“If a viewer understands the story and characters fully, then I have failed.”

– Bill Mousoulis on Lovesick1

Those were the days, when you could have no income to speak of and still live in Collingwood. I managed it myself for a few years as a recovering arts student, when I moved with a couple of friends into a three-bedroom workers’ cottage off Smith St, total rent just over 200 dollars a week. The protagonists of Bill Mousoulis’ Lovesick (2002) would have been paying even less for their one-bedroom apartment further down the hill, upstairs in a red-brick six-pack, as inner-suburban Melbourne as it gets.

That was a little more than two decades ago, both in reality and fiction. Mousoulis’ fifth ultra-low-budget feature, Lovesick was scripted in September 2001 and shot the following December, a process recorded in a frank and extensive filmmaker’s diary which remains online.2 The fictional action stays close to reality in terms of time as well as place, starting on September 7, 2001, and ending exactly 15 weeks later on December 21both days being Fridays, as the opening and closing captions of the film spell out.

Like many aspects of Mousoulis’ realism, this specificity is paradoxical, given how far Steve (Clay Ravin) and Louise (Holly Marshall), the central couple of Lovesick, are bent on removing themselves from any context beyond the one they shape together. Having quit their white-collar jobs, they lock themselves away like honeymooners, spending their days either rolling around in bed or pursuing their respective vocations (music for him, literature for her). “The outside world does not exist”, reads a manifesto Louise tacks to the door, while the inside world of the apartment is furnished with items that evoke no specific era other than Middle Period Op-Shop: postcards and knick-knacks, a sagging orange couch, a pile of Penguin Classics

Even when Steve takes note of an upcoming date, the occasion is hardly more 21st-century-specific than Louise’s taste for Jung and Sartre: the release of the new Bob Dylan album “Love and Theft”, scheduled for September 11. Sledgehammer dramatic ironies aside, Dylan’s title isn’t far removed from the concerns of the film, which in the long run positions itself as both romance and crime story, and more immediately as a study of the tension between ideals and the pragmatics of getting by. For Steve and Louise, it would seem, no compromise is possible: having taken the leap into authenticity, it’s enough of a sacrifice for them to head out to the supermarket, let alone consider returning to the drudgery of a day-job. Third-party views might tempt or rankle but can’t shift them from their course: “Small-minded”, Steve mutters dismissively of their former group of friends, perhaps of all groups with more members than two.

Which opens the question of where Mousoulis himself, the third wheel in the arrangement, stands in relation to his characters and their dreams. We can say at least that he’s neither Frank Borzage nor Michael Haneke, though it’s an index of Lovesick’s singularity that both comparisons could be viewed as relevant. Satire isn’t the word, but irony is undoubtedly lurking, not so much in the sex scenes – naked in each other’s arms, the youthful leads have the blank beauty of Robert Bresson’s “models” – but through much of the dead time that otherwise occupies the film’s first movement. Steve noodles on an acoustic guitar; Louise hunches over a computer, trying to piece together the opening of a short story; both aimlessly pace their couple of rooms, or loll about like bored apes at the zoo. Nor can economic realities forever be kept at bay: “We should go on the dole tomorrow”, Steve eventually proposes, a quintessential Mousoulis line reprised almost verbatim from his first feature Open City (1993).

The “under-emoting” favoured by Mousoulis can resemble anti-acting or a brand of performance art; equally, it can feel as if the awkward mannerisms of Melbourne introverts have never been so precisely caught. Consequently, it’s not always easy to judge how far what looks like anomie should be understood as character specific. Still, Steve and Louise’s non-reaction to the fall of the Twin Towers, via a glimpsed news report, is surely an indicator of how rapidly they’ve come unmoored from ordinary emotional responses – and perhaps a moment of existential self-positioning, with shades less of Sartre than Camus. Nestled together on the couch, they stare at the screen with the blankness of junkies; then Louise abruptly switches off and they fall into an embrace, leaving it to us to decide if this is sheer indifference or a willed refusal to give weight to the nightmare they’ve left behind.

Spoilers follow. A third possibility is that violence in itself is an aphrodisiac, which seems to be the case a few scenes on, when Steve and Louise seal their bond by taking revenge on a couple of normies (the term fits, although it wouldn’t gain currency till years later, and the characters have no more to do with the Internet than they do with drugs). In the aftermath the film becomes a scaled-down version of a Hitchcock chase thriller, with the pair forced outdoors for an indefinite period and following separate trajectories on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile some of our sympathy is reallocated to the mild-mannered police detectives (John King and Josie Scott) assigned to the case – another male-female duo, who by default suggest the parents otherwise absent from the film, even if the actors in question aren’t that much older than the leads.

The travelogue component of this stretch of the narrative is yet another aspect of Mousoulis’ curious realism, which in his own words “doesn’t refrain from giving time and space… to the most mundane and everyday settings the characters go through”.  Once again, the effect is paradoxical: over the course of Lovesick this mundanity becomes increasingly opaque, in parallel with our awareness of the impossibility of grasping the psychology of major and minor characters alike. This culminates in the lovers’ reunion in the Bourke Street Mall, where Mousoulis cuts away as if they’d at last entered a realm closed to intruders, while leaving us space to interpret this final epiphany as a brand of Christmas miracle.

Self-evidently, Lovesick is not a literally autobiographical film (unlike, say, Mousoulis’ 1997 My Blessings, an equally tricky proposition but for very different reasons). Yet it’s hard to avoid viewing it as some kind of reflection on its maker’s own trajectory, all the more so in hindsight. To date, it’s the last of his features to be shot on film, and the only one on Super 16 (he has emphasised the importance of the wider aspect ratio, which among other things brings home the protagonists’ isolation). As such, it occupies a pivot point in his career, distinct from the unavoidable technical roughness of his early Super 8 work and equally from the looser, more improvisatory approach of the later digital features. Had it screened at Rotterdam or other festivals where he submitted it, everything that followed might have been different – although, frankly, this is not a film by a director interested in reaching any audience at all except on his own, very specific terms.

One final paradox is that this very intransigence, while seemingly leaving interpretation to the viewer, ultimately removes much doubt as to whose side the film is on. Bringing all this back to Steve and Louise, Lovesick might be described as striving for the status of “pure cinema” – meaning “pure” in the sense of uncompromised, and also in the formal sense varyingly associated with Hitchcock and Bresson – even as it comments wryly on the foolhardiness of such dreams. As ever with Mousoulis, the film never tries to disguise its modest means, which its “realism” is partly a function of: easier to shoot the world as it stands than to pour limited funds into building stylised sets. Yet despite his declared refusal to “heighten”, from one shot to the next Lovesick exhibits a visible (and audible) degree of formal control not equally present in all his work: in the lighting of the interior tableaux, for example, and likewise in the use of colour, especially the somewhat Godardian reds and blues which follow the leads around when they go on the run.

“Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff”, rasps Bob Dylan on the final track off “Love and Theft”, which accompanies Lovesick’s closing credits. In its original context the line can already be taken on a couple of levels, given the album’s title and Dylan’s documented habit of appropriating other people’s words3. Its presence here adds another layer of irony – and, as with the other Dylan songs included, makes an existential statement of its own in its refusal to bow to “outside” demands. I haven’t asked Bill about this, but even if a distributor had decided that Lovesick was worth the gamble, I can’t see the money being available to pay for the rights.

Lovesick (2002 Australia 73 mins)

Prod Co: Innersense Productions Prod, Dir, Scr, Ed: Bill Mousoulis Phot: Nick Hayward Prod Design/Art Dir: Albert Fung Songs: Bob Dylan

Cast: Holly Marshall, Clay Ravin, Marie Ng, Stuart Black, Josie Scott, John King


  1. Bill Mousoulis, “Diary: Post-Production – 2002”, Lovesick: a film by Bill Mousoulis (2002): www.innersense.com.au/lovesick/diary_02.html. All quotes that follow are from this source.
  2. See Mousoulis, “Diary”, Lovesick: a film by Bill Mousoulis (2001-2002): http://www.innersense.com.au/lovesick/diary.html.
  3. Jon Pareles, “Critic’s Notebook: Plagiarism in Dylan, or a Cultural Collage?”, New York Times (12 July2003): www.nytimes.com/2003/07/12/books/critic-s-notebook-plagiarism-in-dylan-or-a-cultural-collage.html.

About The Author

Jake Wilson is a Melbourne-based freelance writer, a film reviewer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former co-editor of Senses of Cinema. His monograph Mad Dog Morgan was published in 2015 by Currency Press and the National Film and Sound Archive. His website can be found at www.jakewilson.com.au/.

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