Ray Lawrence’s Lantana is a multi-strand narrative drawing four couples into a web of love, deceit, sex and death.This film adaptation of Andrew Bovell’s play, Speaking in Tongues,tests the limits of the characters’ marriages as their lives intertwine, like the vine-like tendrils of the lantana plant.
Lantana’s opening scene immediately suggests the sinister nature of the Australian landscape. As the familiar tropical hum of crickets fills the air, the camera pans overa lantana bush, a seemingly beautiful veneer of foliage. As the camera plunges beneath the flowers, however, a hidden and savage world of thorns and tangled undergrowth is revealed. A fly hovers, before a fade to black exposes a dishevelled, bloodied female corpse caught in the undergrowth, limbs fixed at awkward angles (1).Whether murder or accident, itis left to the audience to ponder. An archetypal beginning to a cinematic thriller, it is not made clear that this is a flash forward, with subsequent scenes providing enlightenment on the cause of the woman’s death. This is a deliberate attempt to heighten the film’s mystery.
This scene is a key moment in Australian cinema as it follows a local filmic convention in which the landscape appears to draw its victims into its depths or barren expanses. This convention often employs a tracking shot presented from the victim-character’s point-of-view, following the desire of that character who is drawn into mysterious manifestations of landscape (2).In Lantana, the viewer is drawn into the lantana’s mysterious interior to discover a lifeless female body, that of psychiatrist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), which projects the criminal responsibility for her death onto the empty but animus bush. Similarly, in Picnicat Hanging Rock’s (Peter Weir, 1975) disappearance scene or Mad Max’s(George Miller, 1979) scrubland scene, the tracking shot is complemented by a series of reverse shots seemingly taken from the perspective of the malice lurking within the flora or rocks (3). Within each of these compositions, the landscape holds the threat of violence, danger and death.
The colonial doctrine of terra nullius resulted in numerous portrayals in art, literature and film of white women and children disappearing into the bush and men presumably being killed by nothing but the harsh, unforgiving landscape (4). Lantana, however,offers a “different version of this imaginative flight” by shifting the scene of the crime from the native bushland to an introduced weed, relocating the problem of troubled sovereignty back onto the culture of the coloniser (5). Kirsty Duncanson argues that the film reflects a new acknowledgement of the colonising violence of Anglo-Australian law, with the terra nullius of the film troubled by a contemporary white Australian suspicion of its fiction. In Lantana, the “haunting absent-present animus is revealed as a product of the white imagination, projected on to the body of an American character” (6). The narrative shift of the crime scene from local bushland to exotic lantana transfers responsibility from the “native” to the “introduced”. In Lantana, terra nullius is reinscribed as the site of criminal violence; it is the scene of the crime of Anglo-Australian sovereignty (7).
The opening scene is also significant as the lantana serves as a recurring motif throughout the film, symbolising the threat and the attraction of the exotic: if left unattended, the weed may grow out of control, choking and threatening the native and the norm.While Lantana explores the characters’ desire for a taste of the “other” (a gay man, a newly separated woman, a Latin dance teacher), these fantasies are eventually quashed. The film ends by producing a “vision of subtly normalised hetero, mono, familial (though not necessarily happy) forms of desiring, loving and reproducing in contemporary Australia” (8).
The lantana also acts as a metaphor for the deliberately multi-dimensional Australia represented in the film. Lantana is set in a globally recognisable Australia and, for a domestic audience, “refers clearly to both earlier and contemporary debates about Australianness” (9).Lantana represents Australia as multi-ethnic, multi-sexual and multi-class, with its cast a “cross section of the Sydney population – gay, straight, ‘white’, ‘ethnic’, ‘black’, professional, trade, married, single, and separated” (10). The film’s setting also navigates the different economic and social locales of Sydney, mapping the diversity of this landscape. The presence of lantana, an introduced weed and an everyday suburban feature of the landscape, becomes part of this new Australia. As both local and exotic, as everyday and something to be exterminated,the plant represents a certain uneasiness about this new Australia (11).
- For more detailed analysis, see Gary Simmons, Lantana: a rippling good yarn, ACMI Study Guides, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, 2005, pp. 37-39.
- Kirsty Duncanson, “The Scene of the Crime: The Uneasy Figuring of Anglo-Australian Sovereignty in the Landscape of Lantana”, Law Text Culture, vol. 13, no. 1, 2009, p. 39.
- Duncanson, p. 39.
- The colonial doctrine of terra nullius, or “empty land”, whereby Australia was regarded as either empty of human inhabitants or run by inhabitants whose social and political systems were not recognised. It was therefore claimed and settled by (predominantly) British colonists. The doctrine was overturned by the landmark court caseMabo v Queensland (commonly known as the Mabo case), which was decided by the High Court of Australia on 3 June 1992. It established that Eddie Mabo and other Torres Strait Islanders were the owners of their island.
- Duncanson, p. 26.
- Duncanson, p. 43.
- Duncanson, p. 46.
- KirstyDuncanson, Catriona Elder and Murray Pratt, “Entanglement and the Modern Australian Rhythm Method: Lantana’s Lessons in Policing Sexuality and Gender”, Portal, vol. 1, no. 1, 2004, p. 3.
- Duncanson, Elder and Pratt, pp. 5-6.
- Duncanson, Elder and Pratt, p. 6.
- Duncanson, Elder and Pratt, p. 6.