Berlin Syndrome (MA). Director: Cate Shortland. Starring: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt. 116 minutes
Hounds of Love (MA). Director: Ben Young. Starring: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Susie Porter. 104 minutes
Australian filmmakers have long displayed a knack for the thoroughly unpleasant, delivered with a dose of social awareness. Just as in the 1970s low-budget, ultra-violent films like The Road Warrior and Dead End Drive-In considered the plight of characters living on the margins of collapsed post-apocalyptic civilisations, in the 2000s, Animal Kingdom and Snowtown examined the alienation and vulnerability to corruption of socially disenfranchised characters living among us in the suburbs.
If two current Australian films are anything to go by, then one social issue weighing on local filmmakers in 2017 is the danger to women of emotionally and physically violent men. Neither film is a mere portrait of victimhood. The heroes of Cate Shortland's recent Berlin Syndrome and Ben Young's upcoming Hounds of Love — in the former, an Australian traveller in Europe, in the latter, a teenage school girl in suburban Perth — are ordinary women with both the will and capacity to fight back against their assailants.
Shortland's film is the third in a loose trilogy of films that complexly examine the characters of women under duress. Somersault (2004) was a coming of age story about a teenage runaway looking for love via sex. Lore (2012) concerned the cross-land flight from Germany of the daughter of a Nazi officer, immediately following Hitler's suicide. The danger to Berlin Syndrome's Clare (Palmer) is more specific: she has a one night stand with handsome German Andi (Riemelt), and wakes to find herself his captor.
Clare's realisation of her predicament is gradual, but the horror of it is absolute. She is tied to a bed and raped. Even when her restraints are loosed she finds herself in a heavily fortified appartment deep inside an otherwise unpopulated building. It was she who initiated that first sexual encounter, employing some concerted persuasion to do so. The troubling subtext that her abduction is a kind of punishment for such sexual transgression is rebuked by the extent to which she proves to be both vulnerable and powerful.
Not content to present a straightforward prey-predator dichotomy, Shortland's psychologically disturbing (and, yes, unpleasant) thriller quietly explores Andi's character without quite sympathising with him. Meanwhile so robust is Clare's humanity that she is able to offer Andi comfort following a personal tragedy, even as she schemes daily for a means to overcome him and escape. The danger and difficulty of this latter task is not lost on her, as reflected in Palmer's increasingly harrowed performance.
Nor does Hounds of Love's Vicki (Cummings) doubt the danger she is in, after her abduction by married couple Evelyn and John (Booth and Curry). Here, too, there is the subtext (a problematic feature of slasher films of yore) that youthful transgressions invite violent punishment; Vicki is abducted after sneaking out of her mother's (Porter) house to go to a party, and while trying to buy marijuana from her abductors. On the face of it this premise might belong to a conservative public service announcement.
"The key for Vicki is in the ultimate difficult task of connecting with Evelyn; of reflecting back to her fellow sufferer the sympathy she herself requires."
But again, there are other things going on here that make it rather more complicated than that. For starters, Vicki has absconded following a fight with her mother, who has recently left her unhappy marriage to Vicki's father. Vicki, understandably, as the teenage daughter of a 'broken home', does not understand her mother's desire for fulfilment and independence outside of the conventions of her marriage. The film recognises the impossible difficulty of this for mother and daughter alike.
These experiences bring into sharp relief for Vicki the situation between Evelyn and John. Evelyn's body bears the scars of past abuse, but it becomes clear she is as much a victim of John in the present as of this past assailant. If Clare in Shortland's film suffered from 'Berlin syndrome', coming to sympathise with her captor, then Hounds of Love's Evelyn perhaps has 'Perth syndrome', desperately wanting to please John and going to extreme lengths to do so — including abetting his torture and murder of teenage girls.
Vicki conceives alternately desperate and ingenious means to escape. As is the nature of such thrillers, she is thwarted, at least until the final act. The key for her is in the ultimate difficult task of connecting with Evelyn; of reflecting back to her fellow sufferer the sympathy she herself requires. As a consideration of the psychology and lived reality of domestic violence, and of abuse that begets abuse, this is almost unpalatable viewing. But that seems appropriate. It mirrors social realities that are no less horrific.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.