Penelope

June 10, 2011
Penelope

Australians all let us rejoice, for we now have our own “art” film. As proof of its art credentials Penelope is slow and ritualistic. The characters do a lot of blank-faced staring, and walk around like somnambulists. The camera is often so far away that it gives the impression we are watching the action unfold on stage, not in the infinitely flexible space of the cinema. By the way, this is the first-ever Australo-Croatian co-production, so all the dialogue is in that language called Croatian in Zagreb and Serbian in Belgrade.

Penelope is the debut feature-length film by Ben Ferris, who was an award-winning classics scholar at Sydney University. It is also the debut film for lead actress, Natalie Finderle. While it would be difficult to fault Finderle’s performance it would be equally hard to praise it, as she spends most of the movie looking like a character in a tableau vivant. It is a part that has as much scope for method acting as David Bowie’s spaced-out alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Method acting was the last thing on Ferris’s mind. In re-telling the tale of Queen Penelope, who spent twenty years waiting for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the Trojan wars, he has tackled one of the foundational stories of western culture. Ferris has drawn on his expertise as a classicist to forge a style that echoes the methods of the Greek tragedians, although those methods are open to interpretation and debate.

Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles were exceptionally keen on Inevitability – a quality that holds rather less appeal for today’s audiences, who crave suspense. In harking back to the ancent Greeks, Ferris is deliberately thwarting our conventional expectations of cinema. But thwarting is easy, the more important issue is whether or not he has created a compelling alternative.

It is startling to see how readily Ferris and his publicists embrace the label of “art”. One suspects that most directors would hesitate to call themselves artists, although they are happy when critics supply the title. Many accomplished painters and writers have a similar superstitious dread of describing themselves as artists. When one understands art as a set of deep, unconscious impulses, brought to life by the most painstaking labour, no word seems sufficient. On one hand the artist is a mystic, on the other, a labourer. To accept the blanket term ‘artist’ as a mark of distinction seems to be tempting fate.

It also leads to a terrible self-consciousness – “Please call later, I’m busy with my Art” – that removes the creator from the stream of life. Penelope has all the signs of excessive artiness in that it seems to have been made without any thought of an audience. There is no commercial release, but it may be seen in two free screenings: at the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University at 6.30 pm on 15 June, and the Art Gallery of NSW, at 2 pm on 25 June.

The names invoked in the press release are those of Tarkovsky, Kurosawa and Bela Tarr, but I found little to remind me of those directors. At moments it seemed that Penelope’s castle must be set in the suburbs of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. When Penelope lets her hair fall down over her torso, it sparked a sudden thought of Japanese horror movies such as Hideo Nakata’s Ring. Most disturbingly, some of the deliberate anarchronisms such as a piano and a cigarette, not to mention the designer costumes, conjured up memories of travesties such as Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio.

Lurking in the background is the spectre of a Symbolist such as Maurice Maeterlinck, once a celebrated author, but now scarcely read – for the excellent reason that he is unreadable. This is the territory into which Penelope creeps: taking striking images as a substitute for narrative, preferring declamation to dialogue.

With films from the Balkans even a musical comedy may have a higher body count than an Arnold Schwarzegger flick, so it is no surprise that among the relentless staring and slow walking, Penelope manages to fit in a gang rape scene, when the Queen’s suitors assault her handmaidens; and a massacre, when the girls give these oafs their just desserts. A flock of geese also get totalled, off-screen. But what is real and what is fantasy? Is it only a dream? The director refers to Penelope’s psychological struggle, but the attempt to give concrete form to the Queen’s inner life creates confusion rather than drama. It made me realise how long it has been since I read the Odyssey, and how much I’ve forgotten.

Except in very rare instances, confusion is one of the hallmarks of the art film. The real artistry lies in the ability of the director to make us want to understand, to unravel the mysteries and puzzle through the symbols. This is true of films as diverse as L’Avventura and Mullholland Drive. It would be nice to add Penelope to the list, but it is a matter of tragic inevitability that it can’t be done.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 4, 2011

Australia/Croatia. 80 minutes.