It was a long intermission between June 2019 and this month, but the 68thSydney Film Festival finally made it to the cinemas – and came through with every sign of success. My own attendance was more sporadic than usual but the overall impression was bouyant. I’m not sure if this was because of the program, or simply the sheer relief of being able to sit in a darkened theatre and watch films on the big screen.
It was a good omen that the opening night presentation. Here Out West, exceeded expectations. As the previous SFF had launched with Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach, the contrast could hardly have been more profound. Ward’s movie was Northern Beaches wealth porn, featuring a cast of wellknown actors playing out a parody of The Big Chill, but Here Out West was a cri-de-coeur from Sydney’s western suburbs, made by a multicultural crew of locals.
With five directors, eight screenwriters, and ten different languages involved, the movie appeared to have been designed by a committee. The miracle was that it flowed smoothly, with one small story giving way to another, until an ethnically diverse cast of characters came together in a portrait of a community with its share of pride and problems. A movie like this couldn’t be entirely free of sentimentality but it didn’t ring hollow. Australian movies have grown so relentlessly bleak over the past decade that a little human warmth was appreciated.
I wish I could be so positive about The Drover’s Wife, written and directed by Leah Purcell, starring Leah Purcell. This long-awaited period piece was received rapturously by the SFF audience, who cheered and applauded Purcell when she came on stage to introduce the film. It was a love-in!
I know that anyone who suggests the movie wasn’t a classic for all time risks being seen as some sort of monster, but here goes. The Drover’s Wife was a grim, bloodthirsty affair with a checklist of every major contemporary social issue, from respect for indigenous rights to domestic violence. The villains were utter barbarians, the heroine the complete victim. Her resilience counted for little at the end, and I left feeling dispirited. Not for the first time had I been foolishly optimistic about an Australian film.
My suspicion with The Drover’s Wife is that it will win awards and be critically acclaimed, but sink like a stone at the box office. Part of the problem may be that Purcell was too much of a one-woman band. It’s a story that badly needed some light and shade, but just kept burrowing down into the darkness with increasing momentum.
Purcell was also one of the five directors of Here Out West, which proves she has more than one tune in her repertoire. Maybe it takes a committee to bring out the best in an aspiring Aussie director.
Among the many awards handed out on closing night, the most prestigious was the Sydney Film Prize, worth $60,000. It went to Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof for There is No Evil, which I wasn’t able to see, and so can’t offer any critical comments. Judging by past experiences one can be confident about the quality of a film from Iran. Without big budgets and CGI, in a society with the strictest censorship, the Iranians focus on moral dilemmas, showing how much can be achieved with the most limited resources. The festival’s featured director this year was Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), so it’s proven to be a big year for Iranian cinema.
If you’re quick you can catch There is No Evil on the SFF’s On Demand service, which runs until 21 November. The Festival will also be bringing movies to 20 regional centres in NSW, QLD and the Northern Territory, for the rest of this year and into 2022. Oh, and the next SFF will be coming along in June.
As usual, the Festival provided audiences with a first opportunity to see titles that will soon be getting a local release. These included Dune, The Power of the Dog, Zola, Titane, The Card Counter, Dear Evan Hansen, and Blue Bayou. I’m hoping to write about some of these in depth in coming weeks.
The certified blockbuster was Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s new take on the sprawling Frank Herbert science fiction novel – or series of novels – that has attained global cult status. I’m a dogged reader, and have devoured a lot of science fiction, but a brief dip into Dune, many years ago, convinced me this epic was a pretentious, badly-written piece of pseudo-visionary hackwork. The studios have long believed it’s a potential goldmine, a view bolstered by the ongoing success of the Star Wars franchise.
David Lynch directed a version in 1984 that was so messed around that he wanted to disown it. Needless to say, some believe it’s a misunderstood masterpiece, others that it’s an irredeemabe turkey. This debate won’t be repeated with the Villeneuve film which plays it straight to the point of feeling ponderous, as if the director were trying to rouse a sleeping elephant. It’s well-made but supremely uninvolving, and rather a waste of an all-star cast. By the time we get to the end the movie appears to be no more than a platform for the obligatory sequels.
Julia Ducornau’s Titane, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year was a much livelier proposition. So lively, in fact, that it had the audience gasping and groaning as its androgynous protagonist, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), committed one gruesome act of violence after another. One watches the entire film with a sense of nervous anticipation, waiting for the next murder, while being drawn into the compelling weirdness of the narrative.
Those who prefer weirdness without gore would have enjoyed Malgorzata Szumowska’s Never Gonna Snow Again, the story of a Ukrainian masseur from Chernobyl with magic hands, and his customers in a wealthy, gated suburb of Warsaw. The film unfolds like a compelling mystery tale, although nothing much actually happens.
Among the more conventional movies I was impressed by After Love, about a British women who finds that her recently deceased muslim husband had been leading a double life in France; and Compartment No. 6, in which a Finnish girl travels by train to Murmansk, striking up an unlikely friendship with the Russian roughneck who shares her cabin.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, which is getting a local release, is a sinuous, wordy film-within-a-film, set on the island where the great Ingmar Bergman made his home. There are many layers to this self-conscious movie, including the autobiographical joke of Hansen-Løve and her former partner, Olivier Assayas, who are both film directors, echoing the fictional couple – a director and a screenwriter.
If one SFF feature stands out for its unique bravura it has to be Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn which could only have been made in Romania – “a Dada country”, as a Romanian friend constantly described his homeland. The storyline is simple but bizarre, concerning Emi, a history teacher, who makes a home porn video with her husband, which is posted on a private website. Soon it has leaked and gone viral, meaning that the lead character has to undergo an inquisition at school from enraged parents.
Half the movie is spent following Emi as she walks through the streets of Bucharest, towards her date with destiny. The final part is a fiery seminar in which she debates morality and politics with the parents. In between there are Monty Pythonesque interventions in which the director provides us with interesting facts about Romania and the universe. In its fractured montage, its black humour, its political edginess and explicit sexual references, Bad Luck Banging was reminiscent of the films of Dušan Makavejev, such as WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974).
In a world enveloped in a new puritanism and wokeness, who would have thought Makavejev’s ribald, no-hold-barred blend of sex and politics would be making a comeback? It’s reassuring that the SFF, along with so many earnest films about all the big issues of our time, could include a streak of pure anarchy.
68th Sydney Film Festival 2021
In the cinemas, and On Demand, 3-21 November, 2021
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 November, 2021