Thursday, 19 February 2015

Great Southern Land Films: Double Feature: Lantana (2001) and Blessed (2009)
Films that have 'alternative structures' feel like the audience is made to work a little bit harder than in linear, single protagonist films. The writer/director throws us pieces from different parts of the story, leaving us to construct the whole picture by ourselves as we watch. Lantana and Blessed both use a branching structure, as different branches all eventually lead to the trunk. Blessed also has a looping structure, as we see the same day playout from different perspectives.

Lantana follows a group of people living in suburban Sydney as their various lives converge through the lead-up to the mysterious death of one of the women: an anonymous image of her body opens the film. Themes around grief, adultery and marriage are raised in the many storylines. Blessed follows several teenagers on the streets of Melbourne over one day, then swings back to view the same day from their mothers' perspective. All are from lower classes; two of the children are now homeless; two are girls who steal the wealthy school uniforms that one of their mothers make; another is a boy who breaks into an old woman's home; one teenage boy hasn't been home for weeks; and one is a middle-aged Aboriginal man who is reluctant to visit his mother on his birthday. Both films are based on plays: Lantana on Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell, and Blessed on the collaboratively written Who's Afraid of the Working Class?

It is interesting to compare the two, for they deal with two different sections of Australian society. The characters in Lantana are largely middle-class and wealthy (the notable exception being Vince Colosimo's family); Blessed is about families living on the cusp of poverty (one mother and son couple is wealthy but it is presented as being an empty existence).

Lantana is focused on the relationships between adults, particularly married couples: Leon and Sonja, Valerie and John, Nik and Paula, Jane and Pete. All their marriages are in crisis at the film's beginning, with Jane estranged from Pete and having a dalliance with Leon, and Valerie wondering if John is having an affair with one of her patients. The image of lantana, a weed that grows in thick bushes, represents the interconnected nature of the storyline. It also subverts the idea of a 'family tree.' All the families in this film have become messy and twisted; they are not longer sturdy branches but snappable twigs that are entwining themselves with other trees (apologies for getting too English-student-y).

The title for Blessed comes from a scene halfway through the film, when Frances O'Connor's character Rhonda meets with her social worker. They are discussing her children, Stacey and Orton, who, we have previously seen, have left home and are now roaming the streets. The social worker questions Rhonda commitment to her children, and Rhonda responds 'They are my blessing.' This encapsulates the idea explored in the film: that children are meant to be 'blessings' to their parents. Each family, in some way, has failed in recognising the importance of each other: the two girls dismiss their respective mothers, seeing them as failures; the Aboriginal man cannot forgive his adopted mother for keeping him from meeting his birth mother; one of the young boys won't contact his mother to tell her he is okay (partly because he is not); and Rhonda, while loving her children, cannot keep them safe from her abusive boyfriend.

These two films explore the underbelly of suburban Australia, Lantana in Sydney and Blessed on the streets of Melbourne. All the families in these environments are in crisis, and some are beyond repair.
Lantana is internationally well-known and is included on the 1001+ Movies to See Before You Die list, and of the two is more polished. However, Blessed boasts as good a cast, with Frances O'Connor, Miranda Otto and Deborah Lee-Furness playing three of the mothers. Arguably, it also has a greater emotional punch to its ending. If you haven't seen either I would recommend doing so, though international readers may have difficulty locating a copy of Blessed.

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