Australian cinema in the first half of the 1990s was full of returns home. Return Home was itself the name of a 1989 film by Ray Argall, about a guy, Noel (Dennis Coard), who flees the big city of Melbourne in order to return to his original home base, a quiet suburb in Adelaide. Argall’s film celebrates a soft, New Age masculinity which is very different to the brutal Ocker stereotype often said to characterise Australian culture. Here we see men having quiet conversations about family, commitment and friendship, men with their children, men enjoying the small domestic things of everyday life – like taking a walk, sitting in a favourite chair or getting the home-delivered newspaper from the front gate.
Another version of soft Aussie masculinity is on show in John Ruane’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel That Eye, the Sky (1995). Here the new man undergoes a more dramatic, Gothic, less everyday kind of birth ritual: he has to go mad, or fall into a coma, or lose total control of his body and his life, before he can come out the other end with some kind of new, mystical insight.
If Return Home is the model film about a male journey of self-discovery, then Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) represents the woman’s version of this type of story. Chez Nous is about a woman’s struggle with her sister, and her difficult attempt to come to terms with her old-fashioned, crusty father. Helen Garner’s screenplay crafts a lovingly intimate drama about a dysfunctional family and the crisis of a woman’s identity. The film explores women’s close experience of their domestic space in a non-condescending way. But it’s also about those drives that send women spinning out of their beloved homes, or onto the great Australian highways, to sort out a few urgent matters of the heart.
Both Return Home and Chez Nous feed into a film I regard rather critically, Richard Franklin’s adaptation of Hannie Rayson’s play Hotel Sorrento (1995). In this film, all the elements come together: the celebration of a gentle masculinity; women relating to each other and to a family home; and the plot device of a main character coming back from England to face her past and explore her cultural origin. Something about Hotel Sorrento has been said very well by commentators including Anna Maria Dell’Oso in The Sydney Morning Herald and Gabrielle Finnane in Filmnews. While this film pretends to be all about our national identity, it frames this question in a quite claustrophobic, narrow, Anglo-Australian way. There’s no trace of multicultural Australia, of Aboriginal Australia; instead, there’s immaculately British-sounding actors like Caroline Goodall and Joan Plowright striding around making pronouncements about the “soul of the landscape” and whatnot. And there’s a larger trace in Hotel Sorrento of a certain Helen Garner legacy, although I wouldn’t lay the blame for this on Garner herself. I’m speaking of a certain exclusive concentration, across a whole lot of Australian books, plays and films, on educated, middle-class, white Australians – and, inside that, a concentration on the emotional rather than the social or political lives of these characters.
Of course, its possible to take the intimate themes of Garner’s fiction and give them a broader social context. That’s what Janine Burke, for instance, does in her most recent novel, Lullaby. The relation that Lullaby has to do Garner’s fiction is the same relation that a new Australian film, Vacant Possession, has to Hotel Sorrento. Vacant Possession is a striking and assured feature debut by writer-director Margot Nash – although she is no newcomer to the Australian film scene, having been an essential and integral part of its independent cinema adventures since the 1970s.
Vacant Possession’s plot resonates uncannily with elements from both Hotel Sorrento and The Last Days of Chez Nous. Here’s another woman, Tessa (played by the superb Pamela Rabe), returning to her home in New South Wales, fighting with her sister Kate (Linden Wilkinson), and coming to terms with a difficult father, Frank (John Stanton). But there’s something altogether less homely and cozily domestic going on here. The abandoned house occupied by Tessa has less warmth and more of a surrealist aura of the uncanny – to the point of being haunted like the houses of horror cinema, with buried, repressed memories taking shape and walking around.
This eerie, unsettled, unreconciled sense cues us to the fact that Vacant Possession does indeed take a broader social perspective on Australian Identity than Hotel Sorrento. For the heroine of this film, exploring the past and her origins, understanding the very notions of home and belonging, means facing up to the Aboriginal legacy in Australian history. Nash’s film attempts to dramatise the issue of Aboriginal ownership of this nation – an issue that has made a permanent dent on almost all Aussie brains since the groundbreaking Mabo legislation of 1992. The vacant possession of the title refers to white Australians’ uneasy, even illegitimate, claim on this land that we call home, and the spiritual emptiness and emotional dysfunction that come in the wake of this.
Summarised that way, Vacant Possession may sound like a schematic, politically correct tract prompted by white, liberal guilt. Films such as Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) and Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991) have rehearsed a similar sermon about the barrenness of white, settler culture in contrast with the richness of ancient, Aboriginal traditions. And these films also tend to force a heavy, political allegory onto a very thin, personal story – a story of love or conflict that is transparently just there to symbolise the big issues and their tidy, pat resolution.
Vacant Possession doesn’t entirely escape from these problems of correctness and schematism. But fortunately, the questions of race and sex are not just academic issues. They are dramatised strongly through elements of racial and sexual melodrama that reminded me of Douglas Sirk’s wild Technicolor soaps of the 1950s, such as Imitation of Life (1959). That’s to say, there’s a decent amount of crossing-the-lines going on here, transgressions of the social norm, particularly when the main character in her teenage incarnation has a steamy relationship with a local Aboriginal boy – an act that brings out her father’s gun.
Something I admire in Vacant Possession is how complex and ambivalent its central, personal relationships are. It’s clear that, at a certain point, Nash felt a need to deeply explore the fraught father-daughter relationship: fraught with its own potential transgressions involving sex and violence, and charged by the very thrill of these subterranean desires and possibilities. Frank (Stanton is great in the role) starts off as shifty, scary, near-psychotic figure. But he quickly metamorphoses from a simple, symbol of monstrous patriarchy into a compelling, fascinating individual.
Vacant Possession emerges from a strong history of women’s cinema in Australia. Indeed, it relates to an international women’s cinema, since the ghost of the seminal experimental filmmaker, Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943), is clearly invoked as well. The imagery of a dark house haunted by ghosts of the past recalls Laurie McInnes’ Broken Highway (1993), while the dreamy intermingling of Aboriginal and settler cultures evokes Tracey Moffatt’s Bedevil (1993). But probably the film that Vacant Possession owes most to is Susan Dermody’s Breathing Under Water (1992), an essay-film in the mode of Chris Marker’s Sunless (1982). Nash and Dermody are drawn to similar poetic symbols: water, wind, precious small objects that trigger memories and epiphanies. And both filmmakers seek, in their work, a deeply resonant poetic politics (drawing on the writings of Walter Benjamin and Christa Wolf) that hopes to draw personal illumination, and social reconciliation, from these tiny miracles of everyday life.
Although many of the elements of Vacant Possession are fairly familiar, Nash’s handling of the material is vivid and inventive. It’s a truly exciting piece of cinema – and this is something I do not often find myself thinking or saying about Australian movies. Past and present are mixed in the same frame: the heroine confronts both the adolescent and child incarnations of herself. Nash has long been attracted to the surrealist legacy of dreams and the unconscious, as her short films We Aim to Please (1976) and Shadow Panic (1989) have shown. Here, greatly assisted by Dion Beebe’s magnificent cinematography and a compellingly atmospheric soundtrack (the music is by Alistair Jones), Nash creates a genuine sense of the surrealist marvelous, at once inspiring and terrifying. Although Vacant Possession has some unnecessary voice-over and its conclusion is overly resolved, I think it’s unquestionably one of the best and most impressive Australian films of the 1990s.
© Adrian Martin June 1995