Miranda Nation’s directorial debut, Undertow, begins with power, promise and tension, but it ends up drowning in its own contradictory styles. By Christos Tsiolkas.
There’s a great subject at the heart of Miranda Nation’s first feature film, Undertow: a woman’s experience of grief over miscarriage. We have rarely seen that common and painful story portrayed on screen and so initially the film feels urgent, exciting. There is something thrilling in having these complicated emotional states shown, no matter how messily.
But there is another story Nation wishes to tell: that of how deeply misogyny runs in Australian culture. One understands her hunger, that drive to put all her knowledge to use in a first major work. Yet one story is personal and tentative, while the other is didactic and prescriptive. And Undertow never achieves a satisfactory formal coherence.
Initially, the film suggests it will be elliptical and dreamlike, blurring reality and fantasy – influenced by the Buñuel of Belle de Jour, the Campion of The Piano and In the Cut, and in particular the Ingmar Bergman of Persona. It also often recalls the observational emotional potency of Gillian Armstrong’s brilliant High Tide. Like that film, Undertow shares an Australian seaside setting, this time the coastal region around Geelong. But Nation’s script is overworked and becomes increasingly schematic.
Laura Gordon is Claire, a photographer who, in the opening minutes of the film, loses her baby. While Claire is at home taking a bath when the miscarriage begins, her husband, Dan, played by Rob Collins, is getting drunk and fucked up at a footballers’ party. The editing here is terse, expert, and introduces us to the other character who will increasingly become central to the film, 16-year-old Angie, played by Olivia DeJonge.
Whereas our introduction to Claire is with the shock of her body’s betrayal, our first glimpse of Angie is that of a young woman confident and seemingly enthralled with the power of her sexuality. At the football party, she dances and snorts drugs, in apparent control of both her choices and her environment. But as Claire and Angie move closer to one another, we slowly realise Angie has experienced an equal and terrifying betrayal, hers at the hands of a social world that has taken advantage of her youth.
Claire’s first contact with Angie comes from a suspicion that Dan is having an affair with the teenager. When she begins to stalk Angie, following her to a nightclub, we sense the stirring of resolve in Claire, which pulls her from an almost comatose state of misery that takes hold in the wake of her miscarriage.
The early encounters between the two women are deliberately opaque. Angie thinks being photographed by Claire might help her get into modelling or acting and out of her constrained life. Claire’s silence works as a tacit and deceptive encouragement of these fantasies. For the older woman, the discovery that Angie is pregnant becomes the focus of a new desire, as if in being midwife to the future child she can reclaim meaning for her own life. Angie is never sure what Claire wants from her, a suspicion accentuated by their differences of age and of class.
Undertow is most powerful in these scenes, when the audience is also unsure what Claire is seeking in her obsession. We have seen how the miscarriage distanced Claire from her own body and there is an undeniable erotic tension in the relationship that forms between the two women. We have also seen how Dan’s footballer mate Brett, played by Josh Helman, has exploited and used Angie in the course of their relationship. And we wonder if Claire’s behaviour is just another form of manipulation.
As long as the film keeps the audience guessing at the motivations driving these two women, it remains involving. But a moment comes in which Claire looks out of a window into the night and we see a series of shifting reflections. Is it her face or Angie’s we are seeing? This frame consciously refers to one of the most astonishing moments in cinema history, the editing dissolve in Persona where the faces of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson merge. In the Bergman film, Ullmann plays an actress, Elisabet, who one night becomes mute on stage. Andersson plays the nurse who is hired to look after Elisabet in her convalescence.
Persona is notoriously one of the most difficult of all great cinematic works to interpret. The confusion over its meaning is embedded within the very structure of the film. Made in 1966, over a tumultuous period when cultural and social orthodoxies were beginning to be dismantled, it is arguably Bergman’s own artistic response to the challenge of politics – asking if the only response left to artists is silence. Just as in Undertow, Persona examines female relationships of dependence and constantly shifting power. But in Persona, a direction is also being mapped for a way out of the impasse of the sometimes contradictory imperatives between art and politics. Unlike many of his peers, Bergman’s choice was to increasingly focus on the personal, the intimate and the existential.
Nation’s choice, however, is explicitly to do the reverse. From the moment Claire gazes through the glass, her reflection distorted, the film moves away from interrogating the contradictions of both women and becomes increasingly focused on the misogynist culture that has shamed Angie. The moral imperative of that shift is clear, but it undercuts the very thing that has kept the audience invested in the film.
Nation turns away from the strange and disturbing dependency between the women. It is now the relationships between Claire and Dan, and Claire and Brett, that increasingly dominate the film. The morality becomes clear cut but the filmmaker’s judgements and choices become less interesting. Nation clearly has intelligence and purpose, but I wish she had trusted her instincts. Claire’s confusion and inconsistency, and Angie’s vulnerability and self-sabotage, are contradictions we as viewers can comprehend. That is how we live our lives, the “messiness” to which I referred above.
But Nation’s main characters are sealed off from the world. They have no families, no real friends. And, to be blunt, once the relationship between Claire and Angie becomes less potent, the immaturity of the script becomes clear. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most emotionally arresting scene in the film is one in which Claire and Dan are witness to another couple’s ritual of grief in saying goodbye to their dead child. The perspective of that other couple was like a breath of fresh air, a sense of a larger world. I grew resentful when that ritual was cut short and the film sonically and visually returned us to Claire’s jagged interior emotions.
Gordon delivers a deliberately subdued performance, as does Collins. But that too begins to erode the film’s authority. The miscarriage has understandably destroyed the couple’s intimacy, yet we have no sense of their sexual past together. Nation overplays the sensual symbolism of water. For a film so centred on the primacy of the body, there is a real lack of the erotic. We never see Dan and Brett playing football, never get the thrill of watching their bodies in flight. It’s as though Nation can’t trust her audience to experience the charge of sexual desire while at the same time understanding that Angie’s giving over to that desire can be exploitative and destructive.
DeJonge and Helman have a much more physical presence in the film. There is a troubling aspect to their physicality though, when contrasted to that of Gordon and Collins. It is as if, in the imagination of the filmmaker, the carnal resides with the working class. I don’t think this is Nation’s intention but rather a result of trying to bolt together two styles of film that are inherently contradictory. One is genuinely curious and adventurous about women’s desires and their bodies, while the other is a morality tale about the dangers of toxic masculinity. The very look of the film changes as it draws closer to its conclusion. A palette that was initially sensual and nocturnal becomes increasingly social-realist and dull.
Undertow ends in a moment of supposed resolution. Claire is firmly mother, and Angie, in her school uniform, is child. But we haven’t forgotten the electrifying introduction to the film, that abandonment in dance where Angie was at her happiest. Nor have we forgotten the terror of miscarriage that we have been told will follow Claire all her life. The ending is too neat, and for many of us in the audience we will recall how constricting and stultifying that school uniform was, how much we couldn’t wait to get rid of the bloody thing. And I suspect there will be many in the audience who know that being a mother is not an end but just a beginning. The initial questions the film raises are challenging and exciting. In how they are answered, Miranda Nation proves less bold. Sometimes the consciously political isn’t the most radical direction an artist can take.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2020 as "Opposing currents".
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