal Chaumeil’s uncertain comedy about four people who bond after they meet by chance while attempting suicide from the same high-rise tower.

A British film that is easier to place, Mr. Turner, is a quintessentially British study in eccentricity and genius, that comes from the inimitable Mike Leigh. His portrait of the great Romantic landscape artist J. M. W. Turner with the lead role occupied by Timothy Spall is getting plaudits from the critics and has picked up a best actor gong at Cannes. Going by the trailer, Mr. Turner looks great, as so it should. While the director’s work has always observed character foible in forensic detail, with disarming decency and humour, it has most usually taken a socially realist approach. Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan story, Topsy-Turvy, took a more flamboyant turn which no doubt Mr.Turner will too.

The terrific British actor Rosamund Pike seems to be just about everywhere at the moment. For those who want to see even more, she appears alongside Billy Connolly in What We Did on Our Holiday. A Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton film that has solid comedic credentials.

For an intriguing perspective on Australia in the mid 20th century there’s the Australian-UK coproduction narrated by Bert Newton, When the Queen Came to Town, a doco of the monarch’s visit in the early 1950s. A ‘high tea’ special event will accompany one of the screenings.
Elsewhere in the program is a debut feature, Lilting, from Hong Khaoh that explores the connection between a grieving mother and a stranger (played by Ben Whishaw) who shares her grief. It has struck critics as affecting and intelligent and has picked up a cinematography award at Sundance. Another film with Sundance festival cred is God Help the Girl, winner of a special jury prize there this year.
Snow in Paradise, another first-time-director feature, premiered at Un Certain Regard in Cannes this year. It concerns a petty criminal who turns to Islam and finds peace, for a while at least.

The latest film from esteemed socialist filmmaker Ken Loach – which may be the last from the 78 year old director, but surely isn’t – is set in violent 1920s Ireland. Jimmy’s Hall also went to Cannes this year. With its particular idiosyncratic style and set piece political argument, it will strike aficionados as vintage Loach. For another perspective on Ireland’s troubles, see the debut feature from young Yann Demange, born in Paris and raised in London, set in a later convulsive decade.

Woven into the BFF program of new releases there are six superb classic titles from the swinging sixties, like Darling the film that made Julie Christie a star, A Hard Day’s Night with a cast that needs absolutely no introduction, and If…, a brilliant, chilling vision of social revolution set in an elite public school. The other three are excellent too.

A blend of quality new releases and esteemed classics worked well at last year’s festival. That was done incorporating the British Film Institute’s ‘top five’ British films of all time. It’s fascinating that the survey of 1000 industry practitioners voted three very fine films from director David Lean–Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia and Great Expectations–into the ‘top five’. Once Lean seemed to epitomise British cinema, and the fact that Hitchcock was British should not be forgotten, but it feels like Danny Boyle, Mike Leigh and Michael Winterbottom may have taken over now.

Diverging Australian cinematic futures (1991)

© Jane Freebury

Published in Australian Society magazine September 1991

The Sydney season of the 1991 Australian Film Festival opened with the striking juxtaposition of Jocelyn Moorehouse’s Proof and Rolf de Heer’s Dingo. Both nominated for best feature in the Australian Film Institute awards, they represent the wildly different directions filmmaking in this country is taking towards an uncertain future.

Proof is already well known. It opened the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes recently and has been sold extensively in Europe. An art-house success seems assured and it could well crossover to the mainstream. Dingo is the commercial vehicle made to a formula with a certain precedent — local yokel tries his luck overseas, which on this occasion is Paris, and is graciously received. As it is an international coproduction, its makers are undoubtedly expecting to find an audience in France as well.

Proof, it has been pointed out, is a European-style piece, with an inclination towards interior settings and the inner life. At its centre is the anomaly of a blind photographer (played by Hugo Weaving) whose spirit has atrophied in distrust of others. He needs to have a picture record of the world he moves in to lay claim to the perceptions which sight cannot support. What he doesn’t know is that there is someone who is taking pictures of him and covering the walls of her home with them so as to capture a presence she loves but cannot have…

Unlike the films of Paul Cox, which also have appear for the European art-house circuit, Proof has an artiness which isn’t so insistent, a certain lightness of tone and a sense of drollery which disguises the process and allows the basic contrivance to look uncontrived. The skill which Jocelyn Moorhouse invests in Proof is quite outstanding.

And on the other hand there is Dingo. Amiable enough, with Colin Friels and Helen Buday in the central roles, this film seems badly misjudged, despite the involvement of people whose work I have previously admired. De Heer and Marc Rosenberg collaborated on Incident at Raven’s Gate, a sadly underrated film.

Dingo is the story of John ‘Dingo’ Anderson, a dingo trapper who has yet to outfox a wily three-legged dog he is baiting. Husband (to Buday’s Jane) and father of daughters, he scratches away at a living in the dust of Poona Flat. Aspirations and ambitions are no burden, with the exception of one overreaching desire which he has had since he was twelve — to play trumpet with jazz musician Billy Cross, played by the enigmatic Miles Davis himself. This passion dates back to the occasion when Billy, on tour with his band, dropped out of the sky onto Poona Flat because their plane had to make a forced landing. With the entire population of the township standing agog at the runway, what else was there to do but a musical number for this improvised audience — and it was this moment which was to take root in John’s consciousness and grow into an obsession.

You might have thought that young John would want to become a pilot, considering the way the camera caresses the TNT jet along its gleaming length. Dingo is marked by rather florid camerawork: lots of crane shots, swoops, pans and 360-degree movements which seem rather ill-conceived and indulgent. The lazy curve of a languid camera movement is meant to give shape to the soundtrack and support the musical mood, but the over-developed style looks flowery. Were it not for the long sequences of jazz trumpet by Davis, or for the compositions which he wrote with Michel Legrand, the film would be as ricketty as that three-legged dingo that couldn’t be caught.

Dingo is too long, too improbable (more improbable than a blind photographer), too dependent on dusty mythology about the Australian character — and too costly. Why is there still the expectation that the big-budget production feature (co-production, vehicle for overseas actor, or whatever) will prevail, when the local low-budget production area is consistently more interesting?

Dingo was five times more expensive to make than Proof, which was made for a little over a million dollars. The government agency investment money that went into Dingo (the Film Finance Corporation’s contribution was over $3 million) could have got a cluster of films off the ground more engaging for home audiences. And the French will prefer Proof, anyway.