In certain serious movies of late, the motivating presence at the story's center is actually an absence: a dead child. Both Todd Field's critically acclaimed In the Bedroom and Nanni Moretti's forthcoming The Son's Room, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, concern families dealing with the sudden loss of sons. The new Australian film Lantana differs in that the child's death occurs before the story opens and is essentially peripheral to the main action, yet it functions in the same symbolic way: All three films use the tragic deaths of children to probe the fissures that can erupt within otherwise contented families and, for that matter, societies in general.
Like In the Bedroom, Lantana focuses on troubled marital relations, but its scope is wider, encompassing not one but four couples. The film's main character, a Sydney homicide detective named Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) begins the drama by commencing a desultory, short-lived affair with Jane (Rachel Blake), a bemused, sympathetic divorcee. There's no obvious reason why the cop would take this plunge into infidelity. Leon's wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), the mother of their two sons, is an attractive 40-something who obviously cares about their marriage, although she seems to sense Leon's vague unhappiness. She signs them up for salsa dancing classes and privately confides her worries to a psychiatrist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey).
Valerie is the mother of the dead child, an 11-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered some months before. A brittle, high-strung professional, Valerie has dealt with her grief by writing a widely publicized book about the incident. In her account, she paid ample tribute to her husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), but he has reacted to her public gestures by drawing further and further away from her. Now she has a young gay male patient who recounts having an affair with a married man who claims to be escaping his excessively "needy" wife. Valerie gradually comes to suspect that the unidentified married man is her husband.
Though Leon is the drama's center, it--like Leon himself--keeps circling back to his occasional lover Jane, who's trying to keep her distance from her suspicious ex, Pete (Glenn Robbins). Besides her affair with Leon, Jane deals with her loneliness by trying to insinuate herself into the lives of the young, working-class couple who live next door, Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci).
At first, Lantana seems like a glancing, oblique drama centered on Leon's existential discomfort and his and the other characters' infidelities (potential or actual). Then, about midway through, a new element is introduced when one of the characters disappears, apparently the victim of a crime. Thereafter, we're drawn into a mystery that both hinges on and further unveils the psychological tensions and suspicions that have been described previously.
Directed by Ray Lawrence, Lantana has drawn comparisons to the films of Robert Altman for the way it intertwines the lives of several sets of characters. It additionally reminded me of the work of Aussie director Paul Cox in its wry examination of middle-class lives, and of Canadians Atom Egoyan (Exotica) and Jeremy Podeswa (The Five Senses) in its meshing of a cool, distanced tone and rather elaborate use of coincidence and muted ironies.
The cinematic reference points noted so far indicate a form of filmmaking that's heavily indebted to modern literature, and the figure of the dead child, it seems to me, forms a more-than-incidental link between the two. Moretti's The Son's Room references a famous story about a dead child written by Raymond Carver, whose fiction provided the basis for the Altman extravaganza Short Cuts, which ultimately turns on the brutal murder of a young person. In the Bedroom came from a story by an author often compared to Carver, Andre Dubus. Egoyan's most successful film to date, The Sweet Hereafter, derives from a Russell Banks novel in which a small town reacts to the deaths of a busload of schoolchildren.
Why are dead children so recurrent in these literary-derived or -influenced films? One might hazard that the connection has to do with the coincidental decline in religious faith and rise of the modern novel in the 19th century. In some senses, there's no tougher question about God's actions that a priest must answer than the death of a child. When belief in God began fading in parts of the West, the priest's role as interpreter of life's narratives was increasingly taken over by artists, novelists especially.
Yet the novels--and later, films--that resulted did not really serve the same ends as the explanations they displaced. They were not meant for consolation. Indeed, they were not directly addressed to people who had lost children. Rather, they were aimed at a large, literate, mostly middle-class audience that evidenced a kind of enjoyment in contemplating its own sense of discontent, disorientation and uncertainty. In their narratives, a dead child wasn't a particular, actual dead child. It was a fictional dead child: a sign of life's tragic meaninglessness, God's inexplicable absence and, not incidentally, the author's own godlike powers.
This is now, let us admit, a rather tired template. And I'm not speaking just of the dead child. The whole modernist literary and cinematic epoch it indicates peaked some time ago, and currently survives in the rather antiseptic atmosphere of a museum exhibit. To put that another way: The kind of story, characters and authorial attitude deployed in Lantana (and the other films noted above) used to seem extraordinarily fresh, innovative and challenging. But the culture has by now assimilated whatever lessons it had to offer, and the same fictional paradigm today can easily seem tame, formulaic, even quaintly orthodox--like a nice old parson.
Granted, it still offers pleasures to those who prize its assumptions and intricacies. In Lantana, these include a story (scripted by Andrew Bovell from his play Speaking in Tongues) that is rich in unexpected turns and characters that keep growing and revealing new levels of complication. The film's most salient virtue, though, is the consistently high level of work achieved by Lawrence's cast. LaPaglia, Hershey and Rush are as skilled and mesmerizing as any screen actors working, and they are matched by a number of Aussie actors who were not known to me, especially Armstrong and Blake.
The lantana, source of the film's title, is an Australian shrub that has bright foliage on top and a dense, prickly undergrowth. That's a nice metaphor for the harsh surprises that many personalities and situations conceal, but here, as in so many of these films, the "surprise" is the anguish left by unreconciled tragedy. That long since became less a revelation than a simple, serviceable premise.
I hold to the belief that a reviewer ought to let it be known if he has seen only a portion of the movie under consideration. So, as regards Jessie Nelson's I Am Sam, I must confess: I bailed after a half-hour. The reason was a sudden fear of insulin shock.
What attracted me to the movie initially was Sean Penn. In my book, Penn is one of the American cinema's purest natural resources. But let's face it: He's an actor, and actors as a breed seem incapable of resisting the roles of handicapped people. That wouldn't be a problem, of course, except that American filmmakers seem incapable of portraying the handicapped without applying buckets of schmaltz, saccharine and gag-inducing sentimentality.
The most egregious proof of the latter rule in recent memory, I Am Sam makes Rain Man seem like Richard III. Penn plays the eponymous Sam, a sweet-tempered mentally retarded guy who works at a Starbucks where he gives every customer identical compliments on their choice of java. One day a woman who's taken him to bed as a lark bears his child, turns it over to him, and takes off. Jump forward a few years and he's got the cutest little girl you've ever seen, who tells him that he's a better daddy than all the rest. But soon enough, as bad screenwriting would have it, the world intrudes to try to part the little girl from her doting dad.
The film is unbearable from the first scene on. One of the nauseating sidelights is that Sam is a big Beatles fan--he even has Beatles posters on his walls--and so, about every five minutes, the film creams us with a lame cover version of songs like "Across the Universe" and "Two of Us." Do they make it to "Fool on the Hill"? I can't tell you. I didn't stay long enough to see, and no amount of money could induce me to go back and find out.