Sunday, June 10, 2007

Review - Ten Canoes and Jindabyne

"A long, long time ago in a place far, far away" intones a serious-voiced narrator at the start of Ten Canoes, as the camera slowly makes its way along a wide and deserted river. It's a phrase which instantly recalls the opening of Star Wars, but then the narrator collapses into laughter and reassures us that he's "only joking", for this picture is about as far, far away from George Lucas' space epic as it's possible to imagine. This marvellous Australian film does transport us to a world completely apart from our own, but it's a journey deep into the past, exploring traditions of storytelling which stretch far back into Aboriginal culture. The film has a pace and tone unlike anything else you're likely to see, rambling away from the beaten track whenever it feels like it, but completely captivating the audience like a good story should.
Ten Canoes has been directed by Dutch-born filmmaker Rolf de Heer, but despite his presence this is a film told entirely from the point of view of Australia's Aboriginal people. De Heer developed the story through close collaboration with the Ramingining community, creating a film which - aside from the English voiceover - is the first indigenous-language picture the country has produced.

That voiceover is our guide as we pass through time, and it is provided by the famous Australian actor David Gulpilil. He introduces us to ten of his ancestors, in an unspecified time long before any white men had set foot on Australian soil, and they are in the midst of a goose egg-gathering ritual which necessitates the creation of the titular canoes. One of the participants is Dayindi (Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil), a young man on his first such trip, and it quickly transpires that he has his eye on the youngest and most attractive of Minygululu's (Peter Minygululu) three wives. To prove to his young companion that such a relationship isn't a good idea, Minygululu begins to tell a story; a story which takes us even further back into time, a story which introduces us to the ancients. The story within the story is about a young man named Yeeralparil (Dayindi again) who lusts after - you've guessed it - the youngest and prettiest wife of his brother Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kerddal).

Of course, things don't turn out very well for the characters in this cautionary tale, but Ten Canoes is in no hurry to show us why. The sections of the film involving Dayindi and Minygululu are told in black-and-white, while the story Minygululu unfolds is depicted in colour, and de Heer switches back and forth between these two strands of Ten Canoes throughout. Often the storytelling will simply stop while the business of canoe-making and egg-gathering must be attended to, and the film possesses a constant desire to explore all of the tangents which shoot off from this story before it bothers with anything so prosaic as a narrative thread. In his voiceover, Gulpilil compares the telling of a story to a tree, with branches growing in all sorts of directions, and the comparison is as close as you might get to capturing the essence of Ten Canoes, because this is a film which almost impossible to categorise in any traditional way.

By this point my description of Ten Canoes will have proved to be a massive turn-off for many people. It sounds like a dry, anthropological study - a film which is more laudable for the intentions behind its making than the merits of the picture itself - so perhaps it's time to mention how funny Ten Canoes is. The film is full of laughs, with much surprisingly ribald humour being based around farting, shitting and cock jokes. Gulipilil's narration is also wittily integrated into the piece, with the actor often chuckling at the onscreen events, and de Heer gets plenty of mileage from speculative sequences which imagine various potential consequences for a given situation. Certain characters also bring a dash of eccentricity to the party, such as the huge-bellied elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin), whose insatiable appetite for honey is a fine running gag., and throughout Ten Canoes the performances from the cast of non-actors, most of whom had never seen a film, are as good as they need to be.
Ten Canoes is a remarkable achievement for Rolf de Heer, a filmmaker who is probably best known for his utterly bizarre 1993 film Bad Boy Bubby and whose direction here is so good it makes you wonder why he has struggled to make any sort of impact in the intervening years. De Heer's work on this picture is even more admirable due to the sensitivity surrounding the depiction of Aboriginal culture on screen, and he treats his collaborators with complete respect, never condescending or simplifying their traditions, and never imposing a 'whitefella' viewpoint on their story. Despite the meandering nature of the tale, de Heer keeps a sprightly and constantly intriguing edge to his direction; his slow pans down the river or through the trees recall Malick, and his documentary-style observation of a strange culture recalls Herzog. De Heer also produces a couple of genuinely wonderful moments here, most of which occur during the film's final third. The spear-throwing 'payback', with two character frantically trying to dodge the onslaught, is tremendously orchestrated; and the film creates a haunting, otherworldly atmosphere during the death dance towards the end of the film, suggesting a genuine sense of transcendence as a man's soul is released from his body.

By the time Minygululu has finished telling Dayindi this story the lessons at the heart of it have been learned by the young listener, and even if Ten Canoes climaxes in a rather unexciting way, the film argues that the telling of the story is as important as the story itself as it gets passed down the ages, the lessons of the past influencing the thoughts and actions of a younger generation. Ten Canoes is a mesmerising film which entranced me for 90 minutes, transporting me to a different time and place, and it's a unique experience which will surely be embraced by anyone tired of conventional cinematic narratives. "It's not like your story, it's my story" the narrator tells us, "and my story, you've never seen before".

On the subject of storytelling, stop me if you've heard this one before. A group of men head out into the wilderness to partake in a spot of fishing. This weekend, away from their wives and day-to-day hassles, is one of the highlights of their year, but on the first night their enjoyment is disrupted by a shocking discovery. The body of young woman is spotted floating in the river near their camp, she is naked and has been murdered. The obvious thing to do in this situation would be to report the incident to the authorities, but with no desire to disrupt their weekend of freedom, the men instead tie the girl to a log to prevent her from floating away and vow to report the discovery as soon as they return home.

The story I'm relaying here will be instantly recognisable to many as So Much Water So Close to Home, the Raymond Carver short story, and even if they've never read it then most people will be familiar with the tale from its appearance in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. In that 1993 film, Altman made this particular story part of his LA-based Carver mosaic, but the new Australian film Jindabyne gives it a movie all to itself; transferring the action to Australia and layering on a number of extra themes and subplots in order to expand the source material to feature length.

The title comes from the New South Wales town which was relocated in the 1960's due to the damming of a nearby river, a move which left the site of the original town lying under a deep lake. This is the place that Irish former rally driver Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) relocated to some years ago with his wife Claire (Laura Linney), and it is he who discovers the body while fishing with three of his friends. When the group has returned home and the news about their finding has broken, a media circus blows up around them with the local community shocked by the callous nature of their act. Their decision even seems to take on racist overtones when it is revealed that the young girl is of Aboriginal descent, and the whole business puts an intolerable strain on Stewart and Claire's already shaky marriage.
Jindabyne has been directed by Ray Lawrence, his first film since 2001's superb Lantana, and even though the film is classily made and superbly acted, it can't help feeling like something of a disappointment. The main problem here is the way Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian have chosen to stretch this film out to an excessive running time. There is a lot of extraneous material here which only detracts from the purity of Carver's original story. Using the buried town as a metaphor for hidden secrets and the ever-present shadow of the past, Lawrence imbues the film with a ghostly atmosphere which is personified by a creepy child (a very good Eva Lazzaro) who carries herself with a preternatural air; and the director also embellishes the material with a number of half-developed backstories for his characters, and a couple of ineffective red herrings which feel like cheap shots.

The one addition which really does work for the film is the decision to make the victim an Aboriginal girl, and Lawrence successfully exploits the racial tensions this factor brings to the film. It makes the men's decision to leave her floating face-down for a couple of days even more unpalatable given the suspicions and rituals with which death is associated in that culture, and the way Claire and Stewart find themselves excluded from the community - even as Claire tries to make amends - is skilfully depicted. The cast is also extremely strong with Byrne and Linney giving hugely impressive performances, and as in Lantana Lawrence proves himself extremely adept at working with a large ensemble.

But despite the power which is present in a few of its individual scenes, Jindabyne generally feels flaccid and unsatisfying, and all life seems to have seeped out of it by the time the two-hour mark has been and gone. So Much Water So Close to Home is a brilliant piece of writing; a story so deceptively simple and rife with moral complexities that any attempt to augment it with some extra drama or tension is surely unnecessary. Robert Altman understood that when he played the tale straight and made it just one part of his wide-ranging jigsaw puzzle, but Lawrence's attempt to open out the story only dilutes its unique power, turning a potential firecracker into a cinematic damp squib.