love and other catastrophes
Film, 1996, 4 stars
Directed: Emma-Kate Croghan
Written: Yael Bergman, Emma-Kate Croghan & Helen Bandis
When we look back on classic films, what makes the film a classic? That it represented a moment in time so well? That it made a statement? That it was critically applauded? Maybe all of these. Honestly though, I think Love and Other Catastrophes is a classic because of the way it made me feel then, and how it still gives me the feels today, a full 25 years on.
Made in a matter of weeks with just a Woody Allen-inspired script, absolutely no money, Melbourne Uni locations, and a lot of passion, Love and Other Catastrophes was the Australian cinema success story of 1996. Lesbians and all.
After a dream run in Australian cinemas (I know I saw it five times in one week, still a personal record) the film was chosen for general competition at Cannes. Not bad for a little film whose biggest names at the time were Matt Day and Radha Mitchell, who both used to star in Australian soaps. Now Radha Mitchell (High Art, Finding Neverland) and Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park, A.I) have both gone on to make big budget Hollywood features, and it's all because of this little, quirky movie.
Interestingly, if you watch the trailer (below), you’d be forgiven for wondering if there were any lesbians in this film at all. It’s an appallingly useless trailer. The story actually revolves around two housemates, Mia (Frances O'Connor) and Alice (Alice Garner) who are attempting to find a new housemate, change Uni departments, get to work on time, get over their anxiety and finish an honours thesis, organise a housewarming party, and juggle their respective love lives, all in the space of one hectic day.
Mia is a drama queen used to getting her own way. She has commitment issues which have prevented her from inviting her girlfriend Danni (Radha Mitchell) to move in, which would solve all their financial woes. Alice is faring little better. She's struggling to finish a thesis entitled "Doris Day as a Feminist Warrior" and spends most of the day ducking her academic supervisor, wailing to the campus counsellor, trying to do her barista job and working her way through a crush on Ari, the "Warren Beatty of the campus".
Meanwhile, smalltown medical student Michael (Matt Day) ditches his disgusting, pothead housemates and attempts to find a new place to live. He runs into Ari who tells him that Mia and Alice are searching for a housemate. Problem is, he's shy and has a huge crush on the scatterbrained Alice. Alice hits on Ari, unaware that he rents himself out as a gigolo in his spare time. All she wants is someone honest, left-handed and who likes the same movies as she does. She's willing to compromise for a shot with Ari, but of course it's Michael who is her perfect match.
Mia is also trying to change University departments at the last minute. She's thwarted at every turn by unpaid library fines, a self-absorbed, doughnut-scoffing, heart-attack prone, head of department (comedian Kym Gyngell), and love-life issues of her own making. Danni, finally having had enough of Mia's commitment issues, decides to break it off, forcing Mia to re-examine her priorities, not just for the day but for her life in general.
The events of the film culminate during Mia and Alice's housewarming party that night where the two girls finally work through their respective romantic issues with the hilarious help of Michael, Ari, Danni and a houseful of beer-drinking, philosophising, pot-smoking partygoers.
Comical to the point of farce and redefining "no-budget" filmmaking, this is an irresistible charmer with a killer Aussie soundtrack. O'Connor and Mitchell showed what stars they were in the making and their chemistry sizzles. The film balances its intertwining stories with ease, and we never once feel cheated by any of the various story outcomes.
Perhaps a little contrived and distracting are the super-8 sequences that are tacked at the front and rear of the film, but they’re fun, and a little experimentation has to be forgiven when you consider the kind of constraints these filmmakers were under. It must be said that the amateur supporting cast is just awful, but it just adds to the fun, like the audience is in on the cool kids’ joke. For example, Alice's supervisor was played by a random academic from Melbourne University who volunteered for a couple of hours on camera.
Love and Other Catastrophes is a testament to the power of the idea. Just a few good scenes, some charming actors, and voila! A decent, quirky, urban film. If only they made more of these instead of constantly trying to sell Australians as a bunch of outback, brainless hicks the Australian film industry might not have gone through fifteen years of absolute despair. I’m going to say it - this classic film deserves to be mentioned in the same breathless way as Priscilla Queen of the Desert as a groundbreaking, Aussie queer film of substance.