This year’s Festival looks very attractive indeed, with a good balance between
commercially viable art house films that have done well overseas at festivals and the box
office, and genuinely provocative, interesting new films which take risks and have edge.
Best of all, this year’s Festival begins and ends with Australian films, and includes
an Australian Showcase that demonstrates that Oz films are still on a roll.
The Opening Night film is Craig Monahan’s debut feature The Interview, a stylish,
well-made film with a great deal of depth beneath its minimalist exterior. This is due to
the integrity and skill of the script, written by Monahan with Gordon Davie, and the
actors Hugo Weaving and Tony Martin.
Radiance, which is the Closing Night film at the Melbourne Festival, was one of the
first films to command attention in the Cannes marketplace. Directed by Aboriginal
filmmaker Rachel Perkins, the screenplay was written by Louis Nowra, and tells the story
of three young indigenous women – an opera singer, a nurse, and a good time girl who
reunite for their mother’s funeral. In the space of 24 hours, they begin to uncover
Head On, the first feature of Ana Kokkinos (Only the Brave), is another Australian film
where the action is concentrated within 24 hours. Adapted by Kokkinos from Christos
Tsiolka’s novel Loaded, Head On premiered in Directors Fortnight at Cannes, where it
In a dynamic Brandoesque performance, Alex Dimitriades plays Ari, a young Greek man in
revolt against the homophobia of Melbourne’s Greek community. Kokkinos is courageous
in her choice of theme: sex, drugs, and the unwillingness of the Greek community to
tolerate deviations from the norm. These generate power, and make the film interesting.
Kokkinos is fast emerging as our boldest talent, capable of giving Australian cinema what
it has so far lacked, a critique of the human condition, seen through distinctly
Similarly brave is Rolf de Heer’s powerful Dance Me to My Song, the story of a
young woman’s unstoppable desire to engage with the world. Heather Rose, who is
severely handicapped, co-wrote the script with de Heer, and acts the part of Julia, a
cerebral palsy sufferer who competes with her neurotic, abusive carer (Joey Kennedy), for
the love of a good man (John Brumpton).
The acting is first rate in this extraordinary film. Rose and de Heer force the
audience to confront their own prejudices and squeamishness about crippled bodies, and the
way we turn our eyes from handicapped people, denying them humanity. Dance Me to My Song
allows the audience to transcend prejudice, celebrate moral courage, and see the person
within. Only de Heer, perhaps, has the talent and courage to make such a sensitive subject
Other Australian features screening include Nadia Tess’s Amy, starring Rachel
Griffiths and Ben Mendelsohn, John Ruane’s Dead Letter Office, with Miranda Otto,
James Bogle’s In the Winter Dark, starring Brenda Blethyn (Secrets and Lies) and Ray
Barratt, the Director’s Cut of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the
world premiere of Jon Hewitt’s fast and furious ‘underground’ movie
On the international front, one of the Festival’s most interesting films is Thomas
Vinterberg’s The Celebration. The story takes place in a country house where the 60th
birthday of patriarch Helge Klingenfelt (Henning Moritzen) is about to be celebrated by a
large gathering of family and friends. As the three children arrive, it soon becomes
apparent that this is to be no ordinary celebration, but the occasion for an emotional
bloodletting, that uncovers a not altogether surprising family secret.
Vinterberg made the film according to the rules of Dogme 95, a collective of four young
Danish directors that includes Lars von Trier in 1995, who came together with the
intention of ‘purging’ cinema and liberating it through the imposition of
constraints. Their manifesto (‘Vow of Chastity’) includes the promise to only
use hand held cameras, to shoot only on location, to film only in colour, not to use
incidental music, use no special effects or extra lighting, avoid genres, and not import
murder or guns into the film. The issuing of certificates to this effect is only partly
tongue in cheek. The real intention is to push forward the frontiers for filmmaking by
strictures that can release their creativity.
The result is not as startling in The Celebration as it is in von Trier’s The
Idiots (not available for the Festival), but it is powerful and distinctive nonetheless.
From Austria comes Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a deeply unsettling film that
asks why we are so passive in the face of rising violence in films and in society. Haneke
confronts his audience with the reality of violence, by making his art so psychologically
real and emotionally chilling that his audience is unable to escape. By the sudden
intrusion of a technical trick, the director makes it clear that the spectator of
violence, like the victim of violence (they are one and the same in Haneke’s
collapsed universe), can reverse the action and strike back.
PALME D'OR WINNERS
Fest-goers will also have the chance to see the two films that jointly won the Cannes
Palme d’Or in 1997. In these days of shrinking audiences for foreign language
‘product’, many films that are perceived as not having ‘crossover’
potential fail to be granted even short seasons in the cinema. Hence the importance of
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has a dedicated following in Australia, and his
earlier films And Life Goes On… and Through the Olive Trees have been shown on SBS.
His Taste of Cherry follows the desperate search of a man to find someone to bury him
after he has committed suicide (prohibited in Islam). A deceptively simple story, Taste of
Cherry unspools slowly, and asks the viewer to surrender to its many levels of meaning. It
is a masterpiece of understated beauty, which shows a profound understanding of the value
of life, and needs of the human soul.
Equally profound and affecting is Shohei Imamura’s The Eel (Unagai), the story of
a man released from prison for murdering his wife, who is freed from loneliness through
his sympathy for an eel, and love of a woman. The seriousness of Imamura’s theme is
leavened by the veteran Japanese director’s wry humour and charm.
Postman Blues is the second film of Sabu, one of an impressive new generation of
Japanese directors. The story centres around Sawaki, a young post-man living a dull and
monotonous existence, whose life changes dramatically when he runs into an old friend who
has just joined the Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia), and falls in love with a young woman
dying of cancer. Sabu’s entertaining farce, which careers wildly through a variety of
spoofs and genres, is also a biting critique of social alientation in post-modern Japan.
Other features highly recommended are Roberta Torre’s Tano di Morire, a hugely
amusing, inventive musical about the Mafia, performed entirely by amateur actors; Hal
Hartley’s Henry Fool, his best film since Trust, which has a tremendous script and
cast; and Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, a sophisticated, sexy tale of photography and
lesbian love, which boasts stunning performances from Ally Sheedy and Australia’s
Radha Mitchell (Love and Other Catastrophes).
As always, the Festival is strong on feature length documentaries. Simcha
Jacobovici’s Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream, is a fascinating and
skilled translation to the screen of Neal Gabler’s thesis (outlined in An Empire of
Their Own), that the Jews created not just Hollywood but the American Dream.
Another revelatory documentary is Niek Koppen’s The Hunt, which takes an inside
look at fox hunting in England. This Dutch film contains several scenes which will sicken
animal-lovers, but it has the advantage of laying bare the mysteries that have surrounded
this sport since it was begun in the mid-eighteenth century.
The Melbourne Film Festival is screening more than 200 films this year, culled from 38
countries and numerous festivals. About half that number are features, the rest
documentaries and short films. There are some tantalising segments this year: Kiss Me
Deadly, a retrospective of five American film noirs, Pump Up the Volume, a spin-off from
last year’s successful jazz spotlight, Animagic, which showcases animated features
and shorts, Sushi and Switchblade, a selection of Hong Kong gangster movies, and East of
Broadway, films which reflect the revival of the musical.
There are forums and discussions too. Of great interest to movie buffs will be the
Third Annual Ivan Hutchinson Lecture, presented by MIFF in association with the Melbourne
Film Critics Forum. The lecture this year will be given by David Stratton, author, critic,
and broadcaster, best known by many as co-presenter of The Movie Show on SBS. His
wide-ranging talk will be a walk through a life dedicated to communicating the pleasure of
This article also appears in The Melburnian