Film Review: 'Black Garden' (2019)

Black Garden screened at the Venice Production Bridge at the 76th Venice Film Festival and Marche du Film, 72nd Cannes Film Festival. It was also the official selection for the 2019 North Bellarine Film Festival and will feature in the 2020 Geelong International Film Festival.

In Black Garden, Melbourne director/writer, Shaun Wilson and Tammy Honey, producer/editor, have fashioned a grim, black and white, apocalyptic nightmare, which possesses the shifting illogic of dreams. At points throughout the film, it suggests Dante’s ‘Inferno’, the first book of his The Divine Comedy – particularly the 9th Circle of Hell, which deals with treachery. And there is plenty of treachery at play as the central protagonist, Kate (played stoically by Cara Culligan), wanders through a largely depopulated landscape and empty suburban environments on a quest for safety and understanding. As with ‘Inferno’, figures drift in and out of the tale, interrupting her voyage and bringing varying degrees of hope or threat. The first and the last scenes in the film show Kate stumbling along a desolate beach, backlit against the setting sun. The beach is a useful metaphor, in this case, for the eternal life of Earth, which is heedless of mere humanity. These scenes are evocative of the opening scene of Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971), in which the three witches trundle their small cart over the desolate sands – they are also, as it transpires, weary of human foibles.

The film takes place at Christmastime. There has been a world war. Survivors are being shot on their apparently contaminated front lawns by men in hazard-suits and gas masks. People are in hiding. An elderly man shuffles aimlessly through his house; he eats with his fingers; we see him sitting on the toilet – signaling that not only are societal norms breaking down for the characters, but cinematic norms are also being upended for the viewer. Wilson’s unwavering naturalism is a key element of the film – all is shot with handheld cameras, which lends a suitably jittery, documentary-feel to the project - I was reminded several times of Peter Watkins’ cult nuclear war film, The War Game (1966). There are lingering scenes of Kate walking through landscapes, or sitting, or hiding in rooms. We get the sense of being on the journey with her, with the inevitable, sporadic delays occasioned by real life.

The external locations in Fitzroy, Geelong, Queenscliff and the Bellarine Peninsula, have been selected judiciously – Wilson has a dark, Romantic eye for scruffy riverbanks, bleak semi-industrial estates and overgrown wastelands, all of which are shot pragmatically, with no frills (with additional cinematography by Alex Zemtsov and Denby Smith). There is a profound sense that other human beings have been eradicated from these areas, none are visible as Kate trudges on her way.

Early in the film, several characters begin to hear a disembodied voice which transmits messages via various inanimate objects, or household appliances. For Kate, it is an unplugged radio, which she carries with her throughout. The voice is cajoling – exhorting the listeners to “go outside” or explaining that “the air is good”. It soon becomes apparent that its intensions are possibly suspect. Cinematically, the use of what is known as the acousmatic – or external, commanding voice - has many precedents: from the wizard, in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), to Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), to the computer, HAL 9000, in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), and many more besides.[i] According to French film theorist Michel Chion, without a visible body, the voice assumes, for the viewer and the protagonists alike, godlike power. It is often the cause of anxiety within the viewer, because it cannot be ‘located’ within the physical construction of the cinematic framework – and whether the godlike voice is a force for good or evil is not always certain.[ii] In the case of Black Garden, as in 2001, ‘the voice’ also has the unnerving quality of knowing and commenting on everything that the central character is undergoing, throughout the journey.

Mid-way, the film briefly slips unnervingly into Pinteresque territory, and director Wilson plays the shambling Harry, in a scene with Kate which is at once mundane and progressively chilling. The pairing of Harry’s increasingly bizarre actions with the purposefully banal, stilted dialogue – complete with loaded, pregnant pauses - is very effective. There is a separate disembodied voice in this scene – but, here, Harry is the only one who hears it. This fact heightens the viewer’s distrust of the original voice and creates a genuine sense of foreboding. The shocking denouement of these scenes with Kate and Harry is well-handled, left as it is, largely, to the viewer’s imagination.

Throughout the film, a menacing man, played by Garry Keltie, makes regular appearances. He follows Kate, observing and insinuating himself in the action. He has a darkly messianic omniscience – not unlike the figure of Death in The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957). Like ‘the voice’, with whom we eventually come to associate him, he bears witness to all of Kate’s travails. In several scenes he acts as a kind of mocking figure – as does ‘the voice’. In the final scene of the film we see Kate once more stumbling across the crepuscular beach, this time shadowed by the man, whose purpose becomes perhaps clearer.

The dark ambient soundtrack, by Shinjuku Thief, AKA Australian musician Darrin Verhagen, is suitably rumbling and sinuous, creating swathes of throbbing, atmospheric texture that supports the imagery well, without becoming intrusive on the action.

Black Garden is mercifully free of the Hollywood positive ending, in which all loose ends are tied neatly. This is a film that stands by its grim message and follows its bleak logic to the bitter end.

[i] The 1967 British television series, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan, featured disembodied, sinister voices, issuing commands over PA systems throughout an artificial ‘village’ prison. There is also a disembodied voice in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati, 1953) which issues from the public address system at a railway station and, because it is indecipherable, the holiday makers are plunged into chaos, with humorous results.

[ii]   Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.






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