In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when the Australian Film and Television School (AFTRS) program was in full swing and the Sydney Women’s Film Group was working to support emerging filmmakers, the Australian public conscience finally allowed the female director to exist. Women began making formally rigorous, often heavily political films examining groundbreaking notions of gender and passion, but while it seemed that feminism was gaining ground more generally, these creative milestones went largely unrecognised.1 Between the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative, Kate Richard’s Sydney Super Eight Film Group Inc. and the Sydney Women’s Film Group, there simply wasn’t enough federal funding for feminist films and so they remained on the fringes of Australian filmmaking, non-contenders in a race for mainstream funding. During this period however, Gillian Armstrong, a graduate of the first AFTRS program, was successfully fusing mainstream feminine ideals with a feminist sensibility, first explored in her 1979 feature, My Brilliant Career. Audiences swooned for main character Sybylla (Judy Davis), a free-spirited girl growing up in late 19th century Australia, desperate to have autonomy from traditional gender roles, and resultantly the film was a commercial and critical success. Armstrong then turned to more modern notions of feminist liberation, following her 1982 small budget, feel-good musical Starstruck with High Tide, a 1987 meditation on the mother-daughter bond similar in tone to masculine-focused films such as Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984) and Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973). Not as easily recognisable as ‘feminist’ to other feminist filmmakers of the era, nor a period drama – a genre designated as ‘appropriate’ for female directors (and doing dismally at the box office as a result) – High Tide provoked discussion of the differences between female and feminist filmmakers still developing in discourses today. Told from a female drifter’s perspective, High Tide is, importantly, written, directed and produced by women, comprising of a variety of fully realised female sensibilities.2 With phrases like “Strong Female Character” now such a kneejerk term of use in Film Studies that in Sophie Mayer’s recent publication Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, it is shortened to “SFC”, High Tide unsettles any reliance on the safety of this concrete term by questioning its very notion. Honing the feminine perspective through offbeat female protagonist Lilli (portrayed by Davis), Armstrong and screenwriter Laura Jones prod at the expectations of SFCs through the uncompromising maximalism of a “strident rebel” and self-confessed “cowardly” woman.3
Stranded in a backwater coastal town ironically called Eden after the work and petrol dries up, Lilli, a complex character who, perhaps because of traditional expectations of motherhood, often provokes shallow readings such as “A reckless, mocking, wildly irresponsible creature,” accidentally encounters her estranged daughter Ally (Claudia Karvan), abandoned at birth after the death of her father, Lilli’s husband.4 Ally’s guardian Bet, played by Jan Adele (in her feature debut), is Lilli’s solicitous mother-in-law and complete opposite, raising Ally on the false premise that both her parents are dead. Throughout the film all three women grapple with an ageless desire for freedom on the dingy lawns of Mermaid Caravan Park, Ally caught between the maternal Bet and the cagey “other”, Lilli. To placate the coincidence of their meeting, the earliest moments in the film bracket mother and daughter, Ally’s face in close up, floating suspended in a rock pool, whilst Lilli performs onstage as though in a trance, their faces in a matching dreamlike expression as though each is realised in the other. In mannerism, Davis’ Lilli is as mischievous as her My Brilliant Career character Sybylla, pushing things a little too far at times, as Armstrong’s analysis of gender roles butts up against a more idealistic maternal femininity. Though her contemporary situation and attitude give her more possibilities, her chaotic sense of self doesn’t make it easier for her to understand what she wants. As Lilli isn’t sure of her desires, she’s uncomfortable with them, the reflexive cinematography of Russell Boyd aping her swirling, masked undercurrents of emotion through a depth of colour, bookending interactions between mother and daughter with recurrent images of the nearby road and turbulent sea.
Along with Lilli’s bombastic character, hyperreal aesthetics and sound clash in High Tide, competing for attention. Everything has a profound sense of jouissance, from the crackling diegetic sound so typical of 80s Australian cinema to Armstrong’s uncompromising use of colour and visual detail. A peaceful scene in which Ally is floating in a rock pool during the opening intercutting between mother and daughter is accompanied by the sound of crashing waves, and sighs, laughs and birdsong are loud and bawdy with cultural cringe riding high. A slight gesture produces a heightened sense of effect. Caravans have ‘80s-style silver fins and chevron pink lightning zigzagging up the side, forming the landscape of the park into a peculiarly uncompromising, cluttered space. Even in a gloomy and introspective bathroom scene in which Lilli’s lower half is engulfed in a shadowed void, the walls are liberally scribbled with kitsch graffiti. We often see Lilli and Ally through chaotic diegetic lenses such as grubby caravan or car windows, the mottled glass of an RSL partition or in the smeared reflection of a public toilet mirror in an illusion of voyeurism, their veiled reflections evading precise definition. This visual obfuscation affirms a resistance to feminine typecasting on the part of Armstrong and Jones, strengthened by the character’s often correspondingly erratic and evasive behaviour; Lilli tap dances a jig nonsensically in front of her irritable boss; Bet has an affair with a travelling singer then moves in with her overbearing partner; Ally kisses a boy yet stares longingly at her female “supposed-to-be” best friend. Though it uses a straightforward plot, the SFC element of these traditionally annoying or unlikeable behavioural tendencies relies on the insight of the female production staff, through the strength of the screenplay and directorial choices.
Armstrong’s camera is constantly in motion, stockpiling her influences with a refreshing perspective. A master shot of the truncated caravan park maze quickly transforms into a tracking shot of Lilli scrambling home drunk, an homage to Hitchcock’s apartment garden scenes in Rear Window (1954), and later, suspense simmers during a slow pursuit, as Bet wheezes after Lilli across the poorly landscaped gardens of the caravan park after catching her secretly observing Ally. At one point the characters are lit by both stage and candle light; performative and intimate; a signal of the fractured feminine. Jones’s strength is in leaving the most important things unsaid in the screenplay, as Armstrong’s focus is often on Ally’s body, roaming at one point from tanned surfer toes up to the bottom of a public bathroom stall as the adolescent is shaving her legs. At another point it flicks up over her chest to her lips and chin, pausing on the buttons of the teenager’s shirt. Though this could prove fodder for a Mulveyan analysis of the male gaze, with Armstrong it morphs instead into Lacan’s mirror, or screen, as in these scenes the camera is positioned as Lilli’s eye, catching her daughter during moments of reflection. Ally’s body may be fractured by Armstrong’s pointed optics, but it is reassembled in the lens’s positioning as Lilli’s safe and wistful gaze. Lilli is lost in the Lacanian unidentifiable, the flailing of the infant before it has seen its reflection in a mirror, and when confronted with a living and static reflection of herself through Ally, her desires are suddenly given signifiers. The fractured nature of Lilli’s psyche is projected as slowly becoming assembled – along with her observations of Ally and her likeness to her father – however, instead of constructing the death mask of her long-dead husband, Lilli’s psychological fragments reassemble Ally to form a mirror and screen, both a distanced object and and reflection of her mother. As critic Warrick Steve says of Lilli, “the more she sees Ally the more she sees of herself, and that raises a ghostly army of emotions within her. She starts to think about where she’s going, and what she wants, and she starts to think about the love for Ally she lost, and how reclaiming that love might pull her back together.”5 At one point Ally offers “Do you love me? I love you” to which her mother replies mysteriously, “You don’t know me though,” like a misunderstood bad-boy. There is, as Lucy Fischer points out, “an overt sense of maternal love being faceted or fractured in their relationship, something hinged on friendship, depicted as complex, shifting, and ambiguous”, giving both characters depth and believability.6
Threatened by the overprotective Bet and desperate to get out of Eden, Lilli struggles to find work to pay to have her car fixed. A club manager tells her there is no market for female singers locally, but offers her cash to “entertain” the crowds at two bucks nights. Armstrong, preferring an overhead shot of Lilli’s paramour Mick (played by Colin Friels) drinking beer and reading a novel in her dressing room to the sound of men cheering in an adjoining room, doesn’t show us Lilli’s first performance. We do, however, see her second. In a contemptuous yet tortured manner, Lilli strips and exposes herself to a cheering crowd of men, Armstrong eschewing nudity, preferring to keep a tight focus on Lilli’s impassive face as she bites her elbow-length gloves, neatly tugging them off. Instead of a physical nudity, we see Lilli’s psyche laid bare, finally in focus without adornments or distractions. The stage is empty, beyond metallic curtains, and Lilli is dressed in a modest black outfit, no maximalist aesthetics in sight. Armstrong cuts to a tracking shot of Ally through the mottled and pressed glass of an RSL partition, literally fracturing and obscuring her appearance. Her normally tanned face is pale in the fluorescent light, her downturned eyes and mouth in shadow, and the focus on her fluctuates through the uneven glass, almost as though she is underwater. It is as though she is her father, the ghost through the glass, darkly. Ally emerges into sharp focus and observes her mother, her teenage expression unreadable. Soon after, instead of resisting this de-mystified version of her transient mother, she agrees to leave town with her for the road – forging a traditionally masculine landscape into the feminine.
At a truck stop in the last scene, Lilli looks through two sets of windows, she on one side in her car and Ally seated in the truck stop café, and we see Lilli acknowledging the distance, debating it. She turns the engine over, never taking her eyes of her daughter. Though Lilli appears to be contemplating abandoning Ally, the point of view camera cuts to track the carpet of the restaurant as though Lilli’s eyes were downturned in shame, before becoming static as she springs into sight, physically covering her daughter’s face, embarrassed of exposing her indecision. What makes Lilli so compelling is that at any point she could abandon Ally, and it seems totally believable through Davis’s portrayal. In a movie reliant on the tides of tone and atmosphere, Davis integrates us into her psychological state; multiple emotions will flicker across her face, divorcing any direct interpretation. She seems emotionally intelligent but at a loss at how to express herself. The tension in her narrow face and slim body that moves as though it contains vast amounts of secret strength enables her to register conflicting moods. Her arresting visage brings more to this estranged mother role than might seem possible. She seems almost crazed, with too many options and potentials and no safe space in which to express them. If she had certainty within herself she could make a decision on her desires, and move beyond this mirror stage, as she has appeared to have the strength to do, but her hesitance restricts her.
Though Armstrong is often credited as portraying the intimate lives of SFCs and their relationships with one another (as in her later films like 1994’s Little Women and Charlotte Gray, made in 2001), her films are neither politically charged nor hinged on artifice. Armstrong’s characters are instead pastiche-like and unsure of themselves, possessing a playfulness disguising desires they struggle to articulate. By questioning expectations and perceptions of SFCs Armstrong connects us to other complex feminine traditions, rejecting what Mayer calls the “strong female protagonist [who is] invariably punitively strong”,7 to instead consider those paralysed by the restrictive, traditional roles they suppose themselves rid of. Though these tropes are often relegated to the ‘difficult’ or ‘unlikeable’ categories, with Armstrong they are transformed into something else, strong by the virtue of their complex writing and portrayal. Her chaotic, imperfect women present a multitude of interpretations as a result of their experiences.
- Notable mentions are A Song of Ceylon (Laleen Jayamanne 1985), Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini’s 1981 film Two Laws, made in order to examine land rights and femininity in the Borroloola Aboriginal Community and Essie Coffey’s personal film My Survival as an Aboriginal, made in 1979. ↩
- In addition to having Armstrong and writer Laura Jones (An Angel at my Table, Jane Campion 1990), High Tide was produced by industry veteran Sandra Levy. ↩
- Lucy Fischer, Cinematernity: Film, Motherhood, Genre (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 223. ↩
- Janet Maslin, “Film: Judy Davis Stars in ‘High Tide’” New York Times, 19 February 1988. ↩
- Steve, Warrick. “High Tide,” Film Quarterly 22 (February 1989): p. 21. ↩
- Lucy Fischer, Cinematernity, p. 223. ↩
- Sophie Mayer, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (London: I.B Taurus, 2016), p. 19. ↩