Gillian Leahy’s 1986 film, My Life Without Steve, is a story of solitude, pain and obsession, of raw emotions elegantly presented and endlessly interrogated. It begins with an exterior perspective, an image of sunlight on water. The camera moves slowly and gracefully from outside to inside; thereafter, the film is essentially an interior vision of some kind: a first-person narrative, an anguished, irritable, unsparing, self-centring contemplation.

The title foregrounds an absence. This is in part a film about what is missing, what is no longer there, what has been lost: its focus is on the impact of a past relationship continually invoked, examined, critiqued and lamented. In the aftermath of a breakup, the central figure, Liz (Jenny Vuletic), has moved into a small apartment overlooking an inner-city harbour bay in Sydney. “After you left, I moved in here for a year, hoping the view would pull me out of the misery. Maybe it did,” she says at the beginning of the film. “And there was nowhere else to live. Except alone. And lonely. Without you.” 

The film takes place in the apartment and in her head. Jenny Vuletic’s vocal performance is the essence of Liz; we see her briefly in photographs, and fleetingly in reflections in the window late at night, and in a mirror. What the camera shows us stands for what Liz sees, and for the viewer, there is a kind of identification in the first-person position of the camera and the interiority of the voice. The lack of an embodied central character is not necessarily distancing: it gives the spectator the sense of being there, in close proximity to Liz and her words, inside her thoughts, her frustrations, her self-examination and self-reproach. 

My Life Without Steve is structured in alternating episodes of day and night. It is one sort of experience during the daylight hours, something very different after dark. There are different rhythms to each episode, different energies and patterns of sound and ambient noise, as well as moments when the camera simply contemplates an image of beauty, light, stillness. 

My Life Without Steve

Over the course of 53 minutes the film stays inside the apartment, almost as if Liz has confined herself there like some 1980s Lady of Shalott. Yet she makes it clear that she goes out, visits friends, goes to a psychiatrist, to the gym, gets a job on a film, goes on a trip to the country. The view from the window onto Blackwattle Bay looks out onto a flurry of activity: an industrial harbour, boats, a container terminal, a jetty, people going fishing; beyond that a bridge, the constant to and fro of cars on the highway and the outlines of a distant suburb. There is a world outside for Liz and for others, but the film remains fixed on what happens inside this physical and psychic space.

The location, the small apartment with a harbour view, mirrors a place Leahy lived after a breakup. Its interior is a constructed environment, created in conjunction with art director Jan Mackay and cinematographer Erika Addis, shooting on 35 mm, with a colour palette that shifts from scene to scene. It is — and this is at the heart of the work — a mixture of the personal and the general, and the way these categories can overlap.

There are objects we see — VHS tapes, a rotary dial phone, for example — that have an almost museum-like aura for a viewer in 2021. Watching decades later, a spectator is also aware of the absence of technology that would enable different kinds of behaviour for Liz. No mobile phones, no texting, no internet: so many modes of contact, communication and surveillance unavailable in 1986 to the woman at the film’s centre.

My Life Without Steve

Every frame of My Life Without Steve is full of culturally specific evidence: photographs, film posters, book covers, pieces of furniture, clothing, kitchenware. Yet they are not there simply for the flavour of authenticity, to testify to what was being read and thought and consumed in inner-city Sydney in the 1980s: they have a place in the individual world of the film. There are items that belong to Leahy, such as a panoramic photograph of the view onto the bay, given to her by photographer Peter Murphy, that we see on the wall in the opening tracking shot, emphasising the significance of the view itself and the act of its representation. There are snapshot-style photographs that have been staged for the film. And there are more general artefacts, shared indicators of a point of a view or a way of life. 

Liz’s monologue, like her apartment, is full of references. Song lyrics and quotations tell us what is running through her head: country music, pop songs and standards, lyrics that speak to her sense of what’s happened to her, words that she croons to herself as she reflects on the situation she is trying to come to terms with. The first and last song she sings is Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, a work that plays with notions of time; it’s an affirmation of love that is already anticipating loss, combining present pleasure and future despair. 

There are also passages from things Liz is reading or pondering, whether it is Colette on the nature of time between relationships, Freud on melancholy or Chris Marker on the desiring body. And the film is populated by others, by friends and family whom Liz addresses or quotes, including Steve. These are given equal weight. Liz declares: “You said your rejection of me would feed my masochism, Steve. ‘Love and death are the twin components of romantic love.’ Juliet Mitchell said that. ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Your love cuts like a knife.’ Bob Dylan said that.” She talks on several occasions about harming herself: the image of the wound is a recurring motif.

Sometimes her quotations are overt and cited, sometimes they are not. A line from Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, “I pick up a book and take a sleeping pill, ‘calmly’”, for example, is incorporated into the monologue’s flow, as if these are Liz’s words. And this is preceded by a compact, quasi-poetic invocation of the space — “The stain on the wall. The pattern on the carpet. The curtain blows in the wind through a crack in the window” — which comes directly from Leahy’s screenplay notes. 

Early on, a sound cue — footsteps from the apartment above, pacing up and down — leads Liz to recall a similar effect in Gaslight, the 1944 movie with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, about a man deliberately driving a woman crazy, so that she retreats into herself, completely under his thumb. In recent years, the reference has taken on a new resonance, somewhat detached from its origins: “gaslighting” has become an all-purpose term used to describe the way a person (usually a man) manipulates another person (usually a woman) into doubting what she knows and sees, questioning her own sanity. 

Liz fixates on the dynamic of this cinematic relationship, and on stills from the movie. Is she playing Bergman’s role, she wonders, is Steve gaslighting her? But, more than this, has she created a situation which determines the cruelty of his response? Could the masochism she perceives in herself be the exercise of a kind of power? 

My Life Without Steve

It is not an idle question. My Life Without Steve shows Liz trawling through memories, traces, shared histories; the character is, among other things, looking for evidence, re-examining letters, assembling photographs, reflecting on things said and written, talking about the immediate past and about childhood. She is thinking about the things that have formed her, from popular culture to politics to family expectations. She doesn’t spare herself, and she can be hard on others. Feminism might be a way for her to understand her world, but she pushes back against some of its perceived orthodoxies, or her perception of them.

She is particularly exercised by the question of romantic love: how do women come to experience it, what do they anticipate from it? She looks for answers from every kind of source: from theory to fiction to a letter from her aunt (“Try not to expect too much from the men in your life, my dear. They don’t see love as we do.”) There is a struggle with the demands she feels that her mother has placed on her, and a rueful recognition that she perceives a pattern. “Mum, you use on me the emotional blackmail that I use on Steve that drives him to drive me away,” she says. 

The ongoing turbulent mother-daughter relationship is important to the film, arguably as significant as the past relationship between Liz and Steve. As Liz pours out her frustrations, Leahy shows a series of domestic images, a pot of cumquats simmering on the stove, a succession of close-ups of bright floral motifs on cups, plates and paintings. Once again, this is both general and specific: there is the familiar association of floral images with the feminine, but also a private reference to Leahy’s mother, who passed on her knowledge of gardening to her daughter.

My Life Without Steve was made with support from the Australian Film Commission and the Women’s Film Fund. It won many prizes. It received the Grand Prix and the Erwin Rado Award for best Australian short film at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 1986, and it won the general category at the Sydney Film Festival in the same year, as well as best film in the experimental category at the AFI awards. It had a short theatrical season as part of a double bill.

Although it won prizes and had positive reviews, it also drew sharp responses, cautious qualifications and mixed reactions. Favourable reviews praised its singularity, its originality and its richness, and some suggested that it avoided the risk of self-indulgence that was assumed to be inherent in the subject matter. Reservations and criticisms focused on charges that it was self-indulgent, self-pitying and pretentious, or that it in some way failed or distorted contemporary feminism.  

My Life Without Steve is not a diary film, although some viewers have assumed it to be, until the credits reveal Vuletic’s role and the names of the actors who appear in Liz’s photographs. This is an understandable assumption: with all the elegance of its design, the film feels uncomfortably real, personal, self-revealing, full of indicators of an individual life at a point of chaos. Leahy has deliberately embraced personal resonance and the texture of the autobiographical.

Yet when she was doing publicity for the film, Leahy wanted to avoid suggestions that it might be autobiographical, but found herself conceding in interviews that the figure of Liz was based in part on her own experiences as well as those of friends. At the time, she was keen to emphasise its fictional qualities: a few years later, she said in an interview that in certain circumstances she would want to claim it as a documentary. 

There is also the question of the emotional centre of the film. In her book The Lonely City: Adventures In The Art of Being Alone (2016), Olivia Laing talks about the stigma and the mystery of loneliness, and the uncomfortable feelings that it provokes in those who perceive it in others The book came into being when Laing found herself alone in New York after a relationship had abruptly ended; she began thinking about the relationship between loneliness and making art, particularly in the city where she was now living.

Laing speaks of loneliness as being seen as “a taboo state, whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee”;1 perhaps there is some of that in a few of the contemporary responses to My Life Without Steve. Social scientist Robert Weiss, who wrote an important study on the phenomenon, saw a common assumption that lonely people brought it on themselves (in Laing’s words) “by being too timid or unattractive, too self-pitying or self-absorbed”.2 Making a film about this state might well be seen, in some reviewers’ minds, as an even more dubious form of self-absorption. 

My Life Without Steve does not end decisively. We already know — Liz tells us at the beginning — that this year is over, even though we experience it through the film as a kind of present tense. Leahy does not present a resolution; by asking questions at various stages, she is not setting up a situation in which unequivocal answers will be forthcoming. Yet there is no suggestion that Liz is rejecting feminism out of hand by expressing frustration with some of its received ideas, or acknowledging how difficult she finds things.

What ensues in the end is not revelation, but progress of a tentative kind. The tensions within My Life Without Steve remain as active and significant as its visual pleasures. There are small changes in Liz’s environment and outlook; some of these are spoken of, some are simply visible in the frame. And there is the nature of the film itself, which can be seen as the representation of an act of remembering, of retracing, of making a mark; of bringing questions, challenges, pain and frustration into the open, to be acknowledged. considered, worked on.

Thanks for research assistance to Simon Strong and Olympia Barron at the AFI Research Collection, RMIT University.


  1. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016), p. 25
  2. Ibid, p 27

About The Author

Philippa Hawker is a writer on film and the arts. She is working on a book about Jean-Pierre Léaud.

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