July 2010

Arts & Letters

Births, deaths and marriages

By Luke Davies
Ben (Joel Edgerton, left) and Fiona (Radha Mitchell) in Kolkata in the scene from Claire McCarthy's "The Waiting City." A Hopscotch film release. In cinemas July 15, 2010.
Claire McCarthy’s ‘The Waiting City’ and Mona Achache’s ‘The Hedgehog’

In 2004, the UNICEF report Children on the Brink estimated that there were 35 million orphans in India and that nearly 4 million children would be added to those ranks in a single year. The report did not differentiate between children orphaned by death and those abandoned due to poverty. Anyone who has been to India has seen and felt something of the unbridled chaos of that poverty – the hordes of free-ranging children on every street and in every railway station. From a Western perspective, accustomed to order, the country can seem like a hallucination. The Australian director Claire McCarthy, whose second feature The Waiting City (in national release 15 July) is shot entirely in and around Kolkata, captures something of this swirl, while fleshing out a small drama that centres on a fictionalised account of the fate of one of those millions of orphans.

Thirty-something Australian couple Ben and Fiona Simmons (Joel Edgerton and Radha Mitchell) are trying to adopt an Indian baby. It’s clear they’ve been setting up the adoption for some time; yet it is only when they arrive in Kolkata, full of the expectation that this is the final, straight-forward part of the process, that the wheels of bureaucracy begin their slow, erratic trundling. Unexplained delay follows unexplained delay. It’s in the space opened up by this waiting that the film finds its rhythm and tells its story. We won’t see Lakshmi, the soon-to-be daughter, until near the end of the film. But we will get to trace the emotional contours of an average, if dysfunctional, Western couple’s marriage, removed from its familiar support mechanisms, in a setting of prickly foreignness.

Fiona’s life is about control; she is an efficiency expert. While affable Ben meditates, Fiona conducts corporate conference calls from their hotel room. The imminent rendezvous with their new daughter seems to be part of her meta-checklist for ‘Life’: the biological clock is ticking but things didn’t work out biologically, so here they are, accessorising their future by mail-order. Yet, the film, thankfully, is not a fish-out-of-water travelogue in which yuppies gain wisdom in exotic locales. The characters invert the stereotypes that they seem at first glance to embody and McCarthy neither reveres, trivialises nor sensationalises the inherent exoticism of Kolkata.

Fiona is all brittle edginess to begin with. Her job has skilled her in compartmentalisation; in Kolkata, we see her floundering as she desperately resists being assailed by the world’s most psychically uncompartmentalised country. As the film progresses, we learn of Ben’s background: he’s not entirely the mellow, freewheeling man he initially seems. A former rock star, he has lived a tumultuous life. More recently, he’s been suffering from depression and the medication he takes for this has affected his libido. He’s trying, in an emasculating situation, to remain cheerful and be a supportive, active husband. Ben’s well-intentioned attempt to be present in the relationship shows up, in fact, how disconnected he and Fiona have become. In a sense, The Waiting City is a very simple tale: its female protagonist needs to learn how to relax, even just a little – how not to make her corporate tendencies the centre of her being. And her male counterpart must learn how not to be so chilled that he merely glides through every situation.

Radha Mitchell has worked consistently, and often in interesting films, since Emma-Kate Croghan’s Love and Other Catastrophes (1996). She has a striking beauty that seems at the same time angular and fluid, piercing blue eyes and a mix of wide-open vulnerability and steel-trap strength onto which audiences regularly project their own versions of heroism. In Pitch Black (2000), a minimalist but above average science-fiction film, the fierce determination of Mitchell’s character, Carolyn Fry, helped elevate the material. Yet in The Waiting City, it is this trademark determination that she must let go of in order to arrive at understanding – and to win our sympathy.

For Edgerton, too, the casting goes against type. A laconic actor with an instinctive grasp of the vernacular of the alpha male, Edgerton in The Waiting City is asked to play a surprisingly soft character. Ben is fundamentally benevolent – he has cleaned up since his wild days and is diligently trying to manage his mental health – and so you are quite readily endeared to him. He’s not a character with great edge; instead, Edgerton gently endows him with surprising depth.

Isabel Lucas plays the flaky Scarlett, a young hippie chick doing the India trail. She’s a singer whose career is starting to take off back home and Ben vaguely knows her from the recording studio he now runs. We witness something of Fiona’s brittleness when they first meet: she immediately seems afraid, as if space-cadet Scarlett is the enemy. When Fiona parties, she lets loose a little too much; Mitchell perfectly captures the incipient hysteria always bubbling beneath the surface of the control freak.

Mitchell and Edgerton (along with Samrat Chakrabarti, who is excellent as Krishna, the couple’s driver) seem to understand that the film’s strength lies in its trajectory as a relationship drama that ends up, satisfyingly, more complex than it starts. Yet beyond the pleasantly casual, improvisational feel of the film and beyond the naturalistic acting style, there’s a sense, too, that McCarthy has created a second-layer fable, in which Fiona embodies the narcissism of the West. The greatest lesson she can learn is that she doesn’t, in fact, control much at all. Life rolls and twists and turns, and no one is exempt from its pummelling. In McCarthy’s India, brought to restless, teeming life by cinematographer Denson Baker, it’s the great, impersonal gods who get to say, “This is not about you. You are neither here nor there.”

In Hal Ashby’s sublime Harold and Maude (1971), Bud Cort, as Harold, spends most of the film faking his own suicide attempts. We understand quite early in the film that he doesn’t really want to die; his morbid fascination with suicide is a kind of ironic gesture, the weapon he wields against the world’s hypocrisies. In the new French film The Hedgehog (in national release 8 July; original title Le Hérisson), this conceit is reversed: the precocious 11-year-old narrator, Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic), has decided that life is too ridiculous. At the beginning of the film she announces her intention to commit suicide on her twelfth birthday. She carries a video camera everywhere she goes, to better record said ridiculousness. Much of the video-grainy film is Paloma’s unstable, shaky, handheld world view; some of it is funny.

There’s no reason to believe Paloma isn’t serious about her intentions. Le Guillermic plays her in a deadpan manner, which is clearly intended to be comical but at times crosses over into that grey area where cute becomes annoying. She’s at her best poking her camera intrusively into her family’s life, all the while giving an acidic running-commentary. Her mother, Solange (Anne Brochet), lost in a haze of pills and champagne, is “vaguely aware of her plants’ decorative potential, yet obstinately talks to them like people”. Her father, Paul (Wladimir Yordanoff), a minister in the French government, is “occupied, preoccupied and brilliant” – and no less absent for that. Older sister Colombe (Sarah Le Picard), who can barely conceal her disdain for Paloma, is “obsessed by the need to be less neurotic than her mother and smarter than her father”.

Paloma lives with these virtual strangers in a bourgeois Paris apartment block, whose concierge, Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko), is a grumpy older woman with no apparent tolerance for life, rich Parisians or nosy suicidal girls with video cameras. Yet Paloma, sensing a kindred spirit, develops a fascination for Madame Michel. The dour concierge has a rich and secret inner life, filled with culture – a culture of the mind, not the Josse family’s culture of appearances. Between taking out the garbage and mopping the hallway floors, Renée reads literature. Her cat is named Leo, after Tolstoy. When Paloma steals into Renée’s apartment one day, recording the secret lair with her ever-present camera, she lingers, fascinated, over Renée’s copy of Jun'ichir? Tanizaki’s aphoristic study of Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows.

Right on cue, an elegant, elderly Japanese man moves into the building. Mr Ozu (Togo Igawa), who apparently has bottomless pockets, turns his large apartment into a kind of temple to the austerity of design that Tanizaki praises. The building’s inhabitants are vaguely curious about the inscrutable new tenant. But who will Mr Ozu take an interest in? Why, the always-invisible Madame Michel and the soon-to-be-non-existent Paloma, of course. The film charts this burgeoning triangular friendship, though it can never quite decide whether Paloma’s story or the story Paloma witnesses unfolding between the long-frozen concierge and her improbable gentleman caller is of most significance. Since it is the conceit of the video camera that effectively sets the film up, it feels odd later when we spend more and more time with Madame Michel and Mr Ozu, alone – without a video camera – in their own dramatic universe.

There are other problems, too. Everyone who is not Paloma is more stereotype than well-rounded character. And Paloma, while interesting, is not quite interesting enough. In her precociousness, she is all certainty. Her lack of real vulnerability diminishes her dramatic interest. It’s difficult, too, to believe that the art in her bedroom has been created by an 11-year-old child. The overall effect is that as a character Paloma is a little cold. Her mother, in a rare moment of perception, describes Paloma to her face as being “very lucid and very unhappy”. Director Mona Achache shows us the unhappiness but never finds a way to make us empathise. Even Paloma’s planned suicide works as a conceit rather than as an instrument of dramatic expectation.

This type of conceit is fine in more absurd comedies; nobody expects character depth in Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite (2004), but that doesn’t stop it from being a hilarious, if very strange, film. However, The Hedgehog does make a concession to a more sombre side – the comedy is weighted by some real darkness, particularly in relation to Madame Michel’s essential loneliness – so it can’t play so lightly with the same cinematic get-out-of-jail cards. There are other films that deal more effectively with the child-as-precocious-outsider: Bertrand Blier’s rambunctious, politically incorrect Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978), Lasse Hallström’s intelligent, moving My Life as a Dog (1985) and Alain Berliner’s deft and lovely Ma vie en rose (1997) are all films worth revisiting. Each provides a better answer to Paloma’s question: “Is there a possibility of becoming what you aren’t yet? Can I do something with my life other than what I’m destined for?”

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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