JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The two children are part of the reflexions on life and death. Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazarro) plays morbid games ...

... in which she involves the younger Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss).

She seems to be tempted ...

The four friends discuss if they will continue fishing and try to find reasons to stay. They have to convince themselves and, later on, must explain their behaviour to the other people in the town and the Aborigines.

The barbed-wire fence across the outback becomes the metaphor for a discourse on postcolonial conditions.

Claire seeks an abortion. The film's main female character is a woman who struggles with her own inner demons.

Jedda : The first Australian color-film deals with the problem of identity and a girl torn between two cultures.

Walkabout: Roeg emphasizes the clash between two cultures through a very conventional nature vs. civilization dichotomy.

Rabbit-Proof Fence: Philip Noyce deals with the tabou subject of the lost generations and presents Aboriginal girls who overcome the traditional role of the victim.

The Tracker : The protagonist is another Aboriginal who acts outside of clichés which would make of the different Other a victim.

 

An inner journey

The opening credits are written over a rusty barbed-wire fence across the Australian outback. This fence marks a boundary, expressing very clearly a warning of unknown territory beyond. The landscape thus becomes the setting for an inner journey and a metaphor for the inner world of secrets, hidden fears and suppressed desires. If Jindabyne is presented as a modern frontier town, the frequent images of the landscape exposed under a homogeneous light show wide open spaces of breathtaking beauty, which the film ironically develops not as promises of freedom and liberty but instead signifiers of mere bleakness. Visually, the film establishes references to dysfunctional lives and a feeling of mystery and violence at both the individual and the social level. In interior shot, human bodies and rooms are often plunged into darkness and fragmented by shadows and half-shadows. Put into contrast with the images of the majestic landscape, the scenes of cluttered rooms which narrow the gaze reveal the dark and ugly side of the characters and of society.

Such an aesthetics of fragmentation suggest the inner torment of the characters, which is a projection of social and historical failure. The malevolent forces, represented by the killer, lurk under the surface of normality and are part of it. The killer is an unsuspected member of the community whom Claire meets at church. Their paths cross several times: she almost runs into the killer’s car, he tries to push her car off the road as he did with that of his Aborigine victim. Claire sees him once again, watching the smoking-out funeral from a distance. Evoking the randomness of life and death, the last shots show the killer in his car: he waits for another victim when he is suddenly stung by a wasp.

Images of death and gothic mystery are closely connected with the two children who appear in the film: Tom, Stewart’s and Claire’s son and Caylin-Calandria, the granddaughter of Carl and Jude. In the relationship between the two children, the girl commands. Saddened and disturbed by her mother’s death, the little girl engages Tom in morbid play, such as the sacrifice of their schoolmates’ guinea pig to dark forces. She also seems to be tempted to let the boy drown but decides to save him.

... to let him drown ...

... but decides at the last minute to save his life.

Inspired by an overwhelming feeling of mystery, Jindabyne is a thriller in which the viewer is aware of the killer’s identity from the very beginning. In Lantana, Lawrence’s previous film, the discovery of a dead body also led to an exploration and portrayal of human behaviour. That film, however, centred around the quest for the truth and for the culprit, whose identity was not revealed until the end. In Jindabyne, the search for the killer is replaced by the inner journey the protagonists have to undertake. The tension is not created through the reconstruction of events presented in a succession of flashbacks as in Lantana, but emerges from the latent violence and from horrifying moments (for example, the sequence in which Stewart’s nose is broken). It stems from the pain written on the faces and from defiant bodies, from sometimes unexpected reactions in a sequence of events, and from the intensity of the acting.

Far from being a Manichean moral tale, Jindabyne does not condemn the decision (or non-decision) of the four men to continue fishing. Caught in a moral dilemma, the protagonists resort to excuses for justifying their conduct: they just arrived after a long trip, the woman is dead and nothing can be done for her anymore. The fact that Carl, the eldest of the men, is slightly injured offers another reason to stay. If they are not punished for their manifest disregard of the law, the four men have to face the reproaches of the local chief of police, of some of their fellows, and of the Aborigines who are not satisfied with their evasive explanations. The Aborigine residents accuse Stewart and his friends of being racists, in the belief that their indifference to the dead woman is due to their feeling of superiority over an indigenous Australian, who is, moreover, a woman. Indeed, the fence in the arid Australian landscape also reminds the viewer of the continent’s violent colonial past.

The decision to stay implies moral, psychological and legal factors.

They face a line-up in front of the chief of police.

The four men have to face his reproaches ...

... as well as the harsh criticism from the press and their fellows.

It is useful to consider how Carver's story, Altman's film Short Cuts, and Jindabyne establish different social emphases. Carver’s original story depicts a distinctive working-class world. Altman's Short Cuts sketches a different social milieu: the protagonists of his film belong to the Californian upper- and middle-class suburbia. Short Cuts' narrative broadens the cultural, social and economic context pointing to ecological problems and the failure of communication in a country inflated by pictures. In Altman’s film the fishing expedition becomes part of a plural text dealing with individual and collective crises in contemporary United States. In Jindabyne the theme of political and social identity is replaced by racial conflict. In Carver's story, the dead woman is white, but in the film she is an Aborigine. The men's behaviour also reveals their complete ignorance of the beliefs and customs of the Aborigine community living on the outskirts of the town. There seems to be no communication between the two groups. Jindabyne's allusive images which aim to explore different nuances of feelings serve perfectly the idea of difficult, often fragile, human relationships.

Facing a repressed past

The film can be criticized for using a conventional view of Aborigines. They remain extras and important only with respect to their function for the Whites. Belonging to an unknown, archaic world as presented in the pictures of the landscape, they are different and the symbolic Other through which the protagonists are mirrored. They also constitute a homogeneous group, faithful to tradition, and contrasted to the fragmented white community. In its conclusion, the film includes images of the wake after the woman's burial known as "smoking-out ceremony," in which smoke from native plants is used to take away the bad spirits. Lawrence, however, does not emphasize a nostalgic view of a community that now belongs to the past; instead he tries to explore attitudes towards the colonial past from his own standpoint as a white Australian. For example, he presents the killer’s victim as a modern young woman who is on her way to a pop music concert when she meets her murder.

Jindayne also utilizes a subtext which deepens the discourse on colonialism by referring to Stewart’s Irish origins. These references are made not only through Gabriel Byrne’s brogue but also in the music and the representation of Irish Catholic traditions. Both Stewart and Claire are foreigners and therefore alienated from normalcy. Dialogue and accent reveal Claire as American. The fact that she hides her pregnancy from Stewart and does not discuss seeking an abortion is mainly explained in individual and dramatic terms, stemming from her fear of undergoing another postpartum depression. Stewart’s hostility and his total failure to understand her feelings probably also contribute to her decision. The script does not make clear if his position as a Roman Catholic on abortion is another reason for her to remain silent. Claire’s migration background is linked with the film’s colonial subtext. Her origins evoke the American frontier and its imaginary line between nature and civilization, tradition and modernity, which she or we may relate to the conquest of Australia as another frontier experience overshadowed by the violent encounter of two cultures which resulted in a genocide.

The cross signfies Stewart's Irishness.

Claire at home holding the palm cross, suggesting that Claire watched the Palm Sunday celebration as an outsider.

Images of Aboriginals: the smoking-out ceremony ...

... which the film does not explain.

Stewart Kane attends the smoking-out cermony to apologize.

The film suggests that relations between the white men and the Aboriginals remains fragile.

It is, however, Stewart’s past which becomes an individual and collective signifier going beyond the silver screen. By multiplying visual and dramatic references to Ireland, Lawrence hints at a different experience of colonial oppression. An intertextual link with the actor’s previous roles evoking the Irish as the dark or inferior Other is not made explicit, but it is nevertheless present and supports Stewart’s own feelings of guilt and inferiority in a nexus of emotions and politics. At the end, Stewart expresses feelings of doubt and shame and agrees to accept responsibility for his actions and to ask the Aborigines for forgiveness. Set in its social and cultural context, the small white community is thus a microcosm which reflects contemporary Australia’s inability to reconcile its past with its future. The individual fates of the characters reveal the fears hinted at by the threatening landscape and bring to the surface suppressed feelings of guilt.

This sense of the landscape's threat is reinforced by a haunting melody that is reminiscent of the way music was used in Picnic at Hanging Rock, another Australian film with terror as an important motif. If Australia’s colonial past and the abuse and killing of the indigenous people remain a traumatic subject, numerous Australian films have dealt with the continent’s history and with racial divisions in contemporary Australia. Gillian Armstrong’s romantic drama Oscar and Lucinda (1998) depicts the encounter of the two cultures — European and Aboriginal — in a very short but highly telling moment: the Aborigines are slaughtered by the white intruder. Films such as Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955), Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978), The Fringe Dwellers (Bruce Beresford, 1986), Deadheart (Nick Parsons, 1996) or Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2001) focus on discrimination and on alienation and attempt to name Australian racism for what it is. In these films preoccupied with the clash between two cultures, the Aborigines appear as the rejected Other of the whites.

In Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) Philip Noyce approaches a taboo subject: the stolen generation of the 1930s, children taken from their Aboriginal mothers to be placed in Christian missions and in white families where they often were abused. The film’s young protagonists are victims of an inhuman policy based on the feeling of white superiority. But the little girls are not reduced to the stereotypical image of the victimized Other: they manage to escape from the mission. The Aboriginal protagonist of Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002) isn’t a victim either but, dispensing rough justice among the whites, becomes the active agent in a revenge story in which the traditional roles of master and servant are reversed. De Heer’s recent production Ten Canoes (2007) is inspired by Aborigine tales and uses Aborigines as protagonists while excluding white characters altogether. Nevertheless, none of the filmmakers mentioned above are Aborigines, and their films offer inevitably the point of view of the whites, as critical it might be.

Jindabyne’s resigned ending offers no hope, but through its subtext, it reminds us of an aesthetic "strategy of blur," in which notions of past and present, oppressor and oppressed are not opposed but inextricably intertwined. Referring to a society in which the traumas of the colonial past are far from having been resolved, Lawrence points out the limitations of merely offering social criticism by developing a film narrative based on emotions and not just clear-cut political discourse.

Ten Canoes: The Aborigines are at the centre of de Heer's film inspired by Aboriginal tales and traditions.

Ten Canoes: The white people are excluded from this story set in a remote, precolonial past.


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