Over the past few months I have been engaging myself in something of an Australian screen Renaissance, by which I mean I am revisiting some older films of my past Aussie exposure, and trying to view some new films. I have Brides of Christ lined up, the short television series made in 1991 and whose place in my memory is dominated by Simon from Play School. Although I will be equally invested in the presence of the women in that series.
I have just seen Blessed. Ana Kokkinos’ 2009 film is, unsurprisingly, an incredibly harrowing experience to get through. As the film began, as each character was profiled, I immediately connected with them, and inevitably, part of my psyche was torn apart as they each experienced their own pain, had their own arguments with others, and with their own selves. It was difficult to watch, hard work for my body and mind, of course, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I invest myself in a film, I want to be given something in return, something that makes the time spent worth my while. And it’s better if it’s traumatic.
Now I’m not saying that with any inclination to a self-aggrandising, sadomasochistic schtick, not proud of some (nonexistent) ability to withstand emotional pain. It’s precisely that I cannot, and that things cut so deeply into my skin, my bones, my breath, that they are so powerful. Blessed did not only evoke my eympathy on an emotional or intellectual level, but also on a sensory one. The focus on the face, and in particular on the eyes, builds a remarkable relationship with the characters not only as people on screen, but as people with us, people with whom we have an emotional and also sensorous, kinetic closeness. Kokkinos brings us close to everyone, all her characters, and in Blessed this achievement is a special one because no matter how they might resist a relationship with us they also desire one. Everybody pushes people away before they have realised how much they want people around.
One scene has resonated with me as particularly powerful, perhaps for its strength in creating an acoustic presence, something just for our ears. And yet, the entire film has a very definite soundscape, never lets us down, sustains the attention of our ears right up until Rhonda screams with an almost inexpressible sadness, screams plagued with an urgency made all the more terrifying by the certainty that her sadness will find no salvation. In a fairly early scene in which Roo is, as referenced in an earlier telephone call, ‘modelling’ for a camera, the presence of voice here is striking in its terrifying lucidity, its certain threat. Roo says he feels silly speaking about himself, and the man, the exploiter, tells him not to be worried, that “it’s just us.” Who is us? We cannot see this other man, we see only the eye of the camera. If it’s just us, then it must be just Roo and – us – the audience, the people behind the camera. This scene and its implications, the dialogue, are imbued with a tremendous weight and a very realistic horror, not to mention the metaphorical implication of film viewers. The older man, the exploiter, is definitely present but he eludes our gaze, and if he weren’t powerful enough within the text his power is expanded as he is an acousmêtre, it’s just us but he is the camera, he sees everything. It’s very disconcerting, very threatening, and it’s almost as though he can see us in the audience. What this does is brings us closer to Roo, as we too are opposed to the other man an will identify with his opposite. That doesn’t put us in a strong position, but it builds an important bond between us and the film world; it is in the film that we are hurt, and we must remain there in the hope things might resolve.
I feel like very often, in film criticism but also in theoretical discussions of visual texts, the reception of the cinema is reduced to whether or not the plot is legitimate, in line with an oeuvre or condition, or consistency of character. Actually, the last element in that list is very important to how we might develop an intellectual or emotional connection to a film. But beyond that, I think that if a film makes you cry, makes you hold your breath or clench your jaw or tense your muscles or react with any number of involuntary physical responses, then it’s worth it, right? The film has, in a manner of speaking, won. The lives of the characters in Blessed might exist on screen, in a different time, and in a different part of Melbourne, but they affected my real world body. And that will stay with me.