Haunted by the Future

Claire (Julia Blake) and Andreas (Charles 'Bud' Tingwell) embrace

Andreas, a long time widower, and Claire, married to John, are distant neighbours in South Australia. It is their first contact in half a century, since they were youthful lovers in Belgium. Both are ‘too old for a mid-life crisis’ but they become lovers again. When Claire tells John, he is baffled, then angry. Claire leaves him to stay with Andreas. She has a heart condition, he has cancer, but neither tells the other. Each has an adult child who is supportive of their actions. Claire goes back to John, but the affair continues. Claire returns to Andreas, John feels his life is ruined. Although Andreas is under a death sentence, it is Claire who dies first – in a fit of ecstasy (not sexual). At her funeral the two old men are united in their loss.

Innocence is grounded in realism but freely uses expressionist techniques which command different ways of responding, though none seem sufficient to account for the film as a whole. Paul Cox, the most prolific of Australian feature directors, has availed himself of the postmodernist licence to admit different strategies of interpretation, but he hasn’t matched as well as he’s mixed. Most spectators will discard the parts they don’t see the meaning of and still have enough left over to form a strong response – you’ll love it (the parts you prefer to remember) or you’ll hate it (ditto). Of course, this can happen with any film, but it is more likely to happen, and different interpretations to be more adversarial, when crossed signals send us down divergent paths.

Realism allows us to relate to the characters with the breadth of response of our everyday experience. The probability of events in realistic drama accords with probability in our own lives (the ‘real world’), and thoroughgoing realism is restricted in its means of providing us with information about the characters’ inner lives: we have to infer their emotions and values along the same lines of inference we use in our everyday dealings with ‘real’ people.

Innocence meets the criterion of probability but takes numerous liberties with the criterion of inference. There are passages of privileged (i.e., uninferred) information about Andreas and Claire, mostly their shared memories but also some personal imagining, occasional elements of symbolism, and passages of surrealistic authorial intervention. Since these are all on different planes of experience – and comprehension – the realism of Innocence is neither simple nor thorough. This creates problems if we try to make consistent sense of everything we see and hear.

Can we trust the accuracy of the frequent wordless flashbacks of Andreas and Claire as teenage lovers? I expect most of us will disregard the lack of physical resemblance between the actors who play the lovers young and old (or should we take this to be the measure of their common misremembering?), and some of us may be able to accept the ridiculous convention whereby characters remember their own lovemaking from the point of view of a third person/voyeur. But the ‘facts’ of the past are a different matter.

A teenage Andreas (Kenny Aernouts) and Claire (Kristine Van Pellicom) kiss in a flashback sequence

Early in the film we see the young Claire being refused entry to an elegant home by an unsympathetic man. We have to assume he is Andreas’ father and this is the end of the affair (we have no other information about that grievous event). The camera follows her as she walks away. Later, she says to Andreas, in tones too gentle for accusation, ‘You didn’t fight to get me back … I waited for you’. If the flashback is ‘true’, her words are misleading (or may imply she believes that only the male should have fought in defence of their love!). These, and other unresolved confusions in the dramatic evidence, impede systematic understanding of the events of the story.

On a different plane is the surrealistic image of the young Claire clearing the mirror to see as her reflection the old Claire. It occurs in the narrative as though it was Claire’s memory, yet it can not have happened in the past. Here the absence of resolution is provocative, quivering with sensations and ideas which do not inform us of the events but enrich our response to the story.

In the cemetery scene Andreas watches his wife’s remains being transferred to a new coffin after thirty years in the ground. Suddenly we are shown the fresh body of a young woman in the coffin, her arm partly covered by earth. The arm moves … Then Claire joins Andreas, and we see the coffin lid closed on the young body. Are these images of the dead his memories (if so, what does it tell us when we see the pubic hair but not the face – has he forgotten, or can’t bear to remember?) or is he hallucinating? In either case, we would be ‘inside’ Andreas. Or are we ‘outside’ him, and these images are an authorial comment on mortality? (If you say ‘What does it matter?’ you are shrugging off the critic’s responsibility to do more than provide simplistic consumer advice.)

On yet another plane of experience is the view from Andreas’ hospital bed as he talks of ‘two kinds of dying’: an industrial crane lifts some dark tackle past the window, momentarily obscuring the sunlit park below. This is no facile piece of symbolism but a perplexing sensation which remains inexhaustible to meditation. (Regrettably, what Andreas has to say at this moment is unworthy of meditation.)

Different again is the close-up on John in the mortuary chapel. The preceding wide shot, in complete silence, has shown the mourners in a severely formal composition reminiscent of a Dreyer film and in a range of ‘cool’ colours. In the close-up John’s rigidity is illuminated by beams of ‘hot’ colours from a stained glass window behind him. In one sense it may be seen as a halo, suggesting he is the sainted one in this unhappy triangle. In another sense it conveys emotional fury while those around him are subdued, ‘all passion spent’. These contradictory impressions exist simultaneously, an example of a ‘both-and’ rather than an ‘either-or’ message, the sort of ambiguity which does not frustrate meaning but compounds it.

Cox’s mise-en-scène is characteristically fluid. Fluid is a much abused term in film reviewing. I mean by it that there is a predominance of motivated camera movements and an unforced transition between two-shot and shot-reverse-shot in dialogue scenes. (Motivated camera movement is initiated by the characters: the camera moves in order to hold them in frame as they traverse filmic space.) Cox combines this technique with delicate, tactile cinematography, production design which does its job so efficiently it gives us information without drawing attention to itself, unobtrusive music and some subtle sound mixing, the preservation of spatial logic in the cutting, and an absence of exaggerated camera angles and compositions. These are all factors conducive to a trusting acceptance of the dramatic evidence about characters and situations.

For the lovers’ final outdoor scene, when something has changed in their relationship, Cox uses an unconventional technique of framing and cutting. They stand on either side of an old tree; its trunk, dark and gnarled, becomes a third figure in the scene (and a more subtle kind of symbolism than the autumn leaves). Shot-reverse-shot alternates between Claire and Tree, Andreas and Tree. You may have seen a publicity still which shows the three in frame together, but this is a composition the director won’t let us see during the scene.

Andreas, tree and Claire

Cox makes sparing use of arbitrary camera movements. (These are initiated by the camera, not the characters: the camera assumes an authority of its own to traverse the filmic space. ‘Motivated’ is realistic, ‘arbitrary’ is expressionistic.) The function of these arbitrary movements is to drive audience attention, not merely facilitate it. Except for the opening and closing scenes (pan down to water, pan up to sky) and the exploratory shot of Andreas’ living room, these movements occur at emotionally charged moments in Innocence: Claire, reminded of the past, caresses herself; Claire prepares to ‘confess’ to John; Andreas sits in the park after visiting his GP; the oncologist discusses Andreas’ test results with him.

If these are evidence of an artistic strategy of restraint, how do we reconcile the opposing strategy of excess which punctuates the story with repetitive flashbacks? It seems the director doesn’t trust us to make imaginative associations of our own. Consider the difference if, for instance, the sound of trains was overlaid at chosen moments instead of the intervention of redundant imagery.

Restraint is the keynote for the performers. Charles Tingwell portrays Andreas as a figure of rueful decency, diffident but steadfast. Julia Blake has a timeless beauty and a serene manner to accompany it. Her acting technique complicates our understanding of Claire: there is a hint of discrepancy between her shot-reverse-shot singles, where she gives her eyeline to the other actor (what Bresson called the ‘pistol shot’), and her two-shots, where she rarely looks at the other actor for more than a few seconds. The effect is to give her character a quality of self-absorption which seems at odds with the script.

Terry Norris as John has a wider range of emotion to play than the other two principals, and delivers an intense, faultless performance. The supporting cast maintain a firm realistic standard (what good and varied use Paul Cox has made of Chris Haywood over the years!), and well you might ask why Robert Menzies, one of our finest stage actors, is offered so few roles on camera.

Innocence is a film ‘by’ Paul Cox. He wrote it as well as directed it. For me, the most problematic element of the screenplay is the dialogue. In early scenes there are many examples of commonplace words infused with literary irony: ‘… you live near me, you exist’; ‘… so much has happened. Nothing has happened’; and the restaurant manager’s stark ‘Did you enjoy?’ (which has at least three possible meanings in its context). And there is dramatic irony in Claire’s confession to John: what might have been a cheap word game becomes an emotionally resonant encounter. At this early point I was forming the expectation that irony, a scarce resource in Australian film, would be the controlling spirit of Innocence. I was soon disappointed.

Too many subsequent scenes are log jammed with hollow pronouncements like: ‘Do you know what really matters in life? Love’; ‘Each stage in life has its own kind of love’; ‘… women are not very different from men in their secret adventures’; ‘Too much love is as bad as no love at all’. Hollow, not because of their dubious truth but because they neither advance the narrative nor provide insight into the characters. Some scenes seem to be in the script primarily for the sake of these predigested wisdoms.

In the films of Bergman and Rohmer, for example, characters indulge in longer verbal exchanges about abstractions and absolutes, but they are addressing each other. In Innocence the author is addressing the audience. This kind of dialogue, in which the actors have to start with the words and find the emotions rather than start with the emotions and find the words, can still be found in theatre, but is poison to screenwriting. Genuine transcendental film-makers like Ozu and Bresson keep the dialogue in the realm of the Particular and let the audience reflect on the Universal. If a film draws all its Universal conclusions the audience are denied the opportunity to do so, or to put their own values to the test.

By contrast, there is a later scene in Innocence where John sits in impotent fury watching Claire and Andreas together. Andreas approaches him and says ‘I’m really sorry’. John replies ‘That’s good to know’. The emotions are there and the words are inadequate; the scene gains greater tension because of it. Consider the criterion of realism – how often in our experience have we heard people under heavy stress lapse into banality? We don’t question their sincerity because words fail them.

The word-bound scenes cloud the ironic quality of other dialogue. When the GP says reassuringly ‘You’re not going to die’, Andreas replies with splendid simplicity ‘Of course I’m going to die’. Trivial or profound? While we are pondering this Andreas goes on to say ‘I’ve been living on borrowed time for quite some time’. (A tough line, Bud, you spoke it beautifully.) Is this a witty deconstruction of the colloquial such as Stein or Beckett might be proud of, or the writer’s clumsiness and the script editor’s oversight?

And what are we to make of ‘I wish the word “God” didn’t exist; we might be able to find out what God is for ourselves’? This is either a classic example of question begging or an ironic exercise in transformational grammar: [find out for ourselves] [what God is] v. [find out][what is][God for ourselves]. After two viewings of the film I can’t decide. So many things in Innocence frustrate me like this.

I expect it will be hailed in some quarters for putting geriatric sexuality at the centre of its story. Yet the narrative is evasive and the dialogue silent about how often and how well the lovers actually make love. No-one who hasn’t experienced or researched the topic will learn anything about it from this movie.

Impressionist films create ‘gaps’ which the audience may fill with their own imagination and sympathy. But in the absence of reliable knowledge (what some psychoanalysts call ‘apperceptive insufficiency’) the individual viewer has a licence to fantasise and/or revert to clichéd response. There is a real danger that many viewers of Innocence will fantasise, even sentimentalise, about the condition of old age while under the illusion that they are empathising with it.

We become old when we can no longer conceive of a future for ourselves that might be more interesting than our past. It is a commonplace of drama to have characters who are ‘haunted by the past’. If so, they are not yet old. To speak of them this way is to imply the possibility of a qualitatively different future for them. John has such a future thrust upon him by the actions of Claire and Andreas, yet in the turbulent present of the story the lovers seem not to contemplate their own prospects as a couple. The expressionistic passages in Innocence may suggest they are haunted by the past, but the logic of their situation is that they dwell on the past because they are haunted by the future. This is a hard logic and who can bear it? Not an audience who are awash in warm emotions, deluded in a way that the characters are not.

There are unexplained gaps in the succession of events: we have no indication of how long Claire stays with Andreas on the first occasion she leaves John, or how/why she decides to return to him. Nor is it clear how she knew she was going to die (think back to the shot of the pill on the table – quite ambiguous: either she is taking her medication or she is not), nor how her son has her farewell note although she died unexpectedly in Andreas’ company.

And we may wonder why the narrative favours Andreas’ experience over Claire’s: she doesn’t get a medicine-and-the-meaning-of-life scene with a doctor (though her son is a doctor) or with a cleric, she has no nightmare, and the poignant scene of their parting when she goes back to John the first time induces empathy for Andreas’ emotion (his reflection in the passing carriages) while hers is hidden from us.

Another way to approach Innocence is to disregard the mind-sets of tender realism, low-key tragedy or melodrama drained of excess, and see it as a comedy without mirth, a sardonically amused chronicle of folly and suffering. Try this for the beginning of an alternative synopsis: Andreas has not had a partner since his wife died thirty years ago. He has raised his eminently sensible daughter by himself, yet neither of them acknowledge this remarkable circumstance in their heart to heart conversations. Claire is a woman who locks the house up when she goes for a walk in the garden. She sleeps with John but they haven’t had sex together since he was unfaithful twenty years ago. She thinks the grown up way to do it is with both curtains and eyes closed. The lovers have some nights together but their quality time is spent in public places: parks, restaurants, bars. When confronted with strong emotion they throw up a wall of words in which they see themselves as exemplars of the human condition.

If this makes Innocence sound like a condescending view of hapless, life-starved misfits grasping at the last straw it has as much validity on the evidence as the opinion that Innocence is a courageous and lyrical salute to life. The film offers contradictory clues which lead to different impressions: the wry compassion of a humanist who draws us into his characters, or the dark laughter of a misanthrope.

Paul Cox’s way of working is a very personal mixture of thoughtful preparation with spontaneity in the moment of creation. In this instance, his ambitious attempt to be Apollonian and Dionysian at the same time seems to have left him with too many bricks and not enough mortar.