Lantana (Australia, 2001) ***
Directed by Ray Lawrence. Written by Andrew Bovell, based on his stage play "Speaking in Tongues." Photography, Mandy Walker. Editing, Karl Sodersten. Production design, Kim Buddee. Music, Paul Kelly. Producer, Jan Chapman. Cast: Anthony LaPaglia (Leon), Geoffrey Rush (John), Barbara Hershey (Valerie), Kerry Armstrong (Sonja), Rachael Blake (Jane) and Peter Phelps (Patrick). A Lions Gate release. 121 minutes. R. (sex, violence, adult talk) At the new Art Theatre.
Ninety-nine percent of movies are pop stuff, no matter what their disguise. One percent is cinema as art. "Lantana" is with the minority, which is a good thing but also a dangerous one. It had no Oscar nominations in spite of the fact that in its native country it swept the Australian Film Institute Awards (aka AFI) with 13 nominations and 7 wins: film, director, adapted screenplay, actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress. Down Under it also won at the Critics Circle, the Screen Sound Guild, and the Writers' Guild. Plus the Audience Awards at the Melbourne Festival. And so onŠ
It would appear that the movie had several inputs. Director Ray Lawrence had made just one feature before, "Bliss," (1985) which won the Best Film, Director, and Screenplay prizes of the AFI but it created no stir at Cannes. Yet I have heard the rumor that "Bliss" was re-cut and went on to become a hit among the cognoscenti in some countries. In any case, Mr. Lawrence returned to his main profession, the making of commercials, and has had a brilliant career in it.
Another major input was the writer's. He reworked considerably his play "Speaking in Tongues" (it was in New York in late 2001.) The excellent producer Jan Chapman also had something to say about the film.
That's by no means a case of "too many cooks." The movie has its own, steady basic tone, a dark one that makes no concessions to "let's stick in something to please the public." At the same time, it does have the look and feel of what might be called "New Cinema."
The story follows the central character of Police detective Leon Zat and the also central roles around him. It is set in suburbia and in all ways is an antithesis to the popular image of jolly Sydney.
Leon is played with impeccable glumness by Australia-born Anthony LaPaglia who moved to the U.S.A in his twenties and eventually became an actor. He has had a very good career on TV and on the big screen, although few of "his" movies rate as big artistic (or financial) hits.
Here, his presence is constantly felt. Leon has a wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) and two teen-age boys. He has reached middle-age. His relationship with Sonja does not satisfy him. Call it male menopause. So he half-heartedly starts a horizontal affair with Jane (Rachael Blake) who is currently estranged from her husband.
The theme of incomplete relationships is the movie's mainstay. Sonja "feels" that Leon is cheating on her. She says this to her shrink Valerie. The latter is played by Barbara Hershey, an actress who has always fascinated me --and who still looks yummy at age 53. Dr. Valerie's life isn't simple either. She is married to an academic, John Knox, who is very well impersonated by Geoffrey Rush, world-famous from the 1996 "Shine," winner of Best Actor at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Australian Film Institute, the British Academy, and more. Dr. Knox, who studied at Harvard --where he met Valerie--is now Dean of Law at an unnamed University.
Add the Valerie-John couple to the roster of the dissatisfied. Their case is even nastier than those of the other persons, since their daughter was murdered some years back. Also add to this that one of Valerie's clients is a gay man who is having an affair with an unnamed married man, whoValerie starts suspecting is none other but her husband. Beyond the fact that her's and John's sex life is minimal (or is it zero?), there are no clear reasons for her suspicions. This is one of the several murkinesses of the movie, as well as rather forced relationships.
All this gives you a faint idea of the several criss-crossing paths of the picture. In simple terms, the film follows many threads. Think Robert Altman in Kammerspiel mode. It is a courageous, ambitious, challenging thing to doŠ but not fully satisfactory. There is much to appreciate in the picture but little to enjoy. The main characters are, to put it mildly, a mess that gets messier by the minute. The movie-makers juggle them photograph them and their milieu with great, downbeat talent, expertly use clever symbols and metaphors emblematic of non-communication -- e.g a phone booth in the middle of nowhere in which the caller gets a connection to a machine but not a human.
There is something incestuous in the way the main personae relate or un-relate among themselves --and with others. There is something terribly sad about the whole set-up. It brings to my mind the title of a classic German movie, "Joyless Street" (1925). This is Joyless Suburbia.
Performances are all exceptionally good. The movie holds --even rivets --your attention, but I at least paid the price of wondering about several of the who, what, when, where of journalism. I must state that murkiness displeases me. That's one reason I am so pro-Hitchcock. King Alfred could deal with mazes and red herrings yet he kept everything crystal-clear.
One proof of "Lantana"'s rather confusing structure is given in the discussions I had with other viewers who often perceived a number of facts in different ways. Even so, this is a film that has to be seen.
If, as in the lessons of salsa where Sonja drags her unwilling husband Leon, I have been dancing around the plot(s), it is in order not to spoil your viewing. Which viewing, to repeat, is certainly recommended.