Director: Gillian Armstrong
Stars: Lisa Harrow, Kerry Fox, Miranda Otto, Bruno Ganz, Bill Hunter
First viewing, via SBS on Demand
Twelve years before he acted out the last days of Adolf Hitler in Downfall, Bruno Ganz acted in The Last Days of Chez Nous. And now that low-hanging fruit is out of the way, let’s get on with the review…
In my Radiance review, I lamented the small percentage of women directors in the Australian film industry. Unbeknownst to me, this coincided with the announcement of a great new Screen Australia initiative, Gender Matters: Brilliant Stories and Brilliant Careers, to help fund more female-driven projects. The use of “Brilliant Careers” in the title reflects the continued relevance of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career to Australian women’s stories on film, as well as Armstrong’s importance as the country’s first major female director. Ever since that film’s success launched her own brilliant career (not to mention Judy Davis’), Armstrong has alternated between local productions (Starstruck, High Tide) and Hollywood fare (Mrs Soffel, Little Women) and found success in both industries. The Last Days of Chez Nous is one of her key Australian works.
Like the aforementioned Radiance, Chez Nous is a film about three women from different generations under one roof, though here it is not an absent mother but a philandering husband who shapes the dramatic trajectory of the story. Beth (Lisa Harrow) is the matriarch of the household, by biology as well as circumstance: her daughter Annie (Miranda Otto) is in her final stretch of high school, while her immature younger sister Vicki (Kerry Fox) returns home from overseas travel, pregnant and without job prospects. Beth is also in a relationship with JP (Bruno Ganz), who she married to help bolster his permanent residency application. Whilst their home is outwardly vibrant and lively, discontent brews beneath the surface: JP feels neglected, Vicki is idle and directionless, and Beth struggles with her marriage of convenience and in her dealings with her father (Bill Hunter). Matters escalate when JP and Vicki embark on an affair.
There’s a nice symmetry to the fact that this film, focused heavily as it is on three women at different junctures in their lives, was also steered behind the scenes by three notable female creators. In addition to Armstrong directing, the film was produced by veteran producer Jan Chapman (whose credits include The Piano, Love Serenade, Lantana, and more recently The Babadook and The Daughter) and boasts an original script by Helen Garner. Garner has written only three screenplays in her long and prolific writing career (her first was co-scripting the 1982 adaptation of her novel Monkey Grip) and it’s a pity: Chez Nous’ script is a textured, witty meditation on relationships, family, mortality, identity, and womanhood.
Like Human Touch, reviewed a few weeks ago, there’s also a healthy strain of human pragmatism in a story that could have veered into easy histrionics. While there are exceptions, that pragmatic attitude shorn of surplus melodrama does seem the norm in a lot of Australian dramas: it’s what separates a flick like Caddie from, say, Stella or Diary of a Mad Black Woman, to name two random American films that explore similar terrain. Where the resolution of Chez Nous’ unfortunate love triangle could have been excessively melodramatic, it is handled with grace and thoughtfulness.
Armstrong’s direction throughout is neutral and unflashy, giving Garner’s script and the performers room to breathe (see Starstruck, to be reviewed in a fortnight’s time, to see Armstrong working in a more overt style). The director has played a pivotal role in the careers of several local actresses (e.g. Judy Davis, Cate Blanchett) and here elicits great work from her leads. Harrow’s character is multi-faceted and at times contradictory – a warm mother and sister, a distant and independent partner, a needy and vulnerable daughter – as befitting most human beings but not necessarily most screen characters. All these layers cohere nicely in Harrow’s performance. I’m a long-time Kerry Fox fan (Shallow Grave forever!) and her work is equally strong and multi-faceted, with a façade of brash and bravado disguising a deeper well of sadness and vulnerability. While it’s reductive to tether a filmmaker’s later work to the preoccupations of their earlier films, My Brilliant Career’s shadow looms large over Armstrong’s filmography. Consequently, it’s tempting to read Beth and Vicki as beneficiaries of the trails blazed by women like Career’s Sybylla at the start of the twentieth century – both women are afforded the independence and autonomy that Sybylla craved and toiled for – as well as inheritors of a new set of challenges at century’s end. Beth has both career and marriage, but struggles with the latter; Vicki can be a single parent but is reluctant, and has career opportunities but lacks drive; and both women cannot compartmentalize the “love” issue as easily as Sybylla did.
Elsewhere in the cast, Miranda Otto – super young but already a veteran – gives a fun and spirited performance as the youngest of the family, while Bill Hunter does that cantankerous patriarch thing he did so well in the 1990s (see also Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding). And while I seized upon the low-hanging fruit of Bruno Ganz’s famous and endlessly memed (and, it should be said, very striking) performance as Hitler in 2004’s Downfall at the start of this review, he makes for a classy addition to the Australian ensemble cast, giving a sympathetic performance as a character culturally displaced and at an emotional impasse.
In summary: A thoughtful, textured ensemble drama from three of Australia’s premier women creators.
Next week: 1987’s sci-fi cheddar The Time Guardian.