You can go home again
The Last Days of Chez Nous is the best film so far of Gillian Armstrong’s (no relation), and one of the most underrated Australian films to be shown in the west in twenty years. Vying for honours at Cannes in 1992 with that glittery and obvious Australian flagship Strictly Ballroom, Armstrong’s film never really achieved the acclaim it deserved. Little has been written on it. Aside from two or three thoughtful reviews and interviews, so far as I am aware no lengthy considered piece has appeared, either in print or online. And whenever Armstrong’s name is evoked it is invariably in connection with “significant” works like My Brilliant Career (1979), or heritage vehicles like Little Women (1994) and Charlotte Gray (2001). Owing its mood to a certain “European” arthouse preoccupation with detail and dynamic, wedded to a realism about gender relations that suggests (to a European) a sassy post-colonial fortitude, The Last Days of Chez Nous remains a recipe of rare delicacy.
Made following Armstrong’s return from Hollywood and the abortive Jimmy Smits- Greta Scacchi drama Fires Within (1991), The Last Days of Chez Nous (1991) covered a number of bases in its attempt at the international box office. It proposed a dramatic, potentially racy scenario of a disintegrating marriage finally sundered by the woman’s own sister. It pitted European arthouse star Bruno Ganz against Lisa Harrow, with a coltish Kerry Fox as the interloper. In the 1970s, Ganz had been the international face of the New German Cinema, appearing in films by Wenders (The American Friend, Wings of Desire), Herzog (Nosferatu), and Schlöndorff (Circle of Deceit). A familiar face in British television drama, Harrow added to the arthouse cachet, winning the Australian Film Institute’s Best Actress Award for her performance as the scorned Beth. In 1991, Kerry Fox was a young New Zealander who had made a splash as the beleaguered writer Janet Frame in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990). Ahead lay Shallow Grave (1994) and international fame.
To westerners, it has seemed as though Australian films foreground issues of nationhood and national identity to an unusual degree. A key touchstone in Australian film history is The Sentimental Bloke (1919), an archetypal story of the Outback “larrikin” who is eventually civilized by love and domesticity. (Revived at the 2004 Sydney Film Festival, a fresh print played the “Treasures from the Archives” strand at London this year). Since the Australian New Wave broke over western screens in the late-70s, in one way or another releases for prestige or export have tended to trade in historical watersheds or notions of “Australian-ness.” Gallipoli (1981) dramatised the disastrous World War I battle in which thousands of Australian troops lost their lives, an escapade that has fed the discourse around Australian identity ever since. (Events to commemorate the battle’s 90th anniversary took place in April 2005). In 1987, The Lighthorsemen related another defining moment when Australian cavalry routed the Turks in Palestine in 1917. Romper Stomper (1992) addressed the problematic fate of Australian-ness in an already fractional world by charting the dark side of inner urban race relations. Country Life (1994), starring Sam Neill, veteran of My Brilliant Career, used a Chekhov adaptation to rehearse the Australian desire for self-determination in post-World War I New South Wales. In that film the landscape becomes a key signifier of Australian difference, a unique heritage to be cherished rather than ignored in favour of cultivating another England in the bush. More ambivalent about Australia’s parched interior, The Last Days of Chez Nous also participated in the search for nationhood. As Beth and her vinegary father drive into the “Outback” in search of some quality time together, the soundtrack becomes ironic, reminiscent of an Elmer Bernstein western score, accompanying a montage of dead straight road and desert town. European spectators are invited to see the Outback through the alienated French husband JP’s eyes: miles of nothing. Yet back in Sydney there are moments that suggest another sense of Australia. The terraced house that Beth and JP (Bruno Ganz) rent is in Balmain, a leafy suburb rich in urban microcultures. Armstrong herself lived there in the late-’80s. In a 1989 Sight and Sound interview, Australian journalist Mark Mordue wrote: “Balmain’s character certainly suits a personal history that has seen Armstrong grapple, like many of her generation, with a post-’60s consciousness and the sometimes awkward relationship between career momentum and credible artistic and social concern.” Beth and JP live next door to Sally (Mickey Camilleri), who is married to the Italian-Australian Angelo (Lex Marinos). On summer evenings, a woman walks down the road singing opera. The local diner seems to be run by interesting exotic types. In a film in which peripheral characters tease with their fleeting appearances, we are treated to a melting pot of contemporary urban Australia. Socially, if not aesthetically, Armstrong’s film proposes the same postmodern cornucopia as Wong Kar-wai would a few years later. This may not be the traditional Australia of bush and sheep station as proposed by the New Wave, but it is consonant with a realism about urban identity that is peculiar to a postmodern world. We are reminded of Marseille or Rio, where communities lie side by side and a different music emerges. At JP’s naturalization ceremony, we are amidst a babel of tongues and ethnicities. The Last Days of Chez Nous is very much a film about people in transit, both politically and emotionally, and this extends to its contribution to Australian cinema’s international presence. Seeing it in a post-9/11 climate of closed borders and “terror detentions” adds to the film’s poignancy. Always generous, it even accords some credence to the “plain landscape” of the interior preferred by Beth’s father, played by the gruff Australian actor Bill Hunter. As they stop before what appears to be a spectacular sandstorm gathering in the distance, there is a nod to the mysticism that has fueled respectful depictions of Australia from Walkabout (1970) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), to Paul Cox’s obscurantist Cactus (1986).
The international appeal that Armstrong’s film made can also be read in generic terms. Her exploration of a woman’s growing awareness that she is losing her husband to another woman suggests the Hollywood “woman’s picture.” The generic angle was explored in Andrew Urban’s set interview with Armstrong and producer Jan Chapman published in Australia’s Cinema Papers in May 1991. Beth is the centre around whom the film pivots, and we see things mainly through her eyes. Vulnerable, intelligent, and tough, Beth seems to descend from a pantheon of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis types. The “Cheryl and Chantelle Butterworth” scenario that Beth and teenage daughter Annie (Miranda Otto) playfully rehearse, with its “old moll” mother and ladylike daughter, seems from this distance reminiscent of the Barbara Stanwyck-Anne Shirley dynamic in Stella Dallas (1937). Beth also reminds us of aspiring turn-of-the-century writer Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) in My Brilliant Career. Not just a flagship of the Australian New Wave, that film chimed with the second-wave feminism shaping film culture at the time. Resolute and hard-headed, Beth is a modern Australian heroine, a writer and a determined woman in a rural society emerging into urban civilization. She has come a long way from the sheep station. At one point Beth and Vicki (Kerry Fox) forcibly paint Annie’s face as a caper to introduce her to the “world of men,” where she must be prepared to “hawk your wares.” Beth’s resentment at the demeaning treatment her generation fought so that Annie can have a better life can perhaps be felt in the clannish savagery and choker close-ups of this scene.
As Armstrong and Chapman make clear, Vicki and Annie belong to a different generation. Legatees of the women’s movement, it is not so urgent that they choose between a career and being a “woman.” They can just be. Chapman says: “Unlike my generation and that of Beth’s, Vicki doesn’t need to define herself. She is naturally free and individual, the things we had to fight to be — even though she realizes she has to break free from being in the shadow of a famous sister.” As soon as Vicki arrives home she helps herself to a slice of cake, baked by a sister who adores her to mark her homecoming. Lizzie Francke wrote in her Sight and Sound review on the film’s British release in March 1993: “Vicki is an intense and wilful young woman testing the boundaries of that will, while her elder sister is hitting a moment of self-doubt.” That ferocious wilfulness is dramatically summarized in a long shot of Vicki wildly dancing in the doorway from across the street. You feel like a passerby startled by an unguarded and untrammelled moment of pure interiority made public.
Consonant with its feeling for generational release and better than many another film, The Last Days of Chez Nous captures its characters unfinished, in a state of becoming. Beth’s mania for resolution may go back to her generation’s struggle for self-empowerment, but the film is about how she learns to take things as they come. Her French husband JP (Jean-Pierre) is already cruising, an epicurean made all the more laid back by his wife’s ferocious energy. At one point she seeks his approval for her new book. It is very good, he says, a real page-turner. But “You have written life the way you wish it would be . . . People are more cruel and egotistical. Life is much better than this.” It is typical of JP’s easygoing, evolving attitude to life that he is drawn to Vicki’s feckless anima. Significantly, why JP stays in Australia, which he clearly hates, or why he becomes an Australian citizen remain obscure issues. Like many pleasure seekers, he appears too lazy to take proper charge of his life. Even having left Beth to move in with Vicki, he has doubts about what they are doing. The film’s ambivalence about the fate that befalls the house of Chez Nous adds to its “European” mood. For screenwriter Helen Garner, Chapman says: “there are some tragedies, for which no-one is to blame. There is a point of view that’s not black and white but shades of grey.”
For Anthony Lane at The New Yorker,The Last Days of Chez Nous seemed “a worthy successor to My Brilliant Career and High Tide, if anything, it feels more mobile, charting every shift in the emotional climate. It’s hard to pin down just what kind of work it is: jokes at the dinner table can turn nasty and upsetting, but people also recover quickly, and sometimes dance without warning.” Any great film will always exceed its separate influences. The challenge then becomes how to approximate its especial power as it unfurls before us. A little picture in more than one sense, The Last Days of Chez Nous eschews the larger narrative of these lives and their reasons to concentrate on minutiae pregnant with desire and intents. Everything is subordinated to Armstrong’s delineation of events over one crisis summer in a Sydney suburb. Evocative of the way we come halfway through lives in Chekhov, The Last Days of Chez Nous dramatizes details with endlessly affecting emotional vigour. And you never come across a false note. In a synopsis, nothing very much happens. Beth’s pretty, impetuous, but lazy sister Vicki returns from travelling in Europe pregnant. Beth encourages her to abort, which Vicki does, regretting the decision. While Beth goes on a tour of the Outback designed to reconcile herself to her aging father, JP tells Vicki that he would have taken care of her baby. They begin an affair. When Beth returns, JP tells her everything and he and Vicki move out. Beth tells Vicki she wants nothing more to do with her. Taken from novelist Garner’s short story, Armstrong’s film explores the emotional consequences for people as they negotiate life changes from up close.
As in the work of John Cassavetes, The Last Days of Chez Nous is sensitive to the way outward attitudes mutate in response to buried feelings. Another director who mines this territory is Woody Allen, evoked when Beth mentions Manhattan (1979), a film that appeared the same year as My Brilliant Career and that also explored the consequences of women following their instincts. JP and Vicki have just returned from seeing a film, and Beth, increasingly anxious about what is going on, asks whether it was in colour or black-and-white. In colour, blurts JP, increasingly frustrated with the sham their marriage has become. “Manhattan was in black-and-white,” answers Beth. She is right, and it is Garner and Armstrong’s little joke at Ganz’s expense since so was Wings of Desire! But as so often in Chekhov, Cassavetes, and Allen, words are not here being used to utter facts about the world. They are being used to paper over feelings about people. There is relentlessness about the end of things at Chez Nous that reminds us of the end of things so often charted in Chekhov, an inevitability from which language retreats in confusion. As in Chekhov, these events also take place as summer is ending, (a mood underscored in Paul Grabowsky’s melancholy jazz score). That JP often speaks French while Beth speaks English suggests the linguistic and cultural chasm between them, while considerable potential for misunderstanding is built into the languages themselves. Earlier when Beth and JP are walking home from the shops, she teases him about a younger woman he has been seeing: “I bet she sucks your cock, doesn’t she.” As they pass under a pedestrian subway, frivolity turns vicious, steadicam operator Ian Jones breaking the smooth continuum of their walk as they scuffle while a train roars overhead. By the time they reappear, Beth is storming off ahead. There follows a close-up in which Beth is seen stabbing penile sausages in a grill pan.
Despite her mania for order — Beth is habitually seen cleaning the house — her home is a ramshackle space seething with carnival. Even the credits as Vicki saunters through the house on her return from Europe seem strewn across every room. As Lane observes, indoors characters “mess around within careful compositions.” As soon as Beth is out of the way, life at Chez Nous descends into a smear of lazy afternoons. Vicki dances through the rooms followed by JP with a plastic sieve on his head. It is a joyful scene accompanied by Pierre Akendengue’s Nw’alewana in which the camera seems to rejoice with them. Annie tries to learn Jelly Roll Morton pieces on the upright piano with the lodger Tim (Kiri Paramore), with whom she too will form a relationship. We see Vicki and Annie ransack Beth’s room while she is away, dressing up in her clothes, in Francke’s words, “as if they were cast-offs in a kindergarten dressing-up box.” In one scene, all indulge in painting and colouring on the floor. To northern European eyes, that scene in which a passing stranger asks Vicki for a light as she sits on the verandah evokes a society with the luxury to live as much outdoors as in. It is as though the street is simply another room. Later we see a woman sweeping the pavement outside Chez Nous as if it were her backyard. Australia emerges from among the jaded moods of sweltering afternoons and tabloid stories. A circular scheme — plates, a potter’s wheel, curly camera movements — hint at the circles, vicious and otherwise, that unexamined quotidian lives can generate. In one ambitious shot we see Beth in an Outback motel room watching a documentary in which a woman gives birth. The camera moves from Beth’s face to the screen, then away from seemingly the same screen to her sister Vicki sitting, in tears, in Beth’s living room watching the same programme. In June 2001 Sight and Sound ran a close-up of Kerry Fox on its cover to mark the release of Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2000). The similarity between her and Harrow is striking.
This is Beth’s story and she is at the centre of cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson’s most studied compositions, as for instance in the car with her father. Already turned 40 and unable to understand why they constantly fight, she stares moodily forward in extreme profile close-up, the desert rushing past her face through the window a metaphor for a future slipping into her past. Much later, another profile shot finds her sideways onto Annie who is facing the camera, upset and perplexed by the recent storm in the household. Annie is then seen in profile through the window practicing at the piano with Tim. The camera snakes along the iron grillwork outside to rest on Beth’s face, serene and radiant in the sunshine, as she gazes off at a spire looming up behind some trees down the street. Rambling, heterogeneous, and cluttered, if scenes in The Last Days of Chez Nous suggest the bite-sized watchability of television soap opera with its tangle of crises and resolutions, there is something decisive and liberating about Beth’s jaunty walk down that street at the end. The film began as Vicki came up the path and let herself in at the gate. It ends as her sister leaves by the same gate, seemingly moving from one life into another (today at any rate).
Mark Mordue began his Sight and Sound piece by describing the director recalling her youth. “Gillian Armstrong is moving backwards: the minor notes after the grand flourish, the return home to find a centre of gravity before perhaps setting out again.” Echoing Vicky’s trajectory, The Last Days of Chez Nous saw an Australian returning to her country to make a film that sets out to describe home and ends by defining it as who you are with. Whenever I see it, I am overwhelmed by its consummate marriage of theme and aesthetic, its generosity towards its characters, all of whom are protagonists whether they are or not. A sad film, The Last Days of Chez Nous always leaves me feeling happy.