Melanie (Rachael Blake) is single and looking, like her friends. One night at the pub, a few drinks later, she goes off with a handsome man (Sam Neill), another possible Mr Right. He leads her to his boat and takes her on a mysterious trip to his remote and wild island home, but the romantic surface is shattered when she realises he is keeping her prisoner, like a man obsessed. Violent and dramatic events leave them both the worse for wear, and Melanie is confused about her feelings for this complicated man. When a few days later her one-time (as in one night) lover Bill (Joel Tobeck) turns up unexpectedly, she has a lot of explaining to do – some of which she does with a shovel.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
For all our efforts to keep the synopsis vague, you will no doubt pick up more of the plot details elsewhere. Don’t. This is an infuriatingly difficult film to review, because to provide a reasoned window to it, a reviewer has to reveal elements that are really best revealed as you watch the film, developing your own micro-responses to each scene, and drawing your own conclusions. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers and start with commending the film’s cinematic virtues, from Allun Bollinger’s wonderful cinematography to the terrific soundtrack (and Plan 9’s great original work), through the production and costume design. The wild South Island settings in New Zealand are a surefire travel winner too, but note that this was shot in the relatively benign months of the year. Performances are, as expected, outstanding; Sam Neill really nails his character as the ‘perfect stranger’ - especially in the one short but crucial scene where he has to make us believe he can be irrational, perhaps psychotically injured. Rachael Blake is sensational in a difficult, complex role – she’s really the one who’s been damaged.
The excellent mise en scene and the story’s narrow focus on the two central characters combine to give Perfect Strangers extra edge. Reminiscent at first of themes explored in The Collector (1965), Perfect Strangers changes gears to become a psycho-thriller and then again to a fully fledged, psyched out fantasy. You have to be patient with this film until the very end to unlock its secret. On the way, it upends the romantic notion of being whisked off by the perfect stranger. Until then, I found myself a trifle irritated by a few small things: cinematic simplifications (cutting away to not reveal how it’s done) of things like a woman manoeuvring a man’s inert body, or the after effects of certain acts of violence. (We see a pool of blood spreading from the direction of a body assumed wounded, but there is no wound seen when we see the subject…) It is only in the final scene that these apparent oversights fall into place as the subtle hints to the filmmaker’s subtle intentions. It’ll be hard to market, but it’s a sure conversation starter. And one thing is undeniable: it is the work of a genuine filmmaking talent, who has something important to say.
Review by Louise Keller:
A challenging and intriguing film that never lets you off the hook until the very last frame, Perfect Strangers is for those who like their love stories wild and way off centre. While at times the storyline veers dangerously to the edge of credibility, the film never loses its appeal and we are never sure what is going to happen next. Written, produced and directed by award-winning New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston, the film is superbly shot and produced and its haunting music score is an integral part of its fabric. The complexity of the script demands much from the very small cast: Sam Neill and Rachel Blake are superb, offering myriads of colours from a never-ending palette.
The blend of reality, fantasy, adventure and romance is a beguiling one, and the fact that Melanie’s protagonist is such a down to earth, no-nonsense type, compounds the impact of the events. When Melanie meets the stranger in the bar, after a long day’s work, there’s something different about him from the other men she meets. He lights her cigarette, their eyes meet, and when he answers ‘Italy’ to her question about where his shoes come from, as they dance, we can sense the appeal immediately. ‘Your place or mine?’ he asks; ‘Yours – I’ve been to mine,’ she answers, quick as a flash. But her elation soon turns to terror as darkness, claustrophobia and the incessant sound of water pummels her brain. Echoing themes from John Fowles’ The Collector, Melanie realises she is an object of desire to her captor, and the combination of romantic allure with forceful coercion is frightening and bizarre, especially given their isolated location.
Wonderfully incongruous images capture our imagination. Like the scene when Melanie is immersed in a very full bath surrounded by white burning candles, while the stranger stands in the kitchen next door chopping off the head of the chicken they are about to eat for dinner. Clothes are laid out for her – a silk camisole, a black dress and pearls – and he has poetry and promises as his offering, rejecting sexual advances until his love is reciprocated. New Zealand’s wild West Coast makes a perfect setting, with its stony beaches, jagged rocks and stormy grey waves: the location moans and groans, just like the characters. I like the inventive costumes, which utilise every-day clothing to suit the circumstances. As the plot thickens and events become more and more chilling (literally), the relationship between the characters takes an unexpected turn. A chilling story about obsession, Perfect Strangers puts a dent in the mould of fairy tale romance by allowing the prey to become the hunter: the ingredients of love and fear are roughly stirred to deliver a magical combo.
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SAM NEILL INTERVIEW
RACHAEL BLAKE INTERVIEW
GAYLENE PRESTON INTERVIEW
Interviews by Andrew L. Urban
PERFECT STRANGERS (M)
CAST: Sam Neill, Rachael Blake, Joel Tobeck, Robyn Malcolm, Madeleine Sami, Paul Glover, Jed Brophy
PRODUCER: Gaylene Preston, Robin Laing
DIRECTOR: Gaylene Preston
SCRIPT: Gaylene Preston
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Alun Bollinger
EDITOR: John Gilbert
MUSIC: Plan 9
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Joe Bleakley
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 9, 2003
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: April 28, 2004