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Alexandra and the De Heer Project

Rose Capp

Rose Capp is a film critic for The Melbourne Times.

Gary Sweet, Alexandra’s Project Gary Sweet, Alexandra’s Project
Rolf De Heer’s Alexandra’s Project opens in beguiling style. Gliding effortlessly through the calm of leafy suburban streets, we finally come to a halt outside the innocuous, red brick wall of a contemporary townhouse complex. The morning sun strikes the brick wall in that pure, unadulterated way only early light can. This is arguably the only moment of equanimity in De Heer’s 10th feature film.

As with the opening scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the benign suburban setting in Alexandra’s Project belies the nightmarish scenario that unfolds. Though clearly in more of a realist than surrealist register, De Heer’s potent mixture of thriller and family psychodrama is, in many respects, no less disturbing than Lynch’s 1986 film.

Alexandra’s ‘project’ is to disabuse her overbearing husband of his complacent belief that their marriage is satisfactory. On his birthday, Alexandra (Helen Buday) presents Steve (Gary Sweet) with a home video, a singular work that redefines the ‘home movie’ genre. Unwittingly made a prisoner in his own home, Steve is forced to watch. A gauche striptease, by way of birthday greetings, is followed by Alexandra’s increasingly acrimonious litany of complaints. Her final revenge comes in the form of a meticulously planned and devastatingly effective act of schadenfreude.

It has become something of a truism to observe that Rolf De Heer has a predilection for characters who are in some way marginalised. His films have explored the plight of individuals who are isolated by social circumstance (The Quiet Room, Bad Boy Bubby, The Old Man Who Read Stories), disability (Dance Me to My Song), race (The Tracker) and even intergalactic adversity (Epsilon). Many of De Heer’s protagonists, unable or unwilling to lead conventional lives, are nevertheless extraordinary characters.

In this context, Alexandra’s Project is less typical of the director’s oeuvre. Steve and Alexandra have 2 children and the standard trappings of middle-class life. It is their very ordinariness that marks them as anomalous De Heer characters. However, the central premise in Alexandra’s Project—individuals at emotional and psychological cross-purposes—is a theme that has fundamentally defined the director’s work on screen.

De Heer has been equally consistent in exploring the communicative difficulties underpinning troubled relationships. From the mute young protagonist of The Quiet Room to the aphasic heroine of Dance Me to My Song, De Heer’s films are frequently preoccupied with the profound inadequacy or outright failure of language as a means of communication.

The pre-linguistic manchild in Bad Boy Bubby negotiates the terrifying world outside his home by mimicking the speech of others. As a form of communication, Bubby’s mimicry has a peculiarly refractory and tellingly ironic effect. In Epsilon, an intergalactic traveler falls to earth. Her uncompromisingly literal understanding of English leads to a series of exchanges with an earthling marked by misapprehensions and misunderstandings. The Tracker is characterised by minimal, often oblique exchanges between the central characters. Action, gesture, the expressive power of music and the still, painted image prevail as the most forceful means of communication.

While Alexandra’s Project is conspicuously dialogue-driven, it is nevertheless concerned with a relationship crisis precipitated by the fundamental failure to communicate. After decades of unhappy marriage, it is telling that Buday’s Alexandra is only able to talk frankly to Steve via the mediated forum of videotape. As Alexandra’s invective gathers momentum, Steve, by contrast, is rendered increasingly and uncharacteristically mute. Made literally speechless by the events unfolding on screen, his only recourse to action is the remote control.

Where numerous De Heer films have foregrounded communication problems and the shortcomings of language, most nevertheless close on an optimistic note. One of the most moving scenes in all of De Heer’s films comes in the final moments of Dance Me to My Song. Julia’s ecstatic wheelchair dance when reunited with Eddie is a pure and poignant expression of that optimism. By contrast, the unremittingly bleak denouement in Alexandra’s Project makes this arguably the most fatalistic of the director’s recent work.

Alexandra’s Project equally represents the director’s elucidation of space. With some exceptions—most prominently Epsilon and The Tracker—the mise-en-scène in De Heer’s films has been dominated by oppressive, urban interiors. And the archetypal De Heer interior is the family home. Protective and potentially threatening, the home in De Heer’s films sometimes affords shelter, but is more likely to be the setting for traumatic events. In everything from The Quiet Room to Dance Me to My Song it becomes a profoundly ambivalent space.

The most extreme representations of this are found in Bad Boy Bubby and Alexandra’s Project. While Bubby is incarcerated in a filthy, claustrophobic space that is more hell than home, it is a location from which he eventually frees himself. In De Heer’s latest film, the family residence, with its state-of-the-art security system, becomes an inescapable fortress. The bland, beige interiors of Steve and Alexandra’s contemporary townhouse are transformed into a dark and sinister space. A captive audience of one watching in horrified fascination, Steve is thrown into noirish relief by the dim, penumbral light from the television screen.

The grim mise-en-scene of married life in Alexandra’s Project extends the dystopic representation of the family found in other De Heer films. Unlike The Quiet Room and Bad Boy Bubby, Alexandra’s Project is presented from a surprisingly blunt feminist perspective. In its unadorned style and sentiment, the film recalls classic feminist films including A Question of Silence (1982), the work of Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris. As with that film, De Heer makes clear that Alexandra’s ‘project’ is, to invoke a time-honoured catchcry, both personal and political.

The feminist polemic in Alexandra’s Project conforms with what could be described as the director’s broadly politicised approach to his characters. As writer or co-writer of all but one of his feature films, De Heer engages with diverse genres and situations. What informs all of the director’s work, from the pro-environment discourse of Epsilon to the reconciliatory agenda of The Tracker, is an unequivocally humanist point of view. While Alexandra’s Project borders on the didactic at times, De Heer’s genuinely humanist perspective ensures that character doesn’t degenerate into caricature, or opinion into Fatal Attraction-style hyperbole.

As such, Alexandra’s Project not only makes an interesting addition to recent, more considered examples of the ‘woman’s revenge film’ (Shame, Mortal Thoughts and Thelma and Louise) but is a worthy contribution to the burgeoning body of mature Australian psychodramas, including The Boys and Lantana, released recently.

Alexandra’s Project, director Rold De Heer, distributor Fandango Australia/Palace Films.

Rose Capp is a film critic for The Melbourne Times.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 21

© Rose Capp; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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