• Mon. Jan 30th, 2023

Elvis, genies, Marilyn and murder: Was 2022 Australian cinema’s most divisive year?

Dec 22, 2022

During his 1895 lecture tour of Australia, US author Mark Twain famously marvelled that Australian history “does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies … full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities …”

“A whispery voiceover in the manner of Terrence Malick”: You Won’t Be AloneCredit:Madman

This year, the Australian films I liked most were works of fabulism: tall stories about storytelling. They defied genre expectations, and foregrounded their constructed, subjective qualities.

All were about monsters: not just supernatural creatures, but also the capacity for evil in human hearts, and the ugly violence that takes root within social structures.

Set in the forested mountains of 19th-century Macedonia, Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone is ostensibly a folk horror flick about shapeshifting witches. But my favourite Australian film this year turned out to be a poetic, sensual meditation on what makes us human. By turns peaceful and visceral, this is the most original witch story I’ve seen.

“It’s a burning, breaking thing, this world, a biting, wretching thing,” reflects 16-year-old Nevena (Sara Klimoska) in voiceover. “And yet…”

As a baby, Nevena was promised to the shape-shifting “wolf-eateress” Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca). But Maria is enraged when her protégée instead falls in love with the world. First out of curiosity, then out of empathy, Nevena slips into different bodies to live as a woman, a man, a child. Unlike Maria, she avoids becoming the monster in cautionary village tales. But I found myself sympathising with the wronged, traumatised witch, too.

Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris in The Stranger.Credit:Ian Routledge

There’s something uncanny, too, about Thomas M Wright’s The Stranger, despite its crime procedural genre. While Wright was inspired by a real Australian murder case, his slow-burn character study occupies an unsettling, hallucinatory space where nobody is who they seem, and everyone is a stranger to themselves.

Its disorienting edits and unsettling dream sequences reveal the psychological toll on undercover cop Mark (Joel Edgerton) from working to catch suspected child murderer Henry (Sean Harris, whose Australian accent puts him up there with Kate Winslet and Dev Patel). Both central performances are mesmerising, as the two men form a tenuous bond within a police operation closing around them like a giant’s fist.

The two actors’ strong physical resemblance is richly allegorical. In folklore, a doppelganger or fetch is a bad-luck shadow self that portends death. And while Mark meditates by imagining himself exhaling his streass as black smoke, Henry is introduced in a striking chiaroscuro scene of a bus at night. Dread stalks this film. Like a body, it could be buried anywhere, waiting.

In tune: Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton.Credit:Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

That’s what happened to the Djinn (Idris Elba) in George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing. This soulful, pointy-eared granter of wishes has been bottling up his feelings for roughly a millennium per lost love; but he meets his match in lonely narratology scholar Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), who knows every twist in the wish-granting story, and is determined to use hers wisely.

Miller is a rare filmmaker who intuitively exploits cinema’s grammar for visual pleasure – even though this luscious romantic fantasy argues that through pleasure, you risk losing yourself. To Mad Max fans it’s a trifling placeholder; but it showcases Miller’s imaginative visual effects, and the kinetic flair of his camera movements. The always-charismatic Swinton and Elba are magnetic here; the intimate hotel-room setting made it feel like a fairytale double of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande – another film I loved in 2022.

Baz Luhrmann is another Australian movie maximalist, and in Elvis, he found a perfect match for his lurid aesthetic and anachronistic cultural cross-pollination. Much like Baz, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) has been called a white-trash provocateur, a corny sentimentalist and a borrower (or even an outright thief) of other people’s work. And his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), was a rotten parasite.

The exhilarating vulgarity of Elvis captures its subject where the respectful mimesis of a conventional creative biopic simply cannot. Luhrmann understands that Presley’s transgressive thrill resided in his body: I knew Elvis was a winner from the early scene where Luhrmann weaves between close-ups of Butler’s smoky-eyed sneer, sweaty brow and gyrating crotch clad by Catherine Martin in a pink zoot suit, and reaction shots of girls – and some boys – springing to their feet as if on puppet strings, screaming in bewildered ecstasy.

Director Baz Luhrmann with Austin Butler on the set of Elvis.Credit:Warner Bros

Moreover, Elvis underlines its subject’s actual musicianship. We see him watching and learning from his Black peers, and live-arranging numbers while vamping with his Las Vegas band. By contrast, many musical biopics are so incurious about where the talent comes from; it’s just always there.

Alongside Presley in the pantheon of 20th-century culture, Marilyn Monroe eternally bestrides a narrow subway vent like a colossus. And many petty viewers watched Andrew Dominik’s film Blonde and tweeted about finding it a dishonourable grave.

Some commentators branded Dominik a misogynist for depicting Norma Jeane (a fierce, committed Ana de Armas) as the objectified victim of sexual violence, rather than depicting her as a strong, smart girlboss. Others derided the film as shallow for its interest in aesthetics and filmic textures.

But having read, loved and written about Joyce Carol Oates’ doorstop of a source novel, I appreciated how faithfully – yet with such visual verve – Dominik has adapted the book’s central theme: that Norma Jeane’s primal, ultimately fatal wound is her uncaring mother and unknown father. She’s unmoored, dissociated, because her own personality has become completely overshadowed by her monstrous double “Marilyn Monroe”, the Hyde to her Jekyll.

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde.Credit:Netflix

Dominik uses filmcraft impressionistically to deny audiences the ‘objective’ biopic storytelling they crave. Blonde provocatively rejects cultural orthodoxies: that biographical cinema can offer an unmediated window onto the past; that public figures owe us the ‘truth’ of their lives; and that there’s even one authoritative truth to tell.

Blonde was Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe film. It was at times grotesque and violent, but like Elvis, it’s a film that understands the grotesque violence of being turned from a human being into an icon. This week I previewed the upcoming Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody, which shrinks tastefully from its protagonist’s unhappy death in favour of celebrating her magical talent.

Elvis and Blonde feel more honest, even though they’re less ‘accurate’. And that’s really the kind of Australian film that excites me. Humane, playful writers; directors in command of their visual grammar; and actors who commit fully to being present in what Norma Jeane calls “the circle of light”.

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