27th 01 - 2011 | 5 comments »

Van Diemen’s Land (2009)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jonathan Auf Der Heide

By Roderick Heath

Western civilisation’s remarkable capacity for setting up hells on earth at suitably distant places from itself in the Age of Enlightenment saw the primeval landscape of Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was known until 1856, become a place synonymous with harsh extremes and brutality. There the English invaders and the aboriginals engaged in a genocidal war of possession, and some of the harshest penal colonies were erected to banish the domestic losers of the British Empire’s great age of expansion and industrialisation. Thus, the best Australian movies—as opposed to the most popular—usually have a hint of deeply uneasy existential fable to them. Van Diemen’s Land, an oddly unheralded work, is a return to subject matter for Aussie films that was rendered groanworthy by repetition in the colonial revivalism of the ’70s and ’80s: the Convict and Settlement era. But Jonathan Auf Der Heide, an actor making his feature directorial debut, chose to tell an infamous story, one that inherently resists being romanticised. Auf Der Heide expanded Van Diemen’s Land from the short film Hell’s Gate, which dealt with the story of Alexander Pearce and the seven other convicts who escaped with him from the penal settlement of Sarah’s Island, Macquarie Harbour in 1822. Pearce’s subsequent cannibalisation of several of his fellows became one of the most bloody and colourful tales in the already bloody and colourful history of that island.

Pearce’s story, which saw him nicknamed “The Pieman” in later mythology (there’s even a Pieman Creek, named after him, near which the film was shot), recently came back to attention both through Auf Der Heide’s film and the nearly simultaneous Dying Breed, which used the legend of Pearce as the background for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre knock-off. Van Diemen’s Land immediately posits itself as a meditation on the terror and beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, which is distinct from the Australian mainland in several ways: heavily forested and possessing a climate similar to Europe.

Auf Der Heide makes his models and debts, to Herzog and Malick, fairly plain early in the film, but for once, an Aussie director with an eye for artful foreign models chooses them as is appropriate to the material, and moulds them to his own purpose. His film is shot through with a deeply convincing and gruelling sense of physical detail, especially in the early scenes that concentrate, with little dialogue, on the working men, their axes hewing into wood and shoes squelching in mud, hauling great logs into the harbour. There are also notes of black wit to leaven the bloodcurdling, unblinking approach to physical violence, and a cunning approach to the characterisations of the escapees, who are introduced as the anonymous members of a labouring gang. Auf Der Heide commences with a jolt of disorientating humour, showing a huge mouth sloppily chewing on a badly cooked pie, before revealing this is actually an officer, the overseer of a detachment of convicts. It’s more than just a grim joke, though: food is the chief dramatic stake and object of power in the following narrative.

Several of the convicts are Irish, victims of imperialism in subtle and overt manners, but that’s a point Auf Der Heide avoids proselytising into the ground, as finally, their backgrounds and identities place a distant second to their immediate capacity to live and kill. That he illustrates the point indirectly by having Pearce’s voiceover meditations spoken in his native Irish Gaelic rather than in the English he needs to communicate to most of the others, and the internecine, bare tolerance of the Irish, Scots, and English members of the party, which erupts occasionally into brawling, say enough. The Gaelic also carries a strong whiff of something more primal, barely reconstructed by a modern, viciously repressive milieu: the “freedom” that the convicts give themselves, even at its direst end, is only a variation on their lives. Pearce (Oscar Redding, who cowrote the script with Auf Der Heide) is initially indistinguishable from the rest of the men detailed to fell trees at the outset. His crime, for which he was deported to the other end of the world, was the theft of three pairs of shoes—a very Jean Valjean sort of misdeed, but one Auf Der Heide doesn’t tap for any sympathy. Pearce doesn’t mention it until very late in the film, and it becomes more like the ultimate absurdity, the pretexts for which men are reduced to less than men. There’s also a dark echo to his crime, which Auf Der Heide indicates by offering shots of the shoes the men wear and that get dumped along the route: six pairs of shoes, including Pearce’s own, get him to where he finishes up, alone and depraved.

Pearce, along with Bodenham (Thomas Wright), Travers (Paul Ashcroft), Dalton (Mark Leonard Winter), Kennerly (Greg Stone), Little Brown (John Francis Howard), Greenhill (Arthur Angel) ,and Mathers (Torquil Neilson), make a break when they’re sent to a remote edge of the harbour to fell trees under the supervision of Logan (Adrian Mulraney), an infuriatingly garrulous overseer who offers pronouncements like, “There’s freedom in work!” With a mixture of bonhomie and self-satisfaction, Logan offers the crew a share of the decent meal he had partaken of the night before: none of the men take him up on it. Greenhill tackles Logan when the coast is clear, and the men strip him naked to augment their own clothing with vengeful delight. Dalton has to threaten Mathers to make him stop hitting the overseer who asks, “Where are you going? There’s nothing out there!” There is something out there, however: where the men see nothing else, they see each other, alternately as companions in freedom, competitors, enemies stranded together, and, finally, food.

Van Diemen’s Land, whilst offering information in carefully parcelled amounts, essentially reduces historical horror story to a virtually metaphysical simplicity: is it easy to reduce a man to an animal, or is it the man who is truly dangerous? Threat is inherent long before any violence makes itself plain; it’s even inherent when Kennerly says to Logan, with subtly genuine malice, that one of his fellow convicts would much rather be home than stuck with the likes of him. Kennerly and the injured Brown eventually split off from the party; having witnessed Dalton’s killing and deserting to try to make it back to their jailers before they starve, they sense that either way lies probable death. Auf Der Heide leaves the fate of the two men unstated (they did actually make it back to the penal settlement, only to both die in hospital). Dalton seems to be the practical leader at first in restraining Mathers and directing the party. Kennerly is the dominant personality at first, with his earthy humour and sexual anecdotes, but his style soon proves abrasive when he mocks one of his fellows for trying to hunt an animal (“You’ll never catch it! Them imaginations are too fast!”) and starts a brawl amongst the convicts.

The initial plan, to try and make it to present-day Hobart and catch a ship away, gives way to a numbing, physically and spiritually corrosive pounding through bushland that’s seemingly as inhospitable as any desert. The men know far too little about survival in such circumstances to live off the land, and as the ructions deepen and the certainty that starvation looms for all of them, this near-inevitably translates into homicide. Dalton is the first victim, assaulted by Mathers and Travers and strung up to bleed to death. The axe that the convicts brought with them from their tree-felling labour becomes the totem passed between them, a tool of power and murder that some wield more easily than others. Pearce, in fact, initially stands back from the killing, and only develops and comes into specific focus as exceptional because in his quiet, reflective, foreboding nature lies a nihilistic potential to reject humanity with a completeness that eludes his other, more volatile and reactive fellows. “God can keep his heaven,” Pearce decides towards the end, “I am blood.”

Unlike some other recent attempts to create a more probing, unremitting approach to the often awesome violence involved in the country’s first hundred years of white settlement, like Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2002) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), Van Diemen’s Land presents violence free of apologia and Grand Guignol. Particularly in Pearce’s murder of Travers, Auf Der Heide presents the killing in all its unvarnished shades of feeling and physical difficulty, whilst managing to avoid being too theatrically literal (dismemberments are all offscreen). There’s a confrontational, questioning quality to this film that’s all too rare to Aussie films, apart from odd examples and the better works of Rolf de Heer.

Early in the film, the convicts and their overseer travel upriver, tracing the edges of the bristling, choking landscape into which they’ll soon desperately plunge. Later interludes where the camera drifts through the mist-clogged, darkly thatched landscape, Pearce’s sonorous Gaelic epigrams suggesting the lurking psychic unease, allow Auf Der Heide to have his cake and eat it in twinning the deeply corporeal, immediate problems facing the characters and the almost cosmic hopelessness of a situation where only bestial reversion can offer survival. There’s an eerie moment later in the film in which Pearce and his last fellow survivor, Greenhill, stumble out of the forest into a grassy plain where soft rain falls. You can almost feel the psychic relief, even if it’s only temporary, before Pearce has an hallucination of Dalton’s shade, accompanied by Dalton’s “Cooee” cry, as if that’s only just echoed back to him. Earlier, Bodenham is killed when his fellows realise that he’s completely left them behind, psychically, staring distractedly into the trees, so that Mathers, after a long pause, lifts the axe and swats him on the head.

The last section of the film plays out like Treasure of the Sierra Madre stripped of all pretences of motivation other than naked survival and hate. Travers mocks Pearce, whose first actual killing is of Mathers when Mathers tries to convince him to take care of Greenhill, because Pearce committed his killing without any hypocrisy but only in recognising who the weakest member was. But Travers is bitten by a snake, and after days of helping him limp through the forest, Greenhill, having shepherded him to the point where he can’t move anymore, carefully leaves the axe propped for Pearce to take up to finish him off. But Pearce isn’t in the least bit merciful to Travers after his mockery, and with the words, “Your soul to the Devil!”, rather than quickly kill him, chokes him to death with the axe-head. Travers and Pearce then have nothing to do except wait for the time when one will kill the other. Pearce fools Travers into showing his hand first, and when Travers awakens the next morning with Pearce standing over him, he can only wait for the blow to fall and then eventually demand, “Get on with it.” Pearce’s final pronouncement on the subject, that he sees God as dancing over humans with an axe, is the end of his progression back into a heart of darkness as he chew on Greenhills’s flesh. Auf Der Heide smartly ends the film there, as there’s nothing more to be said apart from a written postscript that tells of Pearce’s recapture, the disbelief of his confession by the authorities, and the bleak postscript in which he escaped again and needlessly killed another convict in order to eat him.

The juxtaposition of cancer-like neurosis blooming in the primordial forest and intense mortal and spiritual straits is a contrast more familiar from classic New Zealand than Australian cinema (Utu, Vigil, The Piano), though Van Diemen’s Land certainly expands the contemplation of the fearsome Aussie landscape seen in films like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock. That Auf Der Heide’s debts are apparent and yet that his film still never feels laboured is an admirable achievement, and whilst Van Diemen’s Land would undoubtedly be a slightly too tough and taciturn experience for many audiences, it is purposefully so. In fact it’s as marvellously coherent, in the fullest sense of that word, as any Australian film I’ve seen in at least the past two decades, all the more admirable for choosing its firm focus and then taking no short cuts. It is, of course, inherent in the story, but Auf Der Heide nonetheless manages to communicate the way in which landscape and occurrence are linked in a much more profound way than, say, Philip Noyce’s similarly odyssean Rabbit-Proof Fence. Peculiarly enough for a film made by an actor, there’s an incredible avoidance of rhetorical showboating and anything but the most necessary emoting and semaphoring of internal meaning, making the collective acting all the more impressive. More than any other recent work I’ve seen, Van Diemen’s Land suggests the recent upturn in Australian cinematic culture might be more than skin deep.


24th 10 - 2010 | 7 comments »

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Director/Screenwriter: Claire Denis

By Roderick Heath

Claire Denis is one of the best directors working today, a maker of films that are poetic and cryptic, humanist and yet lacking illusions, fascinatingly artful and creatively evasive. Trouble Every Day is both a key Denis film and her most atypical work: the ugly violence and horror-movie motifs she explored in her much-discussed 2001 film stand in contrast to the fonder instincts she displayed in her other notable films of the decade, including Friday Night (2003) and 35 Rhums (2009). Some feel Trouble Every Day was the film that gave new impetus to the visceral, attention-seeking, but largely silly wave of extreme Euro-horror. But Trouble Every Day takes its place in Denis’ canon with ease, not only in style, and in the multifarious ways it explore human intimacy, but also in the extension of the notion presented more tangentially in Beau Travail (1999) of the human body as both an object of fetish and warfare.

In terms of pure story breakdown, Trouble Every Day toys with the essential ideas of many late ’70s European horror films, like the works of Lucio Fulci and Ruggiero Deodato, in which interloping white westerners who have travelled into foreign lands return infected with a taint that drives them to nihilistic violence. The literal plot is, however, only presented in tangential, hinted terms, the key occurrences having occurred long in the past, and the familiar patterns of those model stories are partly inverted. Trouble Every Day, both more exactingly grotesque and personal than many undeniably but often juvenilely brutal films, is also far more attuned to its protagonists as physical and moral entities.

Denis commences with a series of what appear barely connected events that all contain the threat of horror. A young woman (Béatrice Dalle), wandering the desolate outer suburbs of Paris, eyes a truck driver with evident sexual interest, and he responds; later, a motorcyclist (Alex Descas), coming across the man’s parked truck and the woman’s van, penetrates the vacant lot nearby and finds the man’s mangled body and the woman dissociated and caked in blood. Simultaneously, a newly married American couple, Dr. Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) and his bride June (Tricia Vessey), arrive in Paris for their honeymoon, but only after Shane has locked himself in the plane toilet and had a panic attack whilst conjuring visions of June drenched in blood.

Denis’ peculiar, eliding film grammar, alive to the minatory pleasures found in the focused tranquility of a commute home from work, or the cigarette break when at one’s job, meshes here with her bizarre story to create a rare texture. The long prologue, consisting of decorous dissolves between shots of Paris at sunset, romantic and yet dark, sonorous, to the music of The Tindersticks (their soundtrack is generally admired, and rightly so), remakes Denis’ Paris as a depopulated, drowsy, faintly forbidding place, and much of the rest of the film is shot either early in the morning or in the late evening. Her purpose, to both evoke and undermine the romantic glaze of the city as one for lovers, is slow to congeal, but ineffaceable once done. Gallo’s own debt to what he learnt (or mislearnt, as some might have it, from Denis) for his own The Brown Bunny (2003) is evident in how he tried to counterpoint textures of grief, expressed in lingering images of ceaseless travel, with grossly intimate physicality and brutal discoveries.

Denis explores bodies with the eye of an astronomer craning closer and closer to see all the multitudinous shapes and intricacies charged with mystery and beauty. Here it contributes to the slow conditioning of a sense of uneasy eroticism, her camera playing over the minute pores of Vessey’s skin as Shane suffers from initially inexplicable, repeated spasms of anxiety as he fondles himself, pops mysterious pills, and avoids intimate contact with June: at one point he locks himself in the hotel bathroom to masturbate rather than conclude sex with her, to June’s pleading, despairing reaction to being locked out.

Slowly, the facts begin to solidify. The young woman glimpsed at the start is Coré Semenau, and the motorcyclist was her husband Leó, a doctor and former research fellow of Shane’s. Leó has dropped out of sight in the scientific research community because of his wife’s mysterious illness. Shane visits a lab where Leo used to work in attempting to find them, and he meets the sceptical reaction of one of Leó’s former colleagues about a theory of his that Shane is interested in following up on. A lab assistant, Malécot (Hélène Lapiower), contacts Shane later and gives him a lead as to where Leó and Coré have retreated. It is a large, old house that’s been fortified by Leó to try to keep Coré locked up, but every now and then she escapes, and he has to track her down, inevitably finding her next to another mangled body. In one of several hazy flashbacks that punctuate the film, Shane recalls an icy conversation with a fellow scientist, Friessen (Marilu Marini), in which he explained how he and Coré had an affair when they accompanied Leó on a jungle research expedition, and Shane also stole some of Leó’s data to advance his own career. But the darker secret soon reveals itself when two young men (Nicolas Duvauchelle and Raphaël Neal) break into Leó and Coré’s house, believing that because of the security it must contain all sorts of riches. One of them instead finds Coré, making a hot and sultry come-on, and he joins her in bed, where she commences to eat him. And that’s not a euphemism.

Denis’ films are often about patiently withheld secrets and veiled truths of great importance. Here, the hidden crux is monstrous. Coré and Shane both have a disease that drives them to acts of cannibalistic sadism when they engage in intercourse: desire portrayed as a literally carnivorous act. Shane’s keeping his disease partly controlled, but in his new, frustrating marriage he’s clearly being driven closer and closer to the edge of total enslavement to the disease that Coré is gripped by. The story evokes some classic metaphors and images of sexual anxiety, particularly in the scenes of the young men trying to penetrate that mysterious house and gain access to the woman who is raw passion personified, and, in the mythic tradition, the price to be paid for this transgression is not small. In its own hypermodernist way, then, Trouble Every Day is about taboos that are ancient and figurations that are primal. When the young man who will be Core’s last victim finds her eyeing him from behind wooden slats, he’s violating a sanctum, a common fairytale motif, and unleashing the contained yet always straining feminine libido (the similarity to Michael Cacoyannis’ vision of Helen contained in The Trojan Women leapt out at me).

The subsequent visions of Dalle—large teeth dripping gore like one of H. R. Giger’s aliens, laughing and toying with her prey who’s unable to fight off her supercharged strength, as she bites off his lips and slides fingers under flaps of skin, all the while giggling like a child—aren’t easily forgotten. Perhaps even more affecting, however, is the agonised spectacle of the perpetually unspeaking Leó trying to take care of his wife, who he loves in a deep, easily apparent fashion, in spite of all good sense, and Shane’s increasingly frail efforts to keep his wife from becoming the object of his own latent predatory tendencies. Questions of how people use each other, laden sometimes with both hate and love, bubble throughout. Denis’ taciturnity as an artist is actually one of her great strengths, and that’s readily apparent here as her galvanising efforts escape the facile inchoate provocations of Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier in trying to keep pace. Shane’s hunger for money (which he confesses through silence to Friessen) and for Coré, both of which meant fucking over (Afro-French) Leó, condenses forms of betrayal and exploitation, but Denis leaves this as a suggestive aspect of her drama. Simultaneously, whilst Denis is undoubtedly making an excellent horror movie, her approach both teases apart the fibre of old-fashioned mad scientist and vampire movies and restores and emphasises sensitivities usually excised from the gruelling modern genre. Shane’s mixture of unrequited passion and intense guilt is part and parcel with his disease, gnawing him from the inside out as much as the disease makes him and Coré gnaw on other people, and Shane’s killing of Coré, after she’s set fire to her house is part mercy killing, part self-defence, and part last-ditch effort to kill the animal in himself she embodies.

Denis’s fascination for layers of society interacting half-consciously in modern metropolitan life sees her segue now and then from the main drama to follow the maids in Shane and June’s hotel, women of various ages and states of being, and especially pretty, young Christelle (Florence Loiret-Caille). Denis follows Christelle as she’s dropped off in the morning by her boyfriend, pinches unused perks left in hotel rooms, and sprawls on the Browns’ bed when they’re both out for a cigarette. She catches Shane’s eye, and he catches her, so that when Shane tracks her into the maids’ locker room, the thrill of a quickie is nigh, but this turns inevitably into another grotesque assault, punctuated by the nightmarish image of Shane’s blood-smeared face rising from between Christelle’s legs and then kissing her, forcing her to taste her own blood. It’s as genuinely horrific a scene as cinema can offer, but one that, in ironically treading close to pornographic detail, avoids the pornographic thrill of a lot of modern horror movies, in which sexualised violence is presented through conveniently shallow characterisations. The idea that true terror lies at the end of a simple workday shift is all too resonant. Denis tries to encompass her bottom-of-the-barrel fantasia in just such a way that makes every cruel and kind act count, and in this way, Denis both heightens and reinforces the emotions that underpin many of her other films; but also the threat of damage individuals can do to each other hovers in those other works and explodes here.

Denis’ style might have felt a bit abstract, some of the power in her approach left untapped in trying just a little too hard to avoid the usual, if it wasn’t for the offhand wonder of moments like that in which June automatically helps Christelle make the bed in June and Shane’s hotel room, a telling moment of interaction; June’s not someone who’s used to or comfortable with being waited on, and also not one to let her bridal couch be usurped by anyone else, a point that has dreadful ramifications. Or the heartbreaking tenderness with which Leó cleans Coré after one of her murders. Or the polite yet remorseless way Friessen orders Shane out of her lab. Or the dark suggestiveness of Leó, and the audience, knowing what he’ll find when he spies blood dripping from stalks of grass in another of the vacant lots Coré uses as her killing ground. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Shane and June visit Notre Dame, Shane acting like the monster of traditional movieland as an overture to a magically romantic moment high in the towers, closing in for the most tender of clinches as the June’s headscarf blows away, a moment that renders her confused and despairing later reaction to Shane’s retreat to the bathroom to jerk off all the more palpable. In offering a melodramatic set-up, Denis doesn’t quite deal with how this upsets the usual balance of her style, and outsized horror grazes against fragile humanity, contributing to the finally icy, alien chill the film gives off. I suppose that’s a comparatively small complaint, considering the undeniably powerful and quite brilliant film Denis wrought.

The effect of Trouble Every Day sinks deep into the bones and doesn’t let go for hours after the chillingly curt coda. Denis manages to conjure what is at once a psychologically, physically, and metaphorically immediate sense of hell being other people.


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