Director: Scott Murray
Stars: Katia Caballero, Keith Smith
First viewing, via VHS
Scott Murray is one of the premier commentators on Australian cinema. He’s best known as editor and contributor to Cinema Papers and Senses of Cinema, as well as for editing, authoring, and contributing to various volumes on Australian film, including one particularly indispensable resource for my work on Down Under Flix, Australian Film 1978–1994. In the 1980s, Murray directed the film Beyond Innocence, also known as Devil in the Flesh. It was both his theatrical feature debut and swansong, though he’d later helm a music documentary, Massenet: His Life and Music.
Beyond Innocence, adapted from a 1923 novel by French author Raymond Radiguet, transposes the action of its source text to the Victorian countryside during World War II. Marthe (Katia Caballero) is a young artist whose husband is a Prisoner of War overseas. Paul (Keith Smith) is a high school student on the verge of adulthood. An attraction develops between Marthe and Paul and they embark on an affair, skirting scandal and social ostracization in the process.
Beyond Innocence feels quite anomalous in the Australian film canon. Many of the directors who emerged during the previous decade’s Australian New Wave looked to European art-house and British heritage films for cinematic touchstones, yet Beyond Innocence feels thoroughly European in its sensibilities; where local environments and vernacular and accents still cut through the lacy veils of Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career, little of that is evident in Murray’s film. This is partly attributable to the film’s French source text, but also direction and performance. Even the film’s setting and scenery – the film was shot around Central Victoria, including Bendigo, Castlemaine, and also Melbourne – at times look and feel more European than Australian, suggesting immigrants and those dislocated by war have recreated their Old Worlds in this New World.
Murray elicits strong performances from Caballero and Smith (who, in the interest of disclosure, I should point out is a friend). At film’s start, Paul stands at a pivotal juncture: no longer a boy, not quite a man. The opening scene exemplifies this: Paul’s tagging along with his parents to visit their friends and hovers on the fringe of the adult conversation, then gets sent away to kick a ball around with the host’s younger child. Smith nicely essays Paul’s rite of passage into adulthood through his relationship with Martha, and Caballero is equally good in her role, conveying a mix of strength and vulnerability.
Critic David Stratton called Beyond Innocence “one of the few genuinely erotic films made in the Australia in the 80s” (The Avocado Plantation, p. 185), and the film’s poster (see above) and titles (both of them) sold the sauce. However, there are no Bernardo Bertolucci or, worse, Joe Eszterhas-style excesses here; the romance between the protagonists feels authentic, tactile, and tastefully handled. I’ve spoken before of the pragmatism and eschewing of surplus melodrama typical of many Australian dramas (see here and here), which critic Adrian Martin has characterized as Australian cinema’s “chronic understatement” (see here). I get Martin’s sentiment, but prefer to see this tendency as a virtue rather than a weakness. Beyond Innocence reflects this approach in its execution and resolution. The subject matter, onscreen incidents, and interpersonal conflicts in the film would likely have been milked for melodrama in other cases, but there’s something almost matter of fact about their treatment here. Paul and Marthe have their affair, experience their passion, but at film’s end pragmatism parts them, life goes on, and nobody’s irrevocably broken.
Like Resistance, reviewed earlier this year, Beyond Innocence is a difficult film to locate. It screened at the Cannes Film Festival but its theatrical release was delayed and fleeting, and the film is currently unavailable on DVD, Blu-ray, or any streaming media. I bought a VHS copy of the film a while back via Amazon – at some expense – and wasn’t even sure I’d be getting the right film: the product details on Amazon list a very different cast and director, and the lone customer review complained they received the wrong film (thankfully, I received the right one). It’s a shame that Beyond Innocence has fallen into neglect. It’s a very fine film – exactly the sort of forgotten film Down Under Flix exists to highlight – and I hope at some point the film is rediscovered, re-released, and enjoys a deserved autumn.
Next time: Two very different youth-centred flicks, both dramatically and aesthetically: The Year My Voice Broke (1987) and Stanley’s Mouth (2015).