Chip into the dark crust surrounding an opal, stare into its iridescent heart and it looks as if you’re gazing into the cosmos. Burning with the majesty of a rainbow, this unearthly-looking gemstone could have fallen from the stars, but was actually forged in the dirt below our feet over millennia. The mysterious qualities of this highly prized find have long drawn prospectors to the barren places where it can be mined, like the otherworldly moonscape of ocker outback town Lightning Ridge in north-western New South Wales.
The perfect setting, then, for Melbourne-based, Russian-born filmmaker Alena Lodkina’s mesmerising debut feature, Strange Colours (2017), magnifying the emotional impact of this unforgettable tale about an estranged daughter trying to reconnect with her absentee father. One of the strongest Australian debuts in recent years, it set an impossibly high bar for Lodkina to follow.
While sophomore feature Petrol certainly glints unusually, it’s not quite cut from the same rich seam, even though it is the more ambitious movie. Debuting at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland before competing in the Melbourne International Film Festival’s (MIFF) inaugural Bright Horizons award, it’s knowingly playful with the filmmaking form.
Lodkina casts Bump star Nathalie Morris as Eva, a film school student trying to lock down inspiration for her grad movie. While working on the sound recording of a vampire flick shot by the sea, she falls under the spell of enigmatic star Mia (newcomer Hannah Lynch, not quite as intriguing as the role requires). But the more Eva is drawn into Mia’s arty circle, the further away this object of unusual desire becomes, so much so that the film student begins to question if Mia is, in fact, a figment of her imagination.
Interestingly, when Eva is editing the film, a computer says no moment sees the screen fracture into a fractal design that shines with the many magical colours of an opal. It’s the first of several metatextual nods towards Lodkina’s debut, including an oil spill on wet tarmac that loosely reflects the film’s title.
Working on more the one level, Lodkina messes with identity and reality in a way that calls to mind arthouse classics like Chris Marker’s ‘60s French sci-fi La Jetée, and countryman Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating. But it’s also poking a bit of fun at the more po-faced tendencies of student filmmakers, though perhaps not as successfully as MIFF’s Melbourne on Film strand highlight Love and Other Catastrophes.
Petrol also leans into the spookiness of a possibly supernatural mystery, complete with visions read in tea leaves, howling wind and doors with a mind of their own that would not be out of place in a ghost story. There’s lots of interesting stuff to get stuck into; it’s just a shame that none of it shines as bright as it should. Morris, so good in Bump, is a little wooden here, perhaps deliberately so.
Where Strange Colours was visually arresting, Petrol, also shot by cinematographer Michael Latham, is frustratingly ordinary to look at. There are a handful of moments where it sparkles, including gulls swooping in lamplight in the dead of night at Carlton Gardens, Mia lost in long grass and a startling levitation sequence, but for the most part, the lustre is lacking.
And yet, in its best moments, Petrol reminds us that Lodkina is clearly a talented filmmaker to watch, with big ideas and plenty more left in the tank.