If there’s one thing that defines contemporary Australian cinema, it’s an anxiety about national mythologies. Of course, those mythologies are present within any national cinema, but most national cinemas have also contributed to their respective national mythology more than Australian cinema, which has enjoyed a fairly fitful success over the course of its history, even if it did produce the world’s first feature-length film with The Story of the Kelly Gang. Indeed, in countries like the United States, France, England and Russia, cinema has played such a critical role in the formation of a national mythology that it provides an ideal vocabulary for reflecting upon and critiquing that mythology, whereas in Australia there seems to be a greater scepticism about using our cinematic past as a contemporary vocabulary, or at least a fear that it will devolve into a mere pastiche of cinematic tropes along the lines of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, which tapped into these anxieties in quite a novel way. As a result, each successive wave of Australian cinema since the classical era – which in Australian terms occurred a bit later than in America, around the 1950s – has attempted to rewrite Australian cinematic mythologies that in some sense don’t exist, or at least exist more within the corpus of Australian literature and history, with some of the most iconic pre-60s Australian features being adaptations of popular novels, as well as fictionalisations of canonical historical events within the Australian psyche.
While Australian films of all shapes and sizes have been produced in the last half-century, I nevertheless sense two distinct phrases in this attempt to both create an undo an Australian cinematic mythology in the one gesture. Firstly, and most iconically, we have what is often referred to as the Australian New Wave in the 1970s – again, about a decade or so behind its American and European counterparts – in which this search for a self-imploding mythology quite naturally led directors to apocalyptic visions, narratives in which all the conventional and familiar aspects of the Australian legend culminated with spectacles of total destruction, often centred upon an uncanny, futuristic or science-fictional outback that owed a lot to the kinds of sci-fi naturalism present within American cinema at this time. It’s no coincidence that these visions were often helmed by foreign directors, or by directors who would eventually depart for other shores, since they were essentially visions of Australia from the outside, gestures of derealisation and defamiliarisation that frequently condensed the continent to a series of sparkling, postmodern cities backing directly onto bush, in a synthesized Australian sublime that, by the 80s, could be neatly condensed to four minutes in the film clip for Icehouse’s “Great Southern Land,” which aligned the uncanny wonders of the emergent synthesizer – its cold warmth, ice that burned – into this disjunctive space between the city centre and desert fringe.
Of course, there’s only so much apocalyptism a movement can sustain before it starts to collapse in on itself and become camp, and it was only a matter of time before George Miller celebrated just this with the Mad Max trilogy and, more specifically, with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, which took the austere dread of the opening film and reconfigured it as camp, in the same way that First Blood became almost unrecognisable in the wake of subsequent Rambo films. As a result, while it may be a long way in spirit from the Australian 90s – although it was a fixture in every Australian video store – I see Beyond Thunderdome as a transitional work, heralding the next major strategy for crafting a self-immolating mythology. In her iconic “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag observed that camp is an art of finding “success in certain passionate failures” and over the course of the 90s, films like Muriel’s Wedding, Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert seemed to engender just this taste for the passionate failure of the various Australian mythologies they seemed to offer up only to puncture, with Baz Luhrmann taking over the reins from George Miller – and, more distantly, Peter Weir – to become the auteur who would define the next decade of Australian cinema. While these were flagship films, and popular amongst international audiences, there were a whole variety of other camp outings as well, which, as the decade proceeded, increasingly started to focus in on Australian exploitation cinema of the 1970s – and 70s culture more generally – as a progenitor for their self-thwarting mythology, from 1997’s Welcome to Woop Woop, Stephan Elliott’s follow-up to Priscilla, to 2003’s You Can’t Stop The Murders, a small town mystery about a policeman trying to conceal his unrequited crush on his partner while investigating a sequence of murders inspired by the Village People.
As You Can’t Stop the Murders might suggest, this camp aesthetic was well and truly exhausted by the early 90s, with the 00s changing once again towards a more auteurist-oriented period, roughly bracketed by Ray Lawrence’s Lantana and Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, which felt like something of a preposterous parody of Australian auteurist ambitions. While the most incredible cinematic achievement during this period was arguably Rolf de Heer’s collaborations with the Ramingining Peoples, this shared auteurism, or devolution of auteurism in the name of indigenous reconciliation, was not especially characteristic of the decade as a whole, just as de Heer’s provisional, quizzical and reparative sensibility was at odds with an increasingly nihilistic evacuation of both apocalyptic and camp anti-mythologies in the name of a scepticism about Australian culture and history that seemed to be even more intense in the new millennium. Sometimes this nihilism was quite lush, as in Little Fish or Beautiful Kate, and sometimes it was quite brutal, as in Wolf Creek, but both the lushness and brutality converged on a newfound fascination with alpine Australia. Bookended by Cate Shortland’s Somersault and Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne, the Snowy Mountains became a kind of synecdoche for the chilly, austere minimalism of Australian cinema in the 00s, as Shortland, in particular, sketched out a vision of the region that was utterly devoid of the mechanical heroics of hydroelectricity and instead transformed to play something of the same role as the desert played in Australian cinema of the 70s. After all, mountainous regions are deserts as well, and the Snowy provided the unique prospect of a desert devoid of cinematic mythologies – who thinks of snow-capped mountains when they picture Australia? – with the result that virtually every other washed-out, handheld, faded Australian vista in cinema at this time took on something of an unearthly, hallucinatory, alpine glow as well. Collectively, they may have constituted a kind of cinematographic borealis – these were definitely some of the most beautifully lit films in Australian history – but individually these films often felt designed to icily repudiate residual mythology or national affiliation you might yearn to glean from them.
In some ways, there’s been a change once again with the new decade, dating roughly from the release of Australia, or from the release of David Michod’s Animal Kingdom, depending on how you look at it. While there are various ways to characterise this new wave, it’s nevertheless different from every other that has preceded it insofar it finally feels as if – between these apocalyptic, camp and auteurist-nihilist movements – Australia has finally achieved a sufficient cinematic heritage and mythology to start to allow for the kinds of self-examination through cinema available elsewhere. While every subsequent wave has been about finding some way to both create and puncture a cinematic mythology – or to create a self-destructive mythology – the somewhat paradoxical result is that that very attempt has been what has created the mythology and provided such a plethora of languages for directors working at the moment. Against the very different kinds of defensiveness engendered by apocalyptism, camp and nihilist auteurism, a new kind of openness has emerged that is no less excoriating in its vision of the Australian past – if anything, it is more confident in its critique – but now has something like a sustained, syncretic cinematic vocabulary to express that critique. As a result, a critical component of the current New Wave is a kind of stylistic syncretism of these three previous moments, as directors have increasingly pursued a kind of camp apocalyptic – or campocalyptic – aesthetic in the name of an auteurism that no longer seems completely compelled to subsume itself into nihilism either. One of the great paradoxes of the auteurist-nihilism of the 00s was that it was auteurism by definition that was sceptical of auteurism, leading to grand debut gestures or one-off masterpieces that seemed to almost preclude the possibility of some kind of sophomore effort, let alone an auteurist career. By contrast, David Michod has already followed up Animal Kingdom with The Rover, while Justin Kurzel has already followed up Snowtown with Macbeth, and while neither film is as striking as the original, they’ve been just as visible on the global stage, premiering at Cannes – Kurzel in the main competition – and seeming to usher in a new era of Australian auteurism.
For my money, Kurzel’s Snowtown is the greatest film in this most recent wave, as well as one of the greatest Australian films ever made – something you can say in an industry like ours with a bit less snobbery or delusion than in an industry operating at the scale of the United States, England, France or China. In its vision of the Snowtown Murders as the legacy of an apocalyptically sublimated queer impulse struggling to assert itself in small-town Australia, it was one of the most mercurial and respectful serial killer recreations I have ever seen. And yet Jocelyn Moorhouse’s latest film, The Dressmaker, gives Snowtown a run for its money, offering up a campocalyptic vision of small-town Australia that, in its own way, is just as brutal and unforgiving, even if it gets there by way of a more comforting and cosy route, something that’s been particularly emphasised in the trailer and promotional material but is not especially characteristic of the film itself, which changes tack so gradually – and yet so suddenly at key moments at well – that watching it is aking to experiencing a twist unfold over two full hours.
On paper, it’s something of a homecoming story, with Kate Winslet playing Tilly Dunnage, an Australian designer who returns from a successful career in Paris to try and piece together the mystery that led to her being expelled from her hometown of Dungatar at the age of twelve. From the very beginning, though, it’s clear that this is going to be a more of an unhomecoming story, with the gorgeous aerial footage of Tilly’s approach to Dungatar recalling the Adelaide Tourism Bureau’s notorious, Snowtown-inspired advertisement for South Australia. Upon arriving in Dungatar, Tilly encounters a series of Australian types, or perhaps more accurately a series of Australian postures, as a stunning array of Australian character actors – including Barry Otto, Alison Whyte, Sarah Snook, Sacha Horler, Caroline Goodall, Shane Bourne, Julia Blake, Genevieve Lemon and Kerry Fox – provide something like a cross-section of the most iconic, pivotal and memorable stances, poses and body language from Australian cinema and television, with each actor managing to warp their respective pose to its logical extremity in ways that seem to disfigure the film’s entire mise-en-scene and sense of space in the process.
Towering above them all are three highly postural performances – Judy Davis as Tilly’s mother Molly, who is bedridden for the first part of the film but gradually embarks back into the outside world; Liam Hemsworth as Tilly’s prospective suitor, Teddy, who provides the only really sincere heroic stance and gaze in the entire film; and, above all, the local policeman, Horatio, played by Hugo Weaver, a cross-dresser and – possible – homosexual whose protean body language and postural promiscuity makes him a natural narrative pivot as well, in a kind of latter-day revision of his role in Priscilla in which the cross-dresser is now a symptom of the Australian small-town community, rather than an occasional and incongruous visitor to it. Of course, even these three stalwart performances are overshadowed by Tilly herself, whose philosophy is to teach posture before she provides clothes – or to at least teach posture through clothes – as she gradually finds herself courted by more and more women in the town, enabling her to set up a sewing business at her mother’s house as she sets about exploring her past. As a highly postural actor, that’s a natural fit for Winslet, who’s one of the few contemporary actors you can really see working well in silent cinema as much as in sound cinema – something that becomes apparent as post-continuity starts to replicate some of the conditions of the sound era in its dissociation of sound and image – while it also serves to helps distract the audience from the residual knowledge of Winslet’s Englishness, although even without that distraction it has to be admitted that her delivery and body language are both unmistakably Australian in their accents, reflecting her work with Jane Campion on Holy Smoke! as well as, more distantly, her mastery of the New Zealand accent for her debut in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.
In other words, Winslet doesn’t seem like a foreign actress playing an Australian character so much as an Australian character whose sojourn in France has transformed her – in the eyes of the Dungatar locals – into an exotic specimen on the same level as a foreign celebrity, with Sunset Boulevard continually hanging around the fringes of local conversation, gossip and criticism as a kind of synecdoche for the glamorous world from which Tilly has presumably returned. As might be expected, that creates a kind of reciprocal uncanniness by way both Tilly and Dungatar grow increasingly stranger and more dissonant by being paired against each other, with one of the best scenes depicting Tilly trying on a series of haute couture items against the backdrop of a local AFL match. At one level, that can’t help but turn the town into a backdrop and appreciative audience for her fashion creations, but as the film proceeds the catwalk and audience converge into a kind of intensified plastic realism whereby clothes and physical quirks become one and the same, with Milly’s position as local seamstress turning into something of a plastic or prosthetic surgeon avant la lettre, as one Dungatar inhabitant after another beseeches her for the perfect outfit to enhance or excise their most notable features.
As might be expected, that gives Dungatar quite a plastic presence as well, initially making it feel like a throwback to the cinematic style of the 50s, when the palpable and obvious use of sets was an integral part of the cinematic experience. Yet, while elements of that set mentality do persist – specifically, the awareness of all part of the physical universe of the film existing simultaneously in one spot at any one moment in time – the cinematographic realism and emphasis on the surrounding natural backdrop tends to gradually shift this more from a set to a mindset, a microcosm of the small-town fantasy of Australian life that we tend to carry around with us in its totality without even being aware of it. Uncanny in the way that collective fantasies can seem uncanny when they’re articulated and visualised, this carefully cultivated pastiche of 1950s-era rural houswifery and larrikinism often feels like an effort to formulate Australian culture in terms of what Fredric Jameson has termed the ideologeme, “the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic discourses of social classes.” For all that the postures, poses and gestures of these various Australian types are comforting – in the same way, say, that Mad Men is comforting – there is also something about the efficiency with which Jocelyn Moorhouse conflates them that seems to also encapsulate everything suspect about our collective past as well, just as Tilly is both nostalgically drawn to them but also forced to reevaluate them as a disavowed outsider. For the first two thirds of the film, it almost feels as if Moorhouse has found a way to have her cake and eat it too, flattering the audience with a kind of wry, acerbic, knowing distance from the film’s fantasies while also indulging our residual affection for them as well.
That all changes, however, in the third act, ushered in by a cruel – astonishingly cruel – subversion of one of the film’s most romantic moments that sets in train a startling, sadistic final series of set pieces that take every character you have attached to previously – apart from Tilly – and either carelessly discards them or subsumes them into one of the most savage, scatching satires of small-town Australian life that has ever been committed to screen. For a less poised and nuanced film, that might feel like an act of subversion, or an alienation effect, but the balance between Moorhouse’s apocalyptic and camp sensibilities has been so delicate over the previous eighty minutes that it only requires the slightest nudge for this to devolve into something closer to a horror film than the historical-regionalist drama with which we begin. In an utter repudiation of small-town life that has more in common with Southern Gothic than Australian Gothic, Moorhouse amps up the plastic, performative realism of the film to the point where even the residually or incidentally sympathetic characters and moments are swept up into a demonic phantasmagoria that culminates with a production of Macbeth that spills out into the tone and texture of the town itself, consummating the film’s darkly fated palette as Tilly finally learns to stop running from the curse the town placed upon her all those years ago. The result is both riposte to the putative tastefulness that still haunts so much Australian cinema and a performance on par with Jacki Weaver’s divaesque turn in Animal Kingdom – and, in both cases, a pinnacle of the campapocalyptic auteurism that’s come to characterise Australian cinema in the new millennium, which is perhaps why it also feels like the first time Moorhouse has really fulfilled the auteurist promise of Proof, some twenty-five years after that incredible debut.
At the same time, it’s not necessarily surprising that it’s received such mixed reviews either, since the kind of syncretism of 70s, 90s and 10s sensibilities that Moorhouse is effecting has a kind of calculated atonality for long stretches, while the turn in the third act is shocking even to someone who’s completely open to the film and its message. Nevertheless, it does make me wonder whether there’s something to be said about the way in which it compares, say, to a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Miller effectively recapitulates and reiterates his transitional position between 70s apocalyptism and 90s camp in order to regain his auterist credentials in a similar manner to Moorhouse. While I admired Fury Road, I didn’t especially enjoy it, and comparing the universal critical acclaim it has received with the borderline derision that has greeted The Dressmaker perhaps says something about how, exactly, we are prepared to see our collective mythologies challenged and thwarted on the big screen. At the end of the day, what I found so powerful about The Dressmaker was the way it offers a certain kind of knockabout Australian masculinity – the larrikin – as the one redeeming foundation of Moorhouse’s fantastic, small-town life, only to rip it out from under your feet and almost reproach you for having been seduced by it in the first place. For me, Hemsworth’s performance was the only thing that seemed to elude the grotesque texture of the film, even or especially as he was the driving force and raison d’etre behind it all, and seeing him so brutally discarded was a reminder that this particular vision of Australian masculinity is the most precious mythology of all, even to those of us who might assume we have no investment in it.
Of course, as so many critics have noted, part of what distinguishes Fury Road in the way in which it diverts this particular version of Australian masculinity through Imperator Furiosa, but that masculine spirit is still all there in the art direction, set design and picaresque texture of Miller’s whole world, making it a bit beside the point – for me – who actually embodied it. Put another way, for Miller, a certain kind of Australian masculinity is a normative imperative that is so transcendent that it may take any kind of subject as its imperator, universalising them in ways that are totally and astonishingly refused by The Dressmaker. After all, the foundational mythology of Australian masculinity – the irreverent, sceptical, picaresque bloke – is itself an anti-mythology, meaning that some more radical gesture than an alternative anti-mythology is required to rid ourselves of it. Instead, we need a radical new mythology, a constructive, creative and conclusive gesture, a gesture that emerges in the last few seconds of Moorhouse’s visionary film, inviting us to build something new upon the charred rubble of her mise-en-scene, with an aplomb, assurance and – yes – auteurism that I found absolutely captivating.