Friends and Strangers
What Is It That We’re Taking Slow?
Intimacy: there’s always too much of it, or not enough of it. Such is the interpersonal terrain of James Vaughan’s delightful and surprising Australian film, Friends and Strangers.
A young man (Fergus Wilson as Ray) and woman (Emma Diaz as Alice) go on a trip together; he’s a bit gormless and awkward in his attempts at conversation, while she’s more confident and experienced, but in the process of getting over a long-term relationship that hit the rocks. Ray and Alice are not a couple but – and here the excruciating comic buzz, like in an Elaine May film, starts to set in – maybe they could be, at any moment. After all, they are sharing the same tent. Even though they seem scarcely to know each other. Little wonder that Alice asks Ray in exasperation: “What is it that we’re taking slow?”
The film (which is also scripted by Vaughan) proceeds by introducing other characters, particularly other couples: we are implicitly invited to compare them on the scale of over– or under-intimacy. Like Alice and Ray, little Lauren (Poppy Jones) and her father happen to share a bed in their caravan: is that too much closeness between parent and child? With the lightest and gentlest of touches, Friends and Strangers simply moves on to explore further aspects of its human mosaic, without passing moralising judgement or positing any supposedly healthy, balanced norm of what a “relationship” is. The film is all about assumptions, and their deflation: the assumptions the characters make in relation to each other, and the assumptions we as viewers might automatically make about them, on first glance.
I do not often judge the worth of a film on the basis of whether it mirrors my own, personal experiences. Friends and Strangers, however, happens to carry a particular sting of (to reclaim that dreadful word) “relatability” – and, very likely, not only for me. For I, too, have sometimes dwelt in that fuzzy zone between friendship and intimacy; I, too, have been knocked sideways by the crossed-wires occasionally sparked by encounters with strangers, “officials”, and parents; I, too, have had someone (a landlord, in my case) show up at my door and shove their young teenage kid inside to “ask me about my career” – to the discomfort of all present. This film is like the diary I have never dared keep!
Back to the movie. The friends, lovers and family members here are never quite sure of where the interactive boundaries and barriers are set: “Can I be honest?” is a plaintive opening gambit from Ray’s best pal, Miles (David Gannon). But elsewhere, it’s the strangers encountered along every path who never cease to overshare banalities, ask deeply probing questions, or impose (in a very Aussie fashion) their bullish will on people they’ve never met before. Ray, who makes wedding videos, goes to discuss a job with a very well-off client, David (Greg Zimbulis); the latter, right off the bat, poses startling propositions like: “Would you agree with the statement that videography is the art of illusion?”
In its unique way, Friends and Strangers is a comedy of manners. As such, it will be inevitably compared with the work of Éric Rohmer. But, with its elliptical structure of characters who appear and disappear across a fan of seemingly disconnected episodes, it is closer to the Hong Sang-soo model. Like Hong’s films, it projects a droll, quizzical, frazzled perception of the oddness of meetings, partings, and uncertain emotional (and physical) fumblings. The style Vaughan has adopted for this project is, however, all his own: eschewing the sometimes listless, rough-sketch look of fast-worker Hong or late-lazy Rohmer, he places his faith, predominantly, in static frames and careful compositions, within which the interpersonal mise en scène unfolds. It is a refreshing change of form, especially in the global post-Mumblecore era of hit-or-miss, offbeat humour.
This particular comedy of manners is also very Australian, without making a nationalistic show of it. Like many countries, Australia is a place in which the “big cities” or metropolitan centres like to behave as rivals. A friend once explained to me the difference between Melbourne and Sydney in cultural-linguistic terms: when Melburnians kiss passionately, they refer to it as “pashing on”, whereas Sydneysiders “pash off”. All relationships in Sydney, I was authoritatively informed, are therefore furtive, fleeting, ambiguous.
Need I say that Friends and Strangers is, down to its toes, a Sydney film? That’s a big part of its charm, humour and style. See this film and pash off!
© Adrian Martin 20 January 2021