June 2009

Arts & Letters

Two stroke

By Luke Davies
Sarah Watt’s ‘My Year Without Sex’ & Antonello Grimaldi’s ‘Quiet Chaos’

A woman in her thirties, a mother of two, suffers a debilitating aneurism. When the initial shock and panic have passed and she begins to recover from the trauma of brain surgery, a doctor tells her that she's OK for now but that she should consider the stroke a yellow card. ("That's soccer," her husband explains. "A warning, but you keep playing.") The most common causes of recurrence, the doctor goes on, are heavy lifting, sneezing, straining on the toilet and sex. "Three out of four should be avoidable," he says cheerfully.

For the woman, Natalie (Sacha Horler), it's sex that will become a problem in the bruised and complex year that unfolds. She loses her job, can't drive, is flummoxed by living and obsessed with death. The interruption to the rhythms of the everyday seems to jinx her erotic life. The sexual burner in the marriage gets turned low; perhaps the pilot light even goes out.

Sarah Watt's richly textured My Year Without Sex takes, as its field of enquiry, the bustle and bemusement of a young urban family for whom a singular event throws into question both the meaning and the motor of life.

The same can be said of Antonello Grimaldi's Quiet Chaos, in which Nanni Moretti (who also co-wrote the screenplay) plays a film-company executive, Pietro Paladini, whose life changes on the day he rescues a woman from drowning and comes home to find his wife dead from a stroke. Pietro must try to deal with his grief while being father to his ten-year-old daughter, Claudia (Blu Yoshimi), and continuing to work. He'll handle things vastly differently from Natalie's family. My Year Without Sex is filled with a beguiling chaos, while Quiet Chaos, a meditation on the inertia of male grief, might well be called My Year Without Activity.

Structurally, the two films share a love of small, everyday scenes. Eschewing the traditional Hollywood story arc, they build up, in gentle layers, a picture of life as lived by average mortals. In My Year Without Sex, Natalie tries to take stock of life and to contemplate its meaning. (Watt has said, "I was interested in how we get through our days and whether they are any better or worse for having been examined.") In Quiet Chaos, contemplation is action; or at least, in a strange, Zen way, it is the action of the film. (Grimaldi has noted that his challenge as director was "to stick with the lead actor for most of the time in the same place, and yet try not to transmit the feeling of a lack of mobility.")

Sacha Horler, always a fine actor, shines in My Year Without Sex. Matt Day is terrific as the anxious husband, Ross, not sophisticated enough to be metrosexual, or bolshie enough to be alpha, more just a dag battling distractedly through trying circumstances and determined to be a good husband. The vibrant Katie Wall is excellent as Natalie's yuppie sister Winona. Winona is married to Greg (Fred Whitlock), a likeable rogue with flexible ethics, who takes Ross on as a mentoring project. Margaret (Maud Davey) is an Anglican priest (and a former one-hit-wonder pop star) to whom Natalie turns with some of her big questions. Portia Bradley, as Natalie's eight-year-old daughter, Ruby, is a revelation with her impeccable comic timing. The film is a true ensemble piece.

Quiet Chaos, on the other hand, is held together by Nanni Moretti, although populated with all manner of quirky characters. There's Pietro's famous brother, Carlo (Alessandro Gassman); his dead wife's nutty sister, Marta (Valeria Golino); an anxious accountant; a pretty girl with a dog; a woman with what seems to be an acute case of Tourette's; a boy with Down syndrome; there's even a cameo by Roman Polanski as a studio executive. And the woman Pietro saved will turn up, of course. But everyone revolves around Moretti as the film's calm centre.

Moretti was memorable in The Son's Room (2001), which he wrote and directed and in which he starred as a psychoanalyst grieving the death of his son in a diving accident. Everything in that film reminded him of his lost child. In Quiet Chaos, we don't feel much of what it was that Pietro shared with his wife. This is one of the film's shortcomings; the thinness of the backstory makes what we see less engaging. Director Grimaldi sets out to explore the peace that descends on Pietro when, dropping his daughter off on the first day of school, he decides that all that matters from now on is that he wait each day - all day - in the park outside the school, so that he might be there when she comes out. The park becomes his office, and he conducts his daily business, albeit rather aimlessly, in the park café or on a bench, from his mobile phone. Everyone thinks he has lost the plot, but gradually they adjust to his new lifestyle. It may be only catatonia that he is experiencing, rather than some ascetic letting-go of all that is unnecessary. But those whose lives intersect with his seem drawn to him.

In Quiet Chaos a man leans away from the world for a time, becoming a still centre in the chaos. My Year Without Sex shows people leaning into the chaos. Over the course of her year without sex, Sacha Horler's Natalie sinks at times into anxious bewilderment. Nanni Moretti's Pietro, beneath his poker face, may be bewildered too; but once he decides to spend his days in the park, he finds an absolute clarity of purpose. Finally, he is snapped back into the world by Claudia's youthful wisdom. In My Year Without Sex, there is no hint that we will get a grand denouement or an epiphany. Life will simply keep on happening, and death will keep on hovering. In Look Both Ways (2005), Watt signalled boldly and brightly her intention to make films that don't flinch from death, yet are filled with joy and bustle, and her new film continues in this vein.

My Year Without Sex revels in the comic absurdity of the great circus, all the while taking some savage bites at a world so driven by getting and spending. "Capitalism - it's exhausting," says Greg at one point. Elsewhere, Natalie's father scoffs: "Financial advisors? You know there used to be no such thing as dog food? They used to eat scraps. It's a whole industry built on air." Daughter Ruby, on observing extremes of homelessness and opulence while the family holidays on the Gold Coast, asks, "Who are we then? Are we more like the man in the gutter or the people with the boat?" "We're in the middle," says Natalie. "Would you say we were middle-class, Ross?" "What?" he says, tired and harried. "We're in the middle," Natalie nods to her daughter. "We're not in the middle of the middle. I wish we were a bit more in the middle of the middle."

Sister Winona and her husband, Greg, are more at the upper end of middle, or they live as if they were. For Winona, there might be a price to pay: when you fill your life with ‘lifestyle', the danger is you will squeeze your own self out of the way, or make compromises you come to regret. "Don't you ever marry an older man," Winona tells a wide-eyed Ruby. "Go for someone who's young, and hot, and who's prepared to lick honey off your toes." Where Pietro's inertia in Quiet Chaos is self-imposed and has a hint of the mystical about it, Winona is stuck in a place whose shiny facade masks the anxieties of living in a relationship of bad faith with the world. "You've got to be onto it," she says, in response to Natalie's surprise at her plan to get another tattoo. "You know that I'm the same age that Mandy was when Greg left her for me?"

Quiet Chaos is the more tonally uneven of the two films - a few scenes jar, the sex scene most of all - but it is sweet-natured, gentle and contemplative; one can easily forgive its faults. My Year Without Sex is warm and rich, and successfully holds its humour and sadness in a delicate balance. Both films are parables. In some essential way Natalie and Ross represent the spiritual and the secular in the modern era. Which one works best as bedrock? the film asks. Its answer seems to be: take your pick, but live well. Ross thinks Margaret, the priest, took advantage of Natalie while she was vulnerable. Natalie, who found in Margaret someone willing to talk openly about certainty and doubt, compares herself with Margaret and comes up short. She speaks to Ross of the feeling of having "no faith, no belief, no nothing." "Neither do I," offers Ross, as if she will find solace in solidarity. "But you don't need it," counters Natalie, and there's a barb there, the implication being that Ross may be simpler than her.

"No, it's not that," Ross replies. "It's just that - God isn't my explanation for stuff."

"I hope I fit into the machine," says a large man about to have a CAT scan at the hospital, while Natalie waits for one too. "Well, that's all you can do, isn't it?" smiles Ross. "Hope." Here, hope is to the secular what faith is to the religious. Pietro Paladini appears to have neither faith nor hope; both presuppose a relationship with the future, and he wants, literally, to immerse himself in the present. At first that is a survival tactic: if he stays in the park all day, every day, he won't feel his feelings. Later, he will feel them, despite all his precautions.

At school one day, Claudia's teacher explains palindromes - words and sentences that read the same way forward or backwards. "Reversible things are those you can turn around," the teacher says. You can see Claudia thinking long and hard about this, and you know just what she would dearly wish for. Near the end of the film, she has drawn a more subtle lesson. Winter has come now, and Claudia reminds her metaphorically frozen father of that first day, back at the end of summer, when she learned about the palindromes and he began his long vigil in the park. "I thought the two things were linked," she says. "A nice thing happens then it doesn't happen again. Because it's irreversible; you can't stay here forever, right?"

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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