Director: Paul Cox
9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Paul Cox, a Dutch/Australian director who Roger Ebert has long championed, has made sad nostalgia his stock and trade. Two previous films of his shown at Ebertfest, A Woman’s Tale (1991) and Innocence (2002), look at the very old and reflect on the narrowing of their lives and the regrets that have accompanied their choices. Man of Flowers is another distinctive film from Cox that examines one man’s painful memories of his budding sexuality and his current battle in late middle age to reach beyond his cloistered, idealized, but dissatisfying existence.
Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye) is a very rich man who lives in a gated mansion filled, museum-/mausoleum-like, with fine art and flowers. He appears to leave his home rarely and only to perform a limited number of tasks. He plays the organ at the church across the street, goes to the flower market, takes walks in the park to gaze upon nude bronzes, posts letters daily to his dead mother, takes an art class, and visits his psychiatrist. Into this narrowly circumscribed existence are admitted a homespun philosopher of a postman, a clumsy maid, and most recently, a young girl named Lisa (Alyson Best) who we see in the opening scene leave her slum neighborhood, go with Charles to his home, and strip naked while an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor plays in the background. Her performance rouses him out of his easy chair and over to the church, where his orgasmic cacophony of organ music shakes the church walls.
Indeed, this is the only kind of voluntary orgasm Charles has ever known. Flashbacks to his childhood show his elegant mother (Hilary Kelly), a flower lover who bears a passing resemblance to Lisa, his severe father (Werner Herzog), and several sexually charged scenes in which a dour-looking young Charles (James Stratford) sees his mother naked, follows his irresistible urge to place his hand on the enormous bosom of one of his aunts, and walks closely behind another to breathe in her scent. Invariably, his explorations result in physical punishment from his father. These silent vignettes, shot in Super 8, represent dreams that help Charles guide his money-grubbing psychiatrist (Bob Ellis) in prescribing cures for his sexual inhibitions.
Lisa lives with a selfish, cocaine-addicted painter named David (Chris Haywood) who constantly pesters her for money. When she starts bringing home $100 more each Wednesday, he learns that she is stripping for Charles and starts to scheme about ways to get his hands on more. Lisa says she likes Charles, though certainly she is looking for a place to stay to get away from David. One day she shows up for their appointment with a black eye. Charles has already ceased to see her as an anonymous body upon which he can project sexual fantasies. He sees her as his little flower, crying, and “salt water is no good for flowers.”
Charles goes to David’s studio to see if he can legitimately give him money through the purchase of one of his paintings. Unfortunately for David, Charles considers his modern art coarse. Later, he admonishes Lisa that David is a much worse artist than she had led him to believe. “He can’t paint flowers.” Something else must be done to relieve Lisa of the burden of David. The film takes an unexpectedly comic turn that is as delightfully wicked as it is surprising.
Watching Charles is, at times, like watching a child. His sexual nature has been frozen in childhood. He finds sweet scents and flowers erotic. He enjoys touching bronze nudes, even tries to buy one from a very peculiar metalworker. He is advised by his psychiatrist to watch himself in the mirror and try to masturbate. He considers watching Lisa and her lesbian friend Jane (Sarah Walker) touch and kiss, out of curiosity. He’s very innocent of what intimate human contact looks like because he hasn’t seen much and never engages in it himself. Instead, his mind has turned the guilt his father made him feel into a fetish for beauty that is, nonetheless, without real human intercourse of any kind. My companions at the festival thought he was quite like the character of Chance in Being There, but I didn’t see him that way.
Charles’ innocence is not total; he is not ignorant of what sex is. If he reminded me of anyone, it was the guilt-ridden Francis from Exotica whose experience of tragedy inhibited his ability to relate normally to others. Loneliness drove both men to try to experience some contact, some warmth.
Charles, however, is a singular man among men. It is perhaps instructive to know that Lucia di Lammermoor deals with the last surviving member of a Scottish clan who lives in a lonely tower by the sea. He gains the love of a woman, the sister of his sworn enemy, and hopes to marry her to heal the rift. Alas, the plan ends in tragedy, and heaven must be the place of their union. Cox’s haunting last shot brilliantly communicates Charles’—and all men’s—essential longing.