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‘The Last Days of Chez Nous’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 02, 1993

If most movies today are designed to provoke a racing pulse -- to give the audience the movie equivalent of a blasting crack high -- then Australian director Gillian Armstrong is belligerently out of step with the times. Her approach is to suggest, never to declare. She's a sculptor of icebergs, an architect of submerged skyscrapers -- partly visible, mostly hidden. In her new film, "The Last Days of Chez Nous," Armstrong protects her characters' secrets as she would her own, holding them close, as if they were the source of powerful forces too sacred to be given a name or spoken aloud.

Even with the lush warmth of Sydney as a backdrop, Armstrong's characters -- especially her women -- are drawn in bone-dry strokes. Beth, the movie's central figure, is as hard to pin down as the Mona Lisa. Is her smile an invitation? A flirt? Or is it a grimace, a disguise for pain?

A handsome, sensuous woman fast approaching middle age, Beth (Lisa Harrow) lives surrounded by bohemian clutter with her French husband, J.P. (Bruno Ganz) and her teenage daughter, Annie (Miranda Otto). The action begins when her younger sister, Vicki (Kerry Fox), returns home from a long trip abroad. As becomes immediately clear, Vicki's arrival disrupts an already delicate balance between Beth and J.P. We don't know how relations between them were, say, at the time Vicki left, but from the look on her face, we can see that they are now drastically changed. And, alas, not for the better.

As the film's title suggests, these days are heavy with the gravity of winding down. For whatever reason -- perhaps Beth's unfaithfulness to J.P. or his infidelity to her -- the contract between them, the set of rules by which they've lived together, has been broken. Their marriage is over, and these are its final elegiac moments.

Beth's mood of resigned melancholy is like that of a mourner, and it sets the tone for both her household and the movie. Though Vicki's return and the arrival of a new boarder -- a crew-cut teen named Tim (Kiri Paramore) -- bring new life and new blood into the family, the transfusion may have only accelerated the process of the couple's decay.

Beth, who devotes most of her time to her successful career as a writer, blames herself for this grim state of affairs. Somehow, she has failed to live up to the bargain she'd struck with J.P., who hasn't made love to her in ages because, she fears, she is an impossible person, unattractive, aloof and unlovable.

Armstrong and Harrow do a great job presenting this particular brand of feminine self-hatred. Every move Beth makes leaves a trail of ashes and sorrow; she's a tragic figure, and, yet, before the end of the film she is reborn, this time without the added burden of an unworkable, deadening relationship to an unloved and unloving husband.

This is the full dramatic curve of "The Last Days of Chez Nous," but if the story moves forward one painstaking step at a time, then the richness of detail in each step is magnified. For example, Beth has been trying to please men all her life. During a visit to her parents' house, her father showers Vicki with affection, but barely seems to notice her. All Beth and her father do is fight, and because she's so determined to break through to him, she organizes a long car trip through the outback for just the two of them. That way, they can hash it out and, perhaps, come to some reasonable compromise.

While Beth is away tending to her parental fence-mending, J.P. and Vicki become romantically involved, eliminating all possibility of compromise on that front. And, yet, secretly, that seems to be the way Beth wants it, even if it means pain and broken dishes. When J.P. and Vicki leave the house to start fresh on their own, Beth is almost relieved. J.P. was little more than a convenient distraction, and now that he's gone she feels liberated.

If this sounds like a feminist anthem for radical separatism, it isn't. Armstrong ("My Brilliant Career," "High Tide") is incapable of creating anthems to anything, and while her heart may be with Beth as she grows beyond her dependency on men, the director limits her support to this one woman and not all women.

Working from Helen Garner's exacting, understated script, Armstrong keeps her camera focused on the trees, not the forest. Like all true artists, she refuses to draw conclusions from generalizations. This means the audience learns almost nothing about J.P., except that he constantly refuses Beth's attempts to reach out, or about Vicki, except that, for her, life is like playing house. But that will have to be enough. To provide more would be a theatrical affectation, like Ganz's fruity French accent.

Perhaps Armstrong's distaste for emotional inflation is a form of honesty; or, perhaps, only shyness bordering on the perverse. The movie may not come to any resolution, and the terms of the new deals struck between the characters may feel vague, yet, still, Beth's smile implies everything while saying nothing.

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