Last Days of Chez Nous, The (Australia, 1992) ***
Director, Gillian Armstrong. Producer, Jan Chapman. Writer, Helen Garner. Photography, Geoffrey Simpson. Musi, Paul Grabowsky. Production design, Janet Patterson. Cast: Lisa Harrow, Bruno Ganz, Kerry Fox, Miranda Otte, et al. A Fine Line release. In Australian without subtitles. 99 minutes. Rated R (sexual subject matter). Savoy 14.
"The Last Days of Chez Nous" had its international premiere in February 1992 at the Berlin Festival, and opened in New York in March 1993. Arriving locally unannounced and unpublicized, it will pass unnoticed and depart quickly. A pity, since it is an interesting, intimist, non-commercial, post-feminist work by world-class Australian women figures: director Gillian Armstrong ("My Brilliant Career," "Mrs. Soffel"), producer Jan Chapman ("the Piano"), novelist-screenwriter Helen Garner.
Dysfunctional families, always a subject of films, have been particularly stressed (internationally) in recent years. This movie's group consists of Beth (Lisa Harrow), a fortyish novelist; her French husband J.P. (the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz); Annie (Miranda Otte), her teen-age daughter by an earlier marriage; Beth's much younger sister Vicki (Kerry Fox of "An Angel at My Table") and two elderly parents.
There are tensions between husband and wife, openly aired in their "modern" relationship. She is appealing, talented, reliable yet insecure. He is a free soul, ego-centered and insensitive, who derides everything Australian. The daughter is sweet and caring.
The marriage teeters. Into this mixed picture comes Vicki back from a European trip. A flaky, infantile airhead, unemployed and pregnant to boot, Annie will "have a relationship" with J.P. during a trip that Beth takes in the outback with her father in an effort to come to terms with the old man's constant criticism that has distressed Beth throughout her life and, in a more complex way is mirrored by J.P.'s reproaches and outbursts.
This is the skeleton of the film, not very original but particularly well fleshed -out by the accumulated episodes and details. In the opening scene, Vicki, schlepping her suitcase, enters her sister's home. Everyone is out. She spots her homecoming cake, gobbles a big slice and seconds later is vomiting.
There is a profusion of good touches --in fact it is their aggregate that makes the film. Remarkable too is the picture's non-male (yet not anti-male), non-Hollywoodian point of view. In a dark way, matters of behavior and dialogue are refreshingly cliche-free. The film's pervasive but not overwhelming female stance extends to the visuals. The women are not cover girls but real people, with splotchy legs, freckles,wrinkles, blemishes, imperfect teeth. And the main setting, the house, is claustrophobic and messy, in a lived-in rather than in an artily "dressed" way.
The messiness extends to the presentation of the characters who are initially to unscramble, a puzzle abetted by often murky Aussie accents and by the lack of any background given to the principals. Partly though, the unclarity of who's who is planned, to show the shifting relationships.
Beth is supposedly a successful writer (although given her modest house you wonder how much authors are paid in Australia), and both as an artist and a person she is convincingly shown as particularly sensitive and vulnerable. Deftly and sympathetically portrayed, hers is a well-rounded portrait.
J.P., on the other hand, is underwritten. Aside from his French speech, accent and love of cheeses and wines, we are in the dark as to his past and present life, occupations or professions -- or for that matter about what makes J.P. tick. He represents, perhaps, to those inferiority-complexed Australians around him, a glib, sophisticated European, but this is too superficial to make a dent in us, the audience. He may be a volatile Continental, but enough is enough.
Some problems of exposition aside, "The Last Days of Chez Nous" is an affective, sorrowful movie. More than most Australian films it is also an unappetizing portrait of Down Under in every way: cities and streets, interiors of houses or cafes, motels, nature, ill-dressed, dour and unintellectual people. It won't send the viewers rushing to a travel agency, but the portrayal of its principals, notably Beth, is realistic, striking and well-crafted.