Director: Paul Cox
Stars: Jacqueline McKenzie, Aaron Blabey, Chris Haywood
First viewing, via SBS On Demand
With the recent passing of director Paul Cox, it seemed appropriate to track down and commemorate one of his films on Down Under Flix. A brief caveat: prior to this week’s film, 2004’s Human Touch, I’d only seen two of Cox’s other works – the arch drama Man of Flowers (1983) and the low-fi period epic Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999) – and both long ago. Suffice to say, this is something I’ll be remedying over my time on this website, but in the meantime it leaves me an ill-informed tributary. For lovely, rounded tributes to the filmmaker, see here and here.
Human Touch stars Jacqueline McKenzie as Anna, the talented lead singer in a choir that’s raising money to visit China. Anna finds a fan in Edward (Chris Haywood), a wealthy gentleman with an open marriage and artistic bent who has dedicated himself to “women, love, and the arts”. Edward pays Anna to pose for some artful nude photographs, and the film traces the ripple effects this has on their respective relationships. In particular, Anna becomes distant from her partner David (Aaron Blabey) and resistant to his touch.
Cox was on record as a Woody Allen fan and someone for whom music was paramount in the creative process, saying “Music is the basis of all creativity” (see here). Both these interests are apparent in Human Touch. Much of the film is Allen-esque: scenes unfold in long single camera setups observing and following actors through domestic spaces; the story grapples with sexual dynamics and the hairline fractures they create in the characters’ inner circles; a key plot point is an older man’s relationship with a younger woman; characters are predominantly creative types; and there’s a European sensibility to it all, including a jaunt to Europe towards film’s end. Music is also important and foregrounded, both in Paul Grabowsky’s original score and material lifted from the classical repertoire, notably Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat (used to great, haunting effect in that earlier Australian classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock). In fact, the film bespeaks Cox’s interest in art, with most major art forms accounted for in some way, including dance, photography and sculpture.
Lest it sound like Human Touch is rife with artsy fartsy pretension, it’s also threaded with a healthy working class pragmatism, mostly courtesy of Aaron Blabey’s David, that surfaces and deflates said pretensions when they start getting too much. This works in the film’s favour considering its subject matter. Last week I mentioned how measured and understated the lead actors were in Beneath Clouds, when some character beats could have lent themselves to histrionics. Similarly, with its Indecent Proposal-esque premise, Human Touch could have been a rather histrionic and pervy affair, a film that coasted on easy titillation and provocation. However, Cox keeps things tethered to earth. There are no heroes or villains here, just flawed human beings navigating their sexual preoccupations and insecurities.
I’ve liked Jacqueline McKenzie since I was a teenager watching Halifax F.P. back in 1995, and she does lovely, nuanced work here. Chris Haywood – one of Cox’s regular players and a veteran of local films ranging from Newsfront and Breaker Morant to Razorback and The Coca Cola Kid – also does solid work. Curiously, in the aforementioned Cox flick Man of Flowers, Haywood played a young artist whose partner becomes a wealthy older man’s object of desire, and here he inhabits the wealthy older man role. His 2004 equivalent is played sympathetically by Aaron Blabey with an appropriately droll, exasperated delivery.
In summary: While I’m far from an authority and a long way from doing his oeuvre justice, it’s plain to see Cox was a true independent, a director who prioritised his own interests and concerns over overtly commercial material, and in doing so helped expand the parameters and grammar of what constitutes an Australian film. Human Touch is modest in scale, textured in theme, and very human.
Next week: Kiefer Sutherland is Paul Gauguin in Paradise Found (2003). Yes, it exists, and yes, it’s Australian.