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Suburban monstrosity – Sydney Film Festival Diary #2

Una
Photograph: Supplied

The first thing Nashen Moodley asked actor Ben Mendelsohn in his pre-film intro to Una was what made him decide to take the role – given the disturbing material. (The answer was: actress Rooney Mara, the thrilling and thriller aspects of the material, and his experience working with the director, Benedict Andrews, at Sydney Theatre Company). 

Based on British playwright David Harrower’s Blackbird, Una takes place over 24 hours in which a young woman seeks out and reconnects with the older man who sexually abused her when she was 13. The structure cuts between the present, where she moves through her life and into his as a kind of pale, thin, girl-like ghost, and the past, where the barely pubescent Una meets, and develops a crush on, her father’s friend (and next-door neighbour) Ray. Andrews plays it with a touch of thriller: slow pacing, and wide shots with the camera holding still or slowly pushing in, give a sense of claustrophobia, punctuated by tiny jolts of sound or action. Scenes where Una and Ray are re-united feel almost unbearably confined.

Mara gives a remarkable performance as someone who, like a soul in purgatory, is trapped between two worlds she has been cast out of: childhood and adulthood. Harrower’s play is ambitious in exploring the psychological terrain of each character; Andrews and Mendelsohn do not shy away from it: Ray is never the monster next door, but a man haunted by what he calls “the worst mistake of his life”, who insists (and seems to believe) that he’s “not one of them”: it was just this one time, this one person, this one attraction. At the same time, the film is entirely more compelling as a window to the fragility of youth. What happens when you introduce sex into the emotional equation for a child still very much in need of affirmation? Mara’s answer is quietly devastating.

At this point in Michael Haneke’s career, there’s a certain solidarity – a sense of communal angst, and girding of loins – within the crowd at one of his screenings. You’re all here because, well, you want to feel slightly devastated. When Nashen Moodley, introducing the film, says “It’s called Happy End – but obviously, it won’t be”, there’s laughter. Tension has been momentarily relieved. Straight from Cannes, this film sees the 75-year-old Austrian turn his philosophical mind and cool, detached eye onto the matter of human relations in a screen-led world. Again, he’s pitched tent in a bougie white French family (the same one as featured in Amour, with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert making return appearances), counterpointing their privileged and slightly oblivious existence with the lives of immigrants and the working class.

The Laurent family have made their money in manufacturing of some kind, and near the top of the film we see an accident occur on one of their sites – their reaction to which becomes a thread through the film. The other key threads are elderly patriarch Georges’ attempts to end his own life; and his 13-year-old granddaughter Eve, who exhibits a moral detachment from life’s tragedies that’s chilling, if not surprising. Children can be cruel, and violent – as Haneke showed us in The White Ribbon – but what does putting a screen between them and the world do to them? Thankfully, the resulting film never feels like an old man shaking his fist at “youth these days”. Haneke keeps a customarily cool, detached eye on proceedings, using close-ups sparingly and instead making us complicit in his thesis through a series of wide shots, in which the action is at a distance.

If you find cinema and life altogether too fast and flippant these days, you’ll relish a film in which every shot is considered and revelatory, and the chance to not just be told about a problem but involved in it in the most uncomfortable but thrilling way. DJ

We’re reluctant to be the Grinch when it comes to Better Watch Out, but this US-Australian co-production, shot at Fox Studios here in Sydney under American writer-director Chris Peckover, proved the horror movie equivalent of a clunky Christmas cracker joke. A John Hughes suburban romp that turns torture-porny, it has Levi Miller’s precocious 12 year old hoping to seduce his babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) one wintry night when proceedings are interrupted by a home invasion.

Granted, we may not have seen the twist coming (call us naïve), but we didn’t believe it once it landed, and a poorly written and acted villain leaves the film in the realm of camp. Mind you, we we were glad to have the chance to see it with a large SFF crowd to amplify what shocks there were. This is one of the many pleasures of film festival-going: movies that might not make it in the big, bad distribution world at least get an outing in the best possible conditions under which they can be enjoyed. ND

The festival continues until June 18.

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