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‘The Last Days of Chez Nous’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 02, 1993

Painful confession: I saw "The Last Days of Chez Nous" one Monday morning in no mood to see anything but maybe "Ilse, She Wolf of the S.S."

How it hurt to sit through a pseudo-quirky Australian movie full of inexplicably zany characters leading unbelievably featureless lives and -- worst of all -- talking in that accent.

I walked out before the end, figuring I'd sit through the whole thing in time for its Washington opening. A few weeks later, I forced myself along to the second viewing, intending to dutifully note the movie's shortcomings. But I couldn't find them anymore. Suddenly "Chez Nous" wasn't so bad. Appalled, I kept watching -- and liking it.

Beyond my obvious need for therapy, it's clear this Gillian Armstrong movie has something. Observed in the right light, precious and beguiling qualities begin to shine.

Set in a dysfunctional household in Sydney, it's about the growing rift between Beth (Lisa Harrow) and her French husband J. P. (Bruno Ganz). When Beth's happy-go-lucky sister Vicki (Kerry Fox) returns from a long trip abroad, the rift widens. Already culturally frustrated with Australia, Frenchman J. P. is further infuriated at Beth's selfish ways. He also resents Vicki's irresponsible approach to life.

Beth, in turn, resents J. P.'s appetite for other women and the distance he keeps from her. But she needs to face her unlovability, and accept that both she and J. P. need to be free of each other. She also has to revive a deteriorating relationship with her moody father (Bill Hunter). When she departs for a motoring trip with her father, leaving J. P. and Vicki at home, life begins to change -- radically.

You could label this a feminist film but "Chez Nous" needs no such confining tag. It's about underlying resentment in all relationships, the need to air individual desires. There is no driving plot, just a shifting sea change among characters, including Beth's teenage daughter Annie (Miranda Otto).

Armstrong, who directed "My Brilliant Career," and screenwriter Helen Garner have created an offbeat mosaic of elusive emotions and feelings, with few lapses in heavyhandedness. It's augmented memorably by Paul Grabowsky's score, which shifts beautifully between whimsical and haunting. If you go to this hungry for seriocomic observations about the divides between people, you will see the movie's great qualities. If you don't, you might find yourself wishing for "Ilse: She Wolf of the S.S."

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