Visions From Down Under

As anyone who has seen the movies of Kurosawa, Truffaut, or Bergman knows, great filmmakers tend to leave not only a personal stamp on their work, but also a national one.

Certainly, Kurosawa’s sensibility is uniquely Japanese, Truffaut’s uniquely French, and Bergman’s uniquely Swedish. But what happens when an artist chooses to work outside his native environment? Many of the great Hollywood filmmakers of the thirties and forties, including Germans Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, were expatriates, and their work seems more a reflection of American than German sensibilities.

These days, when a director ventures overseas to work, we expect to see something different, some remnant of their foreign sensibility. When Hollywood came knocking on Swede Lasse Hallstrom’s door, it was in hopes of co-opting some of the magic of his  international hit My Life as a Dog. But his first American film, Once Around, did only fair business by U.S. standards, and early word on his new film, the downbeat Gilbert Grape, is that it isn’t likely to do much better. Similarly, the reason for importing Hong Kong’s John Woo was the hope that his unique blend of humor and violence-shown in his so called “chop-socky” films-would translate into an American hit. But his Hard Target, released earlier this year, was only a modest success with audiences, and critics quickly pointed out that it didn’t rival his native work.

In recent years, a surprising number of directors from Australia have washed up on Hollywood’s shores. While several of them have been commercially successful, including Philip Noyce (Patriot Games) and George Miller (Lorenzo’s Oil), only one, Peter Weir, has survived Hollywood on his own terms.

Weir’s early Australian films, most notably The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock, were evidence of a strange, surreal vision. Working in the Hollywood mainstream, Weir has had to tone down the innate mysticism evident in his earlier work, but he hasn’t completely eliminated it. While working solidly within the realm of realism, there was something slightly surreal about the gnome-like character of Billy Kwan (compounded by the fact that
he was played by a woman, Linda Hunt) in The Year of Living Dangerously; about Harrison Ford’s journey into Amish country in Witness; and about . Robin Williams’ spellbinding English teacher in Dead Poets Society. Even in a seemingly straight romantic comedy like Green Card, there was the wonderfully transcendent moment when Gerard Depardieu finally played the piano-it very nearly lifted the film into the realm of the spiritual.

Weir’s new film, Fearless, occupies the realm of the spiritual from the very first. The previous Weir film it most closely resembles is The Mosquito Coast, which happens
to be Weir’s least successful work. In that earlier film, Harrison Ford played an idealistic inventor who escapes the real world by moving his family to a remote village in Central America, where he begins to play God. In Fearless, Jeff Bridges plays a disillusioned architect who escapes from reality by surviving a plane crash or, as he sees it, living through his own death; in his own way, he too sees himself as God-like. For a Hollywood film, Fearless deals with remarkably serious subject matter-mortality
and faithand does so without the mawkish sentimentality that Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, My Life) brings to the same topics. Fearless isn’t entirely successful-Rosie Perez, who plays another crash survivor, doesn’t quite ring true, the film’s midsection drags, and the resolution is a bit too neat– but it is a sincere effort to engage our hearts and minds, and it retains the flavor of Australian mysticism so evident in Weir’s early films.

That same mystical flavor is also evident in Jane Campion’s astonishing new film The Piano, which earned Best Picture and Best Actress honors at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Campion, who now lives in Sydney, was actually born in New Zealand, where her new film is set. It tells the story of Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman who is sold into marriage to Stewart (Sam Neill), a greedy, small-minded 19th century New Zealander. Ada’s only means of communication, aside from the translation of her illegitimate nine-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), is her piano: her incredibly evocative playing allows her to express herself with absolute clarity.   Perhaps
sensing this, Stewart refuses to transport the piano from the beach where Ada and Flora have landed, and trades it, along with Ada’s services as teacher, to George Baines (Harvey Keitel), an illiterate settler who lives among the natives.

Not surprisingly, Baines isn’t interested in the piano– it’s Ada he wants. The two agree to a seemingly straightforward deal in which sensual favors are swapped for a certain number of piano keys; when Ada has earned all the black keys, she gets back the piano. But the deal goes awry when Baines falls in love with Ada, and she eventually returns his feelings, setting the stage for betrayal.

The relationships in The Piano between Ada and Flora, Ada and Baines, and Ada and Stewart are what make the film so compelling. Ada alternately struggles to conform and overcome her lot, and the psychological drama is riveting.

Neither of Campion’s previous features– the determinedly weird Sweetie, and the relatively straightforward An Angel at My Table– have prepared us for the luminous vision of The Piano. It is a vision that could not have sprung from America, which shares more values with Stewart than with Ada.

Should Campion ever follow Weir and the other filmmakers from Down Under to Hollywood, it will be interesting to see what kind of films she makes. One hopes that, like Ada, she will be able to overcome the bonds of commerce and continue to soar into the mystic. MM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.