One of the things that immediately gives away mediocre Australian films is their ill-chosen titles. Irresistible: a snappy, intriguing hook in the vein of Derailed or Malicious. But not far into the movie, you cannot help wondering who or what is meant to be irresistible in this story. Is it the foxy young Mara (Emily Blunt), the new assistant to Craig (Sam Neill) who appears to have a strange obsession with his wife, Sophie (Susan Sarandon), and their kids? Or is it Sophie's own murky past, which returns to her in cryptic flashes of dream and memory - and which she must face in order to produce illustrations for a book titled, with thundering unsubtlety, ‘Return of the Repressed'?
Either way, the film's title does not stick. Mara, alas, is no Sharon Stone from Basic Instinct, and the eventual revelations about Sophie's teenagehood are not nearly as shocking or disquieting as we might have hoped. Nonetheless, the field in which Irresistible wishes to play is perfectly well signposted: this is a mystery-thriller in the vein of Single White Female (from which it conspicuously borrows a few elements), or for that matter several hundred other movies since the early '90s that have squeezed frissons from extravagant violations of domestic intimacy.
Like many thrillers, Irresistible is a commentary on gender roles. Sophie becomes so convinced that Mara is breaking into her house and threatening the welfare of her children that she in turn becomes Mara's stalker, leading to a court interdiction. The effect of this on Sophie's marriage is very like the stark gender war portrayed in the Linney-Byrne thread of Jindabyne: misunderstood women become hysterical, while their men stay stolid and then finally turn violent. Sam Neill is perfectly cast in this part - he has made a career out of playing thick-skinned, beastly husbands or lovers, from Possession and The Piano to last year's Yes.
All mystery-thrillers contain red herrings: hints and suggestions, designed to mislead or distract the audience, that are eventually discarded as the plot moves towards its conclusion. The best film-makers in this genre know, however, that no red herring need be wasted. The passing suspicion that X is a killer or that Y is a lover-in-secret can resonate, disturbingly, with the overall theme of the piece. Irresistible does not master this trick; its most intriguing suggestions of guilt, complicity or illicit desire are simultaneously its most excessive and least integrated moments.
The plot stays on a plateau for a long time. In the brilliant B-movie When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), made by Fred Walton, the tormented heroine needed only to see one or two objects in her domestic space disturbed or missing before the story rocketed ahead, but here Sophie seems to spend half of the film mooching around home, playing detective. Then there are the kids, who are fairly pivotal figures in the narrative. Child actors tend to be awful in Australian movies, and the younger they are, the worse they are. You can hear that they've come directly from some hoity-toity elocution class, and you can see their eyes glaze over as they struggle to remember lines verbatim.
Australia's mainstream, middlebrow culture, in the kind of commentary on films it routinely produces in the "quality" press or radio, seems perpetually ill-equipped to make appropriate comparisons between local films and their overseas counterparts. Yet we do Wolf Creek, for instance, no favours by treating it as a supposedly meaningful film about landscape and national identity, rather than as an ingenious Aussie cousin of the gory Jeepers Creepers series. Likewise, we are in danger of perennially overrating serious art-house efforts such as The Book of Revelation if we do not measure them against works by the likes of the Dardenne brothers (The Child) in Belgium and Michael Haneke (Hidden) in Austria. And when a truly good, innovative Australian film such as The Proposition does appear, we have to wait for the DVD edition and the erudite buffs of other lands who, by comparing the film with previous "modernist Westerns" by Monte Hellman or Alejandro Jodorowsky, set the work in its most illuminating context.
So let's be clear about the kind of circuit into which Irresistible, as a mystery-thriller, is plugging itself. It is a relatively modest Australia-UK co-production, featuring a range of actors familiar (Sarandon, Neill) or ascendant (Blunt, also currently in The Devil Wears Prada). It is no blockbuster, of course, and cannot hope to compete with the likes of the new Scorsese (The Departed) or the new De Palma (The Black Dahlia) at the box office. Its destined realm, after what will probably be a brief commercial release, is that of the DVD shop, the in-flight movie and cable television. This is where it sinks or swims in relation to the hundreds of other movies of its ilk.
There is no shame this. Indeed, one way to discover what is valuable in some Australian films is to place our industry on an axis that includes, for example, Britain, Denmark and Canada - those comparatively small countries that tremble in the shadow of Hollywood, but sometimes manage to transform that anxiety into a clever, even brilliant, tweaking of a dominant formula. This means knowing the formula inside-out to begin with, and where Australian cinema often falls down in its grappling with popular genres - whether thriller, horror, fantasy, action or romantic comedy - is in its evident lack of fluency with what others, elsewhere, have been merrily doing to update the old formats.
Irresistible is just enough like its genre, superficially, to pass under its label, but it secretly hankers to be an art-house commentary or critique, too. Some film-makers from Britain, New Zealand and Australia specialise in this sort of compromised, neither-art-nor-pop product: in the more Gothic type of mystery-thriller, one only need look at odd films from recent years such as John Duigan's Paranoid or Gaylene Preston's Perfect Strangers (again featuring Sam Neill as Beastly Lover). In them, one can sometimes sense a resentment about having to play the genre game, which usually translates into a dutifulness, a listlessness, when it comes to delivering the requisite spectacle of shocks, thrills or sex scenes.
The film's writer-director, Ann Turner, is one of many people on the Australian scene who has had too few opportunities to develop her craft. Insofar as her signature as a film-maker is visible, we can see it here: there's the frisson of lesbianism and the spooky, dreamlike images that characterised her early short film Flesh on Glass (1981); the twinning of personal trauma and social issues that worked to such intriguing effect in Celia (1989), her best known film; and a dash of the satirical "comedy of manners" that went berserk in Dallas Doll (1993), her previous foray into co-production.
Whether or not she resents the genre she is dealing with, Turner's grasp of what makes cinema cinematic begins to drain away whenever she approaches the violent or sexy scenes in Irresistible. One such scene, in which Sophie discovers a nasty swarm of wasps lurking within a piece of sculpture that Mara has helped deliver, begins well, with a menacing build-up. But once the digital bugs start streaking across the screen and Sarandon poses screaming at her window, it instantly becomes a flat, perfunctory homage to Hitchcock's The Birds. Similarly, the central sex scene of the movie is not only lukewarm, but also evasive (What really happens? How far do the characters go?) and too cautious, just when the plot promises to become interestingly dangerous. And the climactic set piece, involving a locked basement, a fight on the stairs, various weapons and a fire, lacks energy; the film's editor, Ken Sallows, is one of the finest in the country, but he seems to have had little with which to work.
A Canadian equivalent currently in rental shops, the proudly trashy horror-thriller Tamara, shows how even the most formulaic genre film can pull out all the stops when it comes to such obligatory showdowns. Irresistible, by contrast, too often looks and sounds like the kind of thriller that makes it to midday television.
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