Reviewed in July 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Paul Cox. Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Robert Menzies, Norman Kaye, Monica Maughan, Banula Marika, Peter Aanensen, Sheila Florance, Sean Scully, Maurie Fields, Julia Blake, Jean-Pierre Mignon. Screenplay: Paul Cox, Bob Ellis, and Norman Kaye (with additional dialogue by Morris Lurie).
Twitter Capsule: Delicate drama of blind lovers needs more muscle but Huppert, sound, and lensing are gorgeous

Photo © 1986 Film Victoria/Australian Film Commission/Dofine Productions
About once or twice per year, Cannes serves up a movie that seems to have been made with your Great Aunt Joyce and her $8 firmly in mind. The quickest reactions are usually to ask what these movies are doing here, to leave them out of festival wrap-up coverage, or to cover them quickly as a "nice break" from all the heavy-weather dramas by Ceylan and Egoyan and Angelopoulos. 1986 was a little different, since the Palme itself went to Team Joyce; the only other times that's happened in the last quarter-century were in 2001 with The Son's Room and arguably the two Bille August films, Pelle the Conqueror and The Best Intentions. Still, if you'd bothered to fly Joyce all the way out to France to see The Mission, it would have been a shame to take her to just one film. Assuming she doesn't have a thing for chimpanzees or a secret Sex Pistols cassette hiding in the sedan, and I feel sure that my own Great Aunt Joyce does not, the obvious choice would have been Cactus, Paul Cox's delicate, appealing drama about a French woman named Colo (Isabelle Huppert) who gets in an awful car accident and loses her sight in one eye while vacationing in Australia. Another way to say that last part is, while traveling to Australia to get even further away from her already emotionally distant husband and to decide that, yes, they probably should just split. Please trust that this decision, around which little suspense has accrued, will eventually be delivered in a letter, written late at night and narrated by the heroine in voice-over, in surprisingly prosy prose. Assume that the cactus will serve a patently symbolic function, reminding us that even the prickliest and least thirsty of God's creations need nourishment and love. Feel confident that Aunt Joyce will applaud the end of the movie. But know, too, that even if you've got a different kind of Aunt Joyce, a Tarkovsky fan who wouldn't normally be caught attending a chick flick without a heavy veil, she might still applaud Cactus and so might you. It's a qualified accomplishment, fuzzy at its narrative core and lackadaisical about the generic requirements of romance. Part and parcel of these limitations, though, is Cactus's genuine will to stand apart, offering rich textures and unexpected pleasures.

So, yes, Cox's film occasionally feels stiff in both the writing and delivery of dialogue, and possibly a little bored with the primary beats in its plot, as Colo is introduced to a young, gangly, defensive chap called Robert (Robert Menzies) who has been blind all his life. The older friends with whom Colo is staying fix her up with Robert, as it were, and in full knowledge that she is married, but perhaps not so happily married, so that he can help to reconcile her to a life of limited vision if not total sightlessness. She, they hope, can in turn draw him out into something like a friendship. Robert has spent too long for their tastes puttering in his greenhouse and volleying back at the sarcastic jabs of his caretaker and colleague Banduk (Banula Marika), who offers an Aboriginal non-twist on the role of the sassy black friend. Tending to plants that can hurt you is the rare activity and Banduk is the rare kind of companion that make it conceivable that hanging out with Isabelle Huppert of all people is liable to soften you up. Soften they do, culminating in an almost black-and-white sex scene, holding almost entirely on their barely but beautifully lit faces, as the Australian birds and fauna furnish a soundscape that is equal parts lovely and eerie. This kind of gorgeous visual sensitivity, from cinematographer Yuri Sokol, and even more so the assertive and captivating sound design, orchestrated by Ken Hammond, Tim Chau, and Frank Lipson, are crucial and consistent virtues of Cactus. In both of these registers, Cactus is confident enough not to flee from potential clichés (the beauty and uncanniness of pastoral Australia, the heightened hearing of blind characters) but to convey them in lush but idiosyncratic ways, especially by the standards of a genre that often coaches restraint and familiarity in all respects.

Once made privy to this level of sensory stimulation, which isn't just decorous or voluptuous for its own sake but an important avenue into characterization and dramatic circumstance, you can forgive Cactus for seeming a little bored with more conventional storytelling mechanics like expository dialogue and compulsory story beats. Probably the movie benefits from Huppert speaking a different tongue than her own, which only helps Colo seem simultaneously competent but out of her element, but she is not well-placed to salvage the screenplay's blunt dialogues. The opening scenes, uncharacteristically for what follows, are scripted and shot so prosaically that Cactus risks turning off all but the least demanding viewers. Some of those very viewers, of whom I am sometimes one, who will accept anything from this kind of movie as long as it supplies the pledged surges of sentiment and the requisite happy ending, will feel slighted by Cactus's quiet, stinting approach to a few key scenes, including the wrap-up, where most directors would have gone a little bigger.

I don't want to force an analogy between the cactus motif and the film's standoffish relation to its own romantic imperatives. Partly I don't want to do this because the cactus symbolism is already belabored enough but also because the movie as a whole is actually quite ingratiating, and in a way that feels much more special and trickier to pull off than a straightforward embrace of emotionalism would have been. Even for a movie that holds on long shots at least two or three times as often as a conventional love story—to very tense effect when Colo's husband inevitably arrives on the scene—Cactus is capable of exquisite emotional intimacy with its characters. Just a wordless full shot of Huppert in a simple sleeping garment, settling into a bed that isn't hers and rubbing lotion into her hands under the softly bronzing light of a bedside lamp achieves a delicacy of observation that a dialogue, even a good dialogue, would be hard-pressed to attain. Not a lot of acting, per se, is called for in a moment like this, but to nobody's surprise, Huppert entrances when the script serves her some richer opportunities. Colo faces a tough dilemma: though she has only lost sight in her left eye, it is entirely possible that hyper-corrections in the brain will "shut off" her ability to see in the right eye, as well, unless the damaged organ is removed. The close-up in which Huppert absorbs this news is a quiet but articulate and affecting condensation of suppressed panic, flimsy attempts at denial, but mostly of a mature woman's coerced thoughtfulness about a really unfair and winless choice.

As good as it is when forging these insights into characters by themselves, Cactus also thrives on chances to fill the screen with characters and a pleasing, believable tumult of human behavior. These scenes endow the film with an energy it could easily have lacked, and they keep the prospective lovers immersed in other interests and other relationships that seem appropriate to their personalities, unlikely as these two are to give everything over to love. Best, Cox has a genuine knack for bemused but compassionate observation of human oddities, which feel tartly distilled by the camera without seeming awkwardly trumped up as punchlines. A disputatious outbreak at the local Cactus Appreciation Society is a delicious, wonderfully lifelike scene of fighting over molehills and caring an awful lot about those molehills. A subsequent birthday party spent among Colo's 60-something friends is a comparable charmer, like a tender yet spikily Australian spin on the dinner in The Dead. The battiest old lady in the group sits down to play the piano and sing for this friendly convocation, somewhat past the ceiling of her abilities. Performer, photographer, and director extract an exquisite balance of poignancy and mockery, really an open but bemused admiration for this flappy songbird. Like much else that is touching in Cactus, this is touching in an unusual and not at all pushy way.

In some ways, this generous, tactful sort of filmmaking implies a different sensibility than the rapid, abstract sequences, full of coarse visual grain, in which Colo flashes back to her accident and Robert recalls the stumbles and the awkwardness of his youth. These are not the only times that Cox seems eager to push against the prettiness of his film, no matter how nuanced he shows himself to be at insulating Cactus against empty pictorialism. Observe, for example, the quick, discomfiting images of what passes for eye surgery, threaded into one of these subconscious montages. As sympathetic as Cox's direction is to his two leads, it seems clear that his sense of his own creativity is least gratified when hanging over their shoulders or tracking the rhythms of their fall into love. If Cactus felt more agitated or discombobulated on the whole, you could easily accuse it of being best when it strays furthest from the core of its emotion or the necessities of its story, and weakest when it at last agrees to face up to its promissory notes and deliver the romance that is paying for Cox's privileges of veering into abstraction, tinkering with sound and color, and exploring broader, bumptious, but believably mundane canvases of the human comedy. He may not rise to the level of countryman Ray Lawrence, who in films like Lantana and Jindabyne demonstrates majestic technical and stylistic chops without dodging the narratives that pull them together. Cactus is caught up in some apparent ambivalence about itself, but even if Cox makes a more flamboyant show of his detours and his directorial choices than Lawrence does, he still supplies an affecting and coherent experience, one that isn't half as "busy" a film as you'd imagine it would have to be to accommodate so many different scenes, tones, and emphases. Even if the movie chafes a bit at what it seems to regard as a minor-league genre, its overall impression is still of modesty rather than arrogance. Cox isn't interested in his characters in quite the way his material asks him to be, but he is interested in them, and it's a deep, sincere interest, worth savoring as more than a respite from major-league cinema. Grade: B

VOR: (2)   (What is this?)
Kudos to the film for demonstrating such imagination and technical finesse in the way it brings this story to life. To the extent, however, that the VOR rating measures the urgency with which one should rush to see the film, for the sheer value of forming an opinion about it or for the prospect of beholding something genuinely distinctive, I cannot score the film too highly. I'm fond of it, even taken with it, but even its more experimental passages and counter-intuitive qualities aren't "risky" or "original" so much as they're unexpected, threaded into the fabric of the film more ably than you'd expect them to be. I think a lot of viewers would be pleased by the film, but on the scale of what really mattered or what really changed in film culture in 1986, Cactus is far down the list of what you'd throw into the time capsule.

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