Film Review: Celeste

Published on The Monthly blog, 30 April 2019

In the penultimate edition of esteemed journal Cinema Papers, Adrian Martin published an essay on the “paralysis” of the art film in Australia. Writing in 2000, after nearly a century of cinema, the critic diagnosed a genre still in “a fitful, embryonic state”. The handful of outliers, fugitive dreams, had been relegated to the National Film and Sound Archive to gather dust, thwarting sorely needed continuity in cultural memory. Robbed of cinematic ancestry, young Australian filmmakers were doomed to reprise the callow flops of their cinematic forebears, while most critics treated them rather generously to protect this rare and infirm species. Look to the arts pages in our mainstream newspapers and you’ll likely see the same names granting an extra star to local productions too vulnerable for gloves-off honesty.

In a forever-fledgling history, Australian cinema corroborates the maxim about those who forget the past. Martin could have just as easily been describing the present moment when he wrote:

[W]e stumble from one fragile ‘high hope’ – the movie that the industry prays will make money, grab an audience and kickstart a trend – to the next, with many disappointments and abandoned projects along the way. The astoundingly high attrition rate … – whereby most of our art films end up as rare videotapes, mere rumours or citations in scholarly essays – is proof enough of a lack of available history in this area to learn from and build upon.

Those filmmakers who experiment and fail, whatever your metrics, aren’t bestowed second chances. Hell, many aren’t even if they succeed.

When Martin was writing, one such high hope was completing his Masters of Film at the Victorian College of the Arts. Ben Hackworth’s graduate project Martin Four (2001) earned him a spot in Cannes’ Cinéfondation and, along with his other shorts Half Sister (2002) and Violet Lives Upstairs (2003), garnered attention on the local festival circuit. Even then Hackworth had the “personal vision”, if somewhat inchoate, that Martin claimed our art directors lacked. His shorts are populated by boys looking upon women, unsure if they desire them or desire to be them. These quiet melodramas have distinct aesthetics, combining the vibrant palettes of early Jacques Demy and a certain Australian kitsch inherited from the likes of Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989) or Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade (1996).

Hackworth’s debut feature Corroboree had its international premiere at Toronto in 2007, as well as playing at Berlin and Australia’s major festivals. With this film, Hackworth and co-creator Peter Savieri thumbed their noses at commercial imperatives, the film’s oblique fragments blurring lines between performance and reality. The things Martin suggested that Australian art cinema was lacking – cinephilic knowledge, style, even ideas – Corroboree has a surfeit of. The vignettes of an unseen director commanding a young and beautiful neophyte to play out scenes from his life unfolds through a poetic logic we’re unaccustomed to in Australian film. Corroboree’s meta-theatricality, deadpan humour and aesthetic coherence measure proclivities toward the obtuse. For all the film’s European sensibilities, somewhat anachronistic, there’s still something recognisably Australian about its gaze.

Whether the film maddened or entranced, it’s hard to deny that Corroboree is a holistic vision. The few reviews that can be tracked down either praise Hackworth’s irreverence and style or chastise him for the reviewers’ confusion. Both camps, however, were anticipating what the young director would do next. After a DVD release in 2009, the film all but disappeared, today not even held at the NFSA. I scored an ex-rental off eBay when yet another video store croaked.

So when Celeste’s (now in limited release) titular opera singer (Radha Mitchell) is asked by an interviewer why, as “one of Australia’s most promising young sopranos”, she gave it up right at her peak, one suspects that Hackworth hasn’t yet entirely given up his meta-games. Some may have asked the same of a precociously gifted filmmaker whose sophomore feature took 11 years. The highly strung Celeste evades the interviewer’s eyes. “Yeah, well, I’d spent a few years in the spotlight and I’d had enough.”

Celeste’s preparation to return to the stage has airs of Norma Desmond, the camp icon of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). She’s not nearly as despotic or delusional, but we can never quite grasp the truth of her former stardom. The journalists and audience who will trek to Far North Queensland to see her sing suggest that she really was the great white hope of Australian opera. And yet we don’t quite buy Celeste’s excuses about the charismatic man, now deceased, who whisked her away to Paronella Park, an architectural ruin in the rainforest outside Innisfail.

In narrative terms, Celeste plays far more by the rules than Corroboree, but movies about prima donnas in fallen Edens aren’t exactly what funding gatekeepers are jonesing for. We may add Celeste to the tiny list of Australian films about artists, say, Paul Cox’s Vincent (1987) or his lacklustre swansong Force of Destiny (2015), or Giorgio Mangiamele’s Clay (1965), one of the earliest Australian films to be invited to Cannes. But Celeste is not so much about the artistic process as about desire, performance, the gaze: the conflicting longing to be seen and the discomfort over what’s reflected. The attention of the audience is much like the attention of the lover, reflecting an idealised image of ourselves, but the surplus of mirrors in Celeste’s rainforest hideout show a woman falling apart. So too does her stepson Jack’s (Thomas Cocquerel) gaze, when Celeste summons him back, but he’s not one to talk. He’s got his own ghosts.

The relationship between Celeste and Jack is complicated, grief-ridden, probably transgressive. What unites them is also what divides them: the death of Jack’s father Mateo (Ashley Lyons), whose memory haunts Paronella Park. He’s there in Jack’s face, which still carries traces of the lost father, and in Jack’s fucked-up life, still doing his best to rebel against Daddy. The film’s minor shortcomings lie in plot machinations that feel designed to tick boxes for funding bodies with prescriptive ideas of storytelling: Jack is unnecessarily on the lam from loansharks; increasingly overwrought flashbacks reveal exactly what Jack and Celeste are trying to forget.

While Celeste and her right-hand woman Grace (Nadine Garner) prepare for the singer’s comeback, behind the scenes Celeste is crumbling. Mitchell plays her with the nervous energy of Gena Rowlands (see: basically any Cassavetes collaboration), forever on the verge of hysteria. As much as Celeste craves attention, she performatively brushes it off when it’s received. “I just hope I don’t fuck it up!” she responds to a group toast, quickly necking her glass of champagne. Grace urges Celeste on with saintly patience, but this performance also seems important to Grace’s self-image, perhaps reassuring her that she hasn’t wasted her life tending to the ego of a has-been.

There’s more than a nod to Fassbinderian melodrama here, particularly The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), in the oppressive interiors, the mirrors that fracture Celeste’s image and the wigs she dons in the same shade of copper as one of Petra’s – a literal representation of the female performer’s disguises, the exquisite show of female suffering. Celeste takes some pleasure in her tragedy, playing out her pain with sloshing red wine in hand, an inexplicable beverage choice in extreme heat.

The humidity of the rainforest is oppressive, but sensual too, conjuring the sweaty colonial fantasies of French–Vietnamese cinema: the 1992 adaptation of Margueritte Duras’ The Lover or Catherine Deneuve–vehicle Indochine (1992). Celeste performs in cheongsams, and shields herself from the sun with Chinese parasols. She’s often seen cooling herself with wet flannels, suspended before the spin of the pedestal fan or draped dramatically in the bath. Inside and outside start to merge in the preponderance of indoor palms, orchids, and ferny prints embossed on the furnishings.

Is this cultural melange just the colonial imaginary of Australian bohemia? Or part of the geographic mindfuck that just beyond the verdant mundanity of sugar cane fields (which we see in sweeping aerial shots) lies not only a tropical rainforest but a decaying Spanish castle, with creeping moss and twisting greenery making it look like a forgotten corner of Angkor Wat. This homegrown landscape is so foreign to a national cinema obsessed by country. Where the outback demands practicality, here is a pleasure palace away from prying eyes, threatening to be swallowed up by the greenery. Nearby a waterfall spills into a lagoon, in a violent release rarely felt by the characters. The water is murky, filled with unlovely grey fish that swarm frenziedly just below the surface, a maelstrom of repressed desires.

When I recently expressed a tentative optimism about a new wave of Australian cinema, placing Celeste alongside Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours and Soda_Jerk’s Terror Nullius, an acquaintance was quick to warn me against cultural amnesia. Those who’ve had skin in the game longer hold on to the heartbreak, having witnessed the likes of Laurie McInnes’s Broken Highway (1993), Tracey Moffatt’s BeDevil (1993) and Margot Nash’s Vacant Possession (1994) recede into the archives.

Silly me, forgetting the lessons of the past. For a moment, let me dream of a country whose people care so deeply about art that they would make a pilgrimage to Far North Queensland to hear the great diva sing. Let me dream of an Eden where films are allowed to be difficult and ambiguous and strange; where filmmakers are free to experiment, to kill off their fathers, to fail better and grow and bloom.