The Lady Vanishes: Alexandra’s Project and Rolf de Heer Jake Wilson May 2003 Australian Contemporary Cinema Issue 26 Opening credits on a black background. Then, the first in a series of smoothly edited, discontinuous travelling shots, the camera gliding down the deserted streets of suburban Adelaide in the early hours of the morning. Black wheelie-bins line the street like sentinels. Night birds warble; a dog barks. Someone is starting a car. High-pitched electronic tones are heard, lending a slight urgency to these mundane sights and sounds; the pace quickens from one shot to another, as editing condenses the progression from darkness to dawn. For a second the image slides, eerily, into slow motion… But now it’s morning. Still at the same smooth pace, we’re approaching a row of brick townhouses at the end of a street. Low throbs begin to invade the soundtrack; an automated sprinkler thrums on the nature strip. The camera rises over a picket fence, climbs up and to the left, and crawls across the drawn blinds of a first-floor window. A cut takes us indoors. In the dim amber light of the master bedroom, we move along the half-revealed bodies of a muscular man of about 40, sleeping comfortably, and the woman lying next to him, awake but still. With her sharp features and tense expression she looks haggard, almost corpse-like. She gets up from the bed and there’s a cut to a close shot of her face in profile, as she stares at herself in the bathroom mirror. “I’m sorry, Steve,” she whispers. “I’m truly sorry.” She spits violently at her reflection. And the story starts. Watching Rolf de Heer’s Alexandra’s Project (2003) for the first time, this opening sequence is enough to confirm what The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002) already hinted: from unpromising beginnings, de Heer has evolved into one of Australia’s few genuine film stylists. Moment by moment, shot by shot, his two most recent films display a confidence and sense of purpose only occasionally apparent in such earlier efforts as The Quiet Room (1996), Dance Me To My Song (1998), or even the defining film of his career, Bad Boy Bubby (1994). (1) Perhaps one reason de Heer now has an edge on most local directors is that he’s had more opportunities to practice his craft: he’s turned out ten feature films since 1984, a record unmatched by anyone working in Australia except Paul Cox. It’s also probable that some credit should go to his current team of technical collaborators – particularly Ian Jones, whose widescreen cinematography is as vital to Alexandra’s Project as it was to The Tracker. In any case, the first section of Alexandra’s Project is a highly accomplished piece of filmmaking –despite or because of its apparent lack of drama. For half an hour of screen time we follow a day in the life of the couple we’re introduced to at the outset, Steve (Gary Sweet) and Alexandra (Helen Buday) along with their primary-school-age children Emma (Samantha Knigge) and Sam (Jock Christie). While there’s clearly tension between Alexandra and Steve, on the surface the only thing out of the ordinary is that it happens to be Steve’s birthday; the children give him their presents before he leaves for work, and de Heer then cross-cuts between Steve at the office (where he receives a promotion) and Alexandra and the kids at home (where they prepare a mysterious “surprise”). So far so unremarkable, but de Heer’s achievement in this section depends precisely on what he leaves out: everything we see and hear is imbued with a weighty, unspecified sense of dread. Restless, circling camera movements alternate with mysteriously urgent close-ups of household objects (a light switch, a toaster); when Steve at work knocks over a photo of his kids, his slip has the weight of an omen. Above all, the family home – with its dark green walls, looming banisters and expensive electronic equipment – is made to feel more like a prison than a shelter from the outside world. After a century of Hollywood thrillers, de Heer’s controlled expressionism might not seem especially subtle or novel, yet it’s hard to deny the gripping effect of his stylistic moves: the abrupt gestures punctuating stretches of uneasy lassitude, the everyday noises mingling with an electronic soundscape, the contemplative moments when the camera tracks back from the human figures, suggesting their helplessness in a threatening environment. If this style retains a level of B-movie corn as a low-budget, ‘homemade’ adaptation of a familiar commercial syntax, the apparent mismatch of style and content also generates a special frisson, as if an episode of “Neighbours” were shot in the manner of Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) or the opening of Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997). Without giving too much away at this point, it might be said that this clash enacts stylistically the emotional violence it foreshadows: a setting as homely as the party decorations made by the children (the coloured paper-chains and banner that says “Happy Birthday Dad”) is lingered upon and toyed with until it seems like a fragile mask for some horrific truth. Yet at crucial moments, the style also moves towards abstraction, as if to hint that the ambiguities of this set-up might count for more than any later clarity. One such passage occurs just after Alexandra has sent her children away in a taxi: standing with her back to the front door, she projects a mixture of hesitation and relief, as if pondering the significance of what she is about to do. Then, as she flicks a switch that automatically closes the blinds, shafts of light play across her face, and for a second the image itself seems to slip its moorings, as if the film strip in the projector had leapt the gate. This is followed by a slow pan across a stretch of blank wall, dissolving to a shot of Alexandra in the shower; but before we see this we can already hear the sound of running water, mixed with her weeping. * * * If the first part of Alexandra’s Project skilfully keeps us in suspense, what follows depends on a series of revelations better experienced than described. (If you haven’t seen the film, consider yourself warned.) This second movement begins when Steve arrives home anticipating a ‘surprise party’ and is startled to find that the house is deserted and the lights are out. After some investigation he discovers that he’s been left an extra present, a videotape labelled (shades of Alice In Wonderland) “PLAY ME.” When Steve obediently slips it into the VCR he finds himself watching footage of his wife and children. Standing in an empty, blue-lit space, they once again wish him a happy birthday. “Yeah, yeah,” he mutters. “Now tell me what’s going on.” But instead of providing explanations, Alexandra tells her husband to put her on pause, grab a beer from the fridge, come back and keep watching. Viewers expecting a conventional narrative may feel an almost physical shock of disappointment at this juncture – as Alexandra on the screen dismisses the children, Steve settles back in his Jason recliner, and the realisation dawns that we are going to remain here, in front of the television, for a very long time. Some resentment seems justified: having lured us with the promise of further ‘cinematic’ shocks and surprises, the film now comes to a dead halt in front of a single, amateurishly framed video image. Every so often, Steve stops the tape and explores the house (now transformed into a shadowy, alien labyrinth) only to realise that he, too, is trapped: the locks have been changed, and there’s nothing he can do but return to his seat. This narrowing of focus fits with de Heer’s consistent strategy of tailoring his scripts to their low budgets, focusing on small groups of characters who are confined to suburban locations or set adrift in remote landscapes. But it also seems like a formalist prank or a piece of feminist subversion – parodying all those hoary notions of the male gaze, the desire that carries us through narrative, and the fetishised body on the other side of the screen. Time to get serious? With artifice stripped away, we might presume that the film will now reveal its real thematic “project.” But as the video proceeds, it becomes clear that Alexandra has no intention of explaining what’s going on, or showing us her naked ‘true’ self. Much of what she (or Buday) does might be taken as a form of theatre mocking our desire for knowledge or for a titillating spectacle – she performs a partial striptease, tries a spot of impromptu body piercing, makes a shocking announcement that turns out to be false (“hope you can take a joke”). Forced to share Steve’s position of uncertainty, we too are enticed and confounded by her carefully paced shenanigans; for better or worse, this section is still more ‘manipulative’ than what came before, suggesting that the film hasn’t renounced its Hollywood thriller tactics so much as transferred them to another plane. All but literally, Alexandra seems to usurp the role of the film’s author, turning the tables on her oppressors – not only Steve, but also any viewers who might presume to anticipate her actions and statements. Bravely, de Heer refuses to make Alexandra conventionally glamorous or even likeable: Buday’s performance blends stridency and a pixyish, childlike scattiness in a way that renders her almost as opaque and ‘implausible’ a figure as David Gulpilil in The Tracker. But perhaps regrettably, unlike Gulpilil Buday psychologises her role, her nervy gestures and faltering voice letting us know that Alexandra’s self-described “erratic behavior” arises more from panic than calculation. As de Heer spells out in his script, the video serves a cathartic purpose for her, finally providing an outlet for her grievances, all the things Steve never let her say. In nearly all his films, de Heer seems to approach the same central question: can the Other speak? Adrian Martin has noted that like Lars von Trier and his Dogma disciples, de Heer tends to identify with “the figure of the naive visionary,” (2) who’s isolated socially and psychologically as well as physically. Perhaps more particular to de Heer’s films is his habit of using a struggle over spoken language as a central plot device. The little girl in The Quiet Room becomes mute as a protest against her warring parents. In Dance Me To My Song, the disabled heroine can only express herself through a computerised voice-box. In Bad Boy Bubby the crazed, asocial hero shambles from one scenario to the next, echoing the phrases and mimicking the gestures of everyone he meets. It’s as if these characters need to be shown as literally inarticulate, since once they learn to express themselves they may be suddenly revealed as ‘normal’ after all (as with Bubby, who incongruously turns into a picture-perfect family man in a suburban backyard). On the other hand, to make up for their deficiencies de Heer is often tempted to ventriloquise for them, putting implausible words in their mouths or bringing on helpful authority figures to deliver admonitory lectures. In the case of Alexandra’s Project, the heroine’s aggressive yet playful assertion of control over both her language and her body tells only half the story. It’s likely that many viewers (not only men) will at first have more sympathy for the increasingly beleaguered Steve, who seems the more readable and ‘normal’ character. In contrast to his sadly wooden villain in The Tracker (who had all the stone-cold authority of a sarcastic maths teacher) Gary Sweet acts here with intelligent broadness, never condescending to a character who might have been a mere chauvinist fall guy. Yet Steve’s good-natured coarseness and easy alpha-male swagger also lend some plausibility to Alexandra’s case against him. Finally, she sets aside the game-playing for long enough to reveal her essential complaint, that he’s treated her as a sexual object rather than a human being: “You didn’t marry me…you married my body.” While this accusation has a familiar, second-hand ring, it can’t be written off: many male viewers will recognise some part of themselves in Steve’s complacency. Yet the indictment isn’t wholly convincing, and not only because it’s couched in deliberately strained, blackly comic terms that set it at a remove from everyday experience. Alexandra’s air of self-righteous martyrdom and detachment from things of the flesh recall the politically correct distaste for ‘normal’ sexuality apparent in a number of de Heer’s films – from Bubby’s scornful treatment of a couple of prostitutes to the priggishness of Ulli Birvé’s alien in Epsilon (1995). (An even more appalling example is the rape of Madeline [Joey Kennedy] in Dance Me To My Song, implicitly seen as a fitting punishment for promiscuity as well as general nastiness.) As for Alexandra’s own desires, they seem to have less directly to do with sexuality than with her drive to humiliate her husband – a drive which the viewer is at liberty to consider either praiseworthy or psychotic. At a public question-and-answer session I attended following a screening of the film, an audience member asked de Heer a crucial question: if Steve’s sin is to fetishise Alexandra’s body, doesn’t the film equally fetishise her image, locked up inside the four walls of a TV set? Do we get any sense of who Alexandra might be in herself, apart from the various stock roles we see her play out – supportive wife and mother, victim, bitch-goddess, whore? De Heer’s equally revealing response was to suggest that Alexandra could only ‘escape’ her situation if she remained beyond the understanding of both Steve and the audience – as if she were oppressed simply by being a character in a fiction, yet could somehow achieve a magic transcendence that would free her from this context. But while de Heer might claim to have relinquished control over his creation, everything we see her say and do continues to be framed by his own distancing perspective. Even when he’s simply cutting back and forth between Alexandra on the screen and Steve in the chair, careful variations in both the rhythm of the editing and the camera angles work to heighten the drama. Alexandra is often a two-dimensional figure on a screen within the screen, though there are also times when the camera moves ‘inside’ the video image to highlight her expressions or gestures; these shots ironically underline the impenetrability of her absent presence, revealing no more ‘information’ than was previously available. There’s a subtle visual rhyme between the resolution lines of the video image, visible in close-up, and the half-open horizontal blinds that throw their cryptic messages of light and shade, dot-dash-dot, across the lounge room carpet (where is this light coming from, when the scene supposedly takes place after dark?). The mise en abyme that links Alexandra’s movie with de Heer’s reminds us that the difference between film and video is only relative, neither giving us direct access to a real world. Where the opening sequence saw the film image become distorted, at the height of Steve’s agony it’s the video that plunges into slow motion, as Alexandra is penetrated from behind by her secret lover, who now rears up into the frame, flabby and bespectacled, like a monster from the deep. Over the numbing horror of this sequence, the soundtrack reprises the soft wash of synthesised chords from the scene with Alexandra in front of the automated blinds, light shuttling across the blank screen of her face. Again, what we’re allowed to witness is less a revelation of the heroine’s true self than a literal degradation of the image, miming the simultaneous collapse of Steve’s psychic structures. De Heer’s procedures here recall the “new phenomenology of narrative” observed by Richard Combs and Raymond Durgnat in the Dogma films: this is “not…a cinema of avant-garde truth-telling but one of steady disintegration – a collapse into surface, grain, texture, that crosses certain avant-garde paths but is not part of them.” (3) Even before her departure, Alexandra seems to dissolve into the mechanics of the image-making process – almost as if she were never there at all. * * * But when she vanishes, it’s not alone. Alexandra (or de Heer) has one more card left to play – one that we might have expected from the outset, even if we didn’t dare to give it much thought. “What about Emma and Sam?” Steve cries in his final moment of anguish, and Alexandra replies that she’s gone to “considerable trouble to eradicate them” from his life. Not only that, but she’s stolen away their images as well, removing from the house and Steve’s workplace all the photographs where they appear. Ludicrous as it is from a literal standpoint (what about widely circulated class photos? won’t the police start taking an interest?) this final twist is a striking extension of the film’s concern with the relation between image and reality, as well as a challenge to any notion we might have formed of Alexandra as a righteous avenger. Morally, it’s one thing for her to erase herself from an oppressive narrative, but quite another to force the same fate on her children (their disappearance has the irrational finality of fairy-tale, with a last line that reads and they were never seen again). Yet her excessive actions are consistent with one of the most disconcertingly ‘naive’ aspects of de Heer’s cinema: its mixture of earnest didacticism with an amoral delight in tit-for-tat revenge (always a disreputable, ‘pulp fiction’ subject). De Heer’s films draw much of their Gothic power from our ambivalent feelings about such revenge – playing in horror-movie fashion on our awareness that while despised outsiders may be victims or visionaries, they’re also, potentially, monsters. Known to the papers as the “Clingwrap Killer,” Bubby murders his own abusive parents as well as those of his fiancée. The Epsilon alien chops down the childhood “favorite tree” of her human companion, an act of emotional violence weirdly in excess of her goal of making him care about the environment. Gulpilil’s character in The Tracker performs a ruthless act of vigilante justice suggesting that he takes the punitive ethics of Western law-enforcement all too seriously (hoisting his oppressors with their own petard). But rather than ‘placing’ these acts within a comprehensible moral framework, de Heer seems to disclaim responsibility for them, as if he aspired to the tunnel vision of his frequently deranged protagonists. The limits of this approach are the limits of wilful naïvety, the bad faith of a perspective that judges experience without trying to understand it. Perhaps that’s why, paradoxically, most of the “visionary” statements that litter de Heer’s films are crudely reductive, pitched as a form of artless truth-telling that prides itself on reducing any issue to its most simplistic terms. People are just “collections of atoms.” Bacon is really “dead pig.” Sex with Steve, for Alexandra, is when “you stick that thing of yours in and move it around a bit.” While de Heer mainly tries to keep in sync with the outlook of his arthouse public, in the end the liberal bromides feel like alibis – with his wilful clumsiness and ugliness, at a deeper level he seems to be trying for the impossibility of an innocent vision without preconceptions, adequate to the horror of reality-in-itself. While this grotesque conception of the artist as a madman crying in the wilderness has a particular Australian history, it also resonates internationally (as the Dogma comparisons suggest). To take just a couple of examples, Julian Donkey-Boy (Harmony Korine, 1999) and Freddy Got Fingered (Tom Green, 2001) are two films that invite comparison with de Heer’s work in their wild comic and melodramatic assault on a clutch of supposedly ‘taboo’ themes (incest, disability, the abusive family). These are films that edge as close as possible to the abyss of pure stupidity, obscenity and violence that currently mesmerises everyone in audiovisual culture from Michael Haneke and David Lynch down to the producers of Bumfights (the notorious video for which homeless men were paid to attack each other on camera). In an era when film festival catalogues use ‘pulp’ as a ubiquitous term of praise, filmmakers and audiences alike are hooked on the cheap fix of automatic writing and a self-consciously ‘dumb’ romantic nihilism – the dream of using a deliberately excessive narrative to hack into rather than make sense of a collective social and cinematic unconscious, conceived as a swirling chaos of unspeakable, violating sexuality. As Colleen Keane says of Bubby, this is a cinema that “inflicts a kind of violence on the viewer in its intellectual and moral simplicity.” (4) But since this hysterical simplicity is more assumed than real, it tips headlong into a self-violating perversity that we’re liable to find both fascinating and abhorrent. A couple of years ago, Paul Willemen bluntly suggested that many of the Dogma entries were fuelled by “a desire to abuse children” (5); without making this judgement on de Heer, I’d argue that much of his work is haunted by comparable phantasms of tortured innocence, with the line often blurred between torturer and victim. Infantilised by her husband, who won’t even give her money to pay the bills, Alexandra in turn exploits her power over her children by making them into instruments of revenge (as in a modern version of Medea, a play coincidentally adapted to video by von Trier). Some of Alexandra’s masochistic behaviour (in the opening sequence, for example) suggests that at the deepest level the punishment she doles out may be directed against herself, though de Heer’s own purposes are too contradictory to let us settle on this interpretation or any other. The ‘cycles of abuse’ conjured up here might remind us at a more general level that the child abuser and his (or her) victim are among the defining archetypes of contemporary film and TV, with child porn videos as the ultimate taboo fantasy objects of an abject ‘trash culture.’ By their nature, films on this subject are forced to grapple with the limits of representation, as well as figuring a more universal malaise: a sense of helplessness and guilty complicity as evident in the breast-beating of von Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson as in, say, the poisoned dollhouse of The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) or Todd Solondz’s frozen near-autistic smirk. What these mannerist films and filmmakers have in common is a kind of wilfully adolescent ‘self-indulgence,’ combined with a sense of guilt regarding their own fictions – as if there were something inherently fascistic or abusive in presuming to imagine the viewpoint of a character other than the self. Is this de Heer’s anxiety as well? He’s older and more experienced than most of the directors mentioned above, and he’s now developed a surprisingly proficient, almost ‘classical’ style – as if his cinema, having babbled for all these years, had finally learned to speak. Yet Alexandra’s Project is finally not a film that ‘says’ a great deal: beginning as a formalist exercise, it goes on to undermine the very notion of cinematic craft, suggesting a deep suspicion of the artist’s claim to truth or moral wisdom. Will de Heer again find a way, as he did in The Tracker, of reconciling the ‘primitive,’ nihilistic side of his sensibility with a viable cinematic form? It’s not impossible, if he can use his acquired stylistic intelligence to find more fruitful ways of dramatising his dilemmas – somehow negotiating between the superego and the id, finger-wagging didacticism and infantile chaos. Otherwise, we’re left with a cinema that’s ‘crazy’ in a truly negative sense, having less to do with the liberating power of irrationality than with the nightmarish tedium of traumatic scenarios that forever circle back to the same place. Perhaps it’s a warning of sorts that at the end of the present film it’s not Alexandra’s striptease but an ‘innocent’ image of childhood that eventually becomes Steve’s obsessive fetish object. Caught in an infernal loop of his own making, he sits in his lounge room with the video containing the last traces of Emma and Sam … rewinds the tape and plays it back … over and over … Endnotes I haven’t managed to see The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Rolf de Heer, 1999) which has received some scattered screenings at festivals but remains unreleased in this country (or anywhere else, as far as I know). Adrian Martin, “Wanted: Art Cinema,” Cinema Papers, December 2000, pp 30-33. Richard Combs and Raymond Durgnat, “Rules Of The Game,” Film Comment, September-October 2000, 28-32. Colleen Keane, “Simple Verities? Deconstructing The Existential Vision Of Bad Boy Bubby,” Metro 101 (Autumn 1995), pp 55-57. Paul Willemen, “Note On Dancer In The Dark,” Framework 42, www.frameworkonline.com/42pw.htm. Accessed 8 May 2002.