FAFA: The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992)

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“Interior dramas” became a buzz word in discussions surrounding film funding policies a few years ago. Typified as a genre set in the suburbs, filled with family struggles, it seems that the interior drama has been misrepresented. Branding small budget Australian films that lack elaborately plotted hostage situations or chase chases do not do justice to films like The Last Days of Chez Nous. Placing the film within this categorical mould may seem efficient in its marketing; however, it does not properly articulate a film on an individual basis. Indeed Last Days is fairly unique in its storytelling, and unique to the so called genre that it would be branded in.

We enter the film with Vicki (Kerry Fox) who has just returned to her home city of Sydney after ending a whirlwind romance in Rome. Vicki shacks up at her older sister Beth’s (Lisa Harrow) house. Beth’s French second husband J.P. (Bruno Ganz) and her daughter Annie (Miranda Otto) also live with her. Vicki’s arrival is the natural narrative catalyst for change. The relationships between the four central characters propel the linear cause and effect chain of events with some interludes with the sisters father (Bill Hunter) and live-in boarder Tim (Kiri Paramore).

Dad (Bill Hunter) and daughter (Lisa Harrow) off to the desert to discover themselves!

It is important to be contextually reminded that this film was made in 1992. Dysfunction was not the dominant image of the nuclear family, but remained in the minorities. Perhaps Australia is a greater pioneer with films like Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle exploring the lives of the typical “loser best friend” characters usually relegated to a supporting role in a mainstream Hollywood film.

As husband and wife, Beth and J.P. are struggling. Their lack of intimate relations seems to be indicative of a much more serious problem. As the youthful and hypersensitive Vicki returns home, Beth has the yearning to discover her own internal and existential questions. And what better way to learn about one’s core beliefs than by taking a car trip with your dad to central Australia! The image of the baron, desolate wasteland in Australia’s centre perfectly positions Beth and her father in an exploration of self, family, identity and the notion of God.

The most compelling driving factor of the film relates to a betrayal involving two of the four central characters. It seems immediate, out of the blue, and difficult to understand. Realism is used by filmmaker Gillian Armstrong and writer Helen Garner by not showing every internal motivation and purposeful action of each character. We cannot always understand why every person in our lives is compelled to make every rash and stupid decision, and we can neither deny their existence. Last Days does exactly this and to tremendous effect.

Quiet is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of how to describe this film. There are emotional crescendos, but they are appropriately reached without exploiting melodrama or the character’s cores. The characters are given integrity behind their damaging actions. Actors Lisa Harrow, Kerry Fox, Bruno Ganz and Miranda Otto all have strong screen presence and chemistry. Harrow won the Best Actress award at the AFI Awards, with Otto, Ganz and Hunter being nominated. Strangely Fox was not nominated, and I feel this has something to do with the unlikeableness of her character. I am of the opinion that she did a great job.

Garner and Armstrong have created characters and situations that seem real without being painful. There is even a throwback to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire where one flighty sister returns to the home of a more domesticated sister and causes havoc. The film’s pace is not speedy, not does it rush any scenes. It is, as mentioned before, quiet and thoughtful. It might not be the most enjoyable and exciting film of that year, but I do really appreciate its attempts at creating a story with real people who make real mistakes and have real actions. True to its title, the film shows the final days of a family together in a home. What follows this could be the subject of many more interesting days, stories and portrayals.

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