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PERFECT STRANGERS

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2003, 100 minutes

When seduction becomes deception and passion becomes possession, torn between fear and desire, Melanie kills her ardent admirer, just before she realises she loves him. A chilling romance.

Gaylene Preston’s generally taut and well directed pic is her best work in film to date.
— DAVID STRATTON, VARIETY

Selected: Fantasporto, Vancouver, Brussels International Fantasy Film festival, Vladivostok , London, Montreal, Film Des Femmes Paris, Stockholm, Seattle, Chicago, Germany, Hof, Shanghai, Cincinnati, Melbourne, Toronto Female Eye.

 
 
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VARIETY - David Stratton

2003

A woman kidnapped by a secret admirer turns the tables on her captor with unexpected results in 'Perfect Strangers,' an intriguing, virtually unclassifiable romantic thriller fantasy. Centring on another fine performance from Rachael Blake, the Aussie actress in 'Lantana,' and featuring an enigmatic turn by Sam Neill (in his first Kiwi based film since 'The Piano' 10 years ago), Gaylene Preston's generally taut and well directed pic is her best work in film to date and should result in solid business in Australasia with every chance for arthouse and ancillary in other territories. 

Thematically, 'Strangers' has links to Preston's accomplished first feature, 'Mr. Wrong' (1984), a supernatural yarn in which a woman was menaced by a mysterious man. Both elements resurface here, but in a fresh, updated approach. Melanie (Blake) lives alone, works in a fish and chips shop in a small city and spends her nights in bars where she and her girlfriends (Robyn Malcolm, Madeleine Sami) regularly pick up men. Lonely and unfulfilled, she drunkenly allows herself to be picked up by a handsome stranger (Neill) whose name she never discovers. 

Opting to go back to his place, Melanie is surprised when the stranger takes her to a boat, where he offers her champagne before she falls asleep. She awakens to find they are at sea, heading for a small island where the man apparently owns a small cabin. Though she's concerned about not showing up at work, she allows the man to prepare a candlelit dinner for her. 

Although Melanie is sexually willing, the man refuses to go to bed with her, insisting that she love him and marry him. He reveals that he knows all about her life and, fancying himself a Prince Charming, wants to 'rescue' her. When she scoffs at him, things turn nasty. 

Next, in the first of several unsettling reverses, Melanie turns the tables on the man, stabbing him in the stomach with a cooking knife. Almost immediately she realizes that, if he dies, she has no way of getting off the island, so she sets about helping staunch the blood. 

Several twists and turns follow, including the re-introduction of Bill (Joel Tobeck), who was briefly seen in the bar. Pic ends with an epilogue which draws together all the strands and moods of the film. 

Blake is sensational as the woman who proves to be a survivor, while Neill brings his customary charm, plus a dash of menace, to the role of the obsessive would-be lover. As the third participant in what is virtually a three-handed romance -- albeit a very strange one -- Tobeck is extremely effective, successfully transforming what at first seems to be a boozy, uncouth loudmouth into a more rounded character. 

'Perfect Strangers' is aces in all technical departments, handsomely photographed in Scope by Alun Bollinger and with a soundtrack that effectively conveys tension and shifts in mood.
 

ILLUSIONS - Helen Frances

Issue 36, Winter 2004

The eye of a full moon hangs in the sky over a dark moody landscape on the West Coast of New Zealand. This isolated landscape is host to Perfect Strangers, a psychological thriller played out between two main characters. Melanie, a woman unlucky in love, works in a fish 'n chip shop. She is enticed away one night to an island by a 'perfect stranger' who remains unnamed. Bill, a hunter from the coast, later becomes the third in an entrapping triangle. The light of the moon invites the viewer to reflect and introspect, to imagine and associate to the images as a dreamer may do in response to a dream. In doing this nothing becomes totally clear. Images remain ambiguous, polyvalent. This seems to be the nature of dreams and symbols. Researching the songs and re-reading Jungian texts about images of animus and anima also helped me to amplify the meaning of the film.

The moon is often associated with the imagination and madness, cyclical 'feminine' consciousness and transformation. To the imagining mind that projects human realities onto outer objects, the phases of the moon represent parts of a whole, for example the phases of human life. Perfect Strangers shows the madness of characters caught in a vicious roundabout where wholeness is compromised. Victim, rescuer, persecutor, idealised and despised images of male and female roles zig-zag, dance and turn across the screen. The film invites the viewer to reflect on how the unconscious internal film people run inside their head can affect external relationships. From this point of view the activities of the characters resemble a dance of shadow boxers – not fully rounded characters but the director's projections of more or less destructive psycho-social roles. Perfect strangers, through being unknown, may attract strong projections from the unconscious. If the person projecting has an extreme need to have themselves reflected back, there can be a requirement for perfect conformity to these roles, which is bound to fail. As the stranger says to Melanie 'I see you better when I close my eyes, you're nicer in here', and she agrees that she too carries her lovers around in her head.

Melanie, who carries the point of view of the film, is outwardly a fairly down to earth woman of the world playing along with a seductive, turned frightening, male oppressor. In doing this she has to conform to his projections. She dresses in the stranger's clothes, his choice of identity for woman, following a ritual candlelit bath accompanied by music from a tragic opera, Madame Butterfly. The filmy black and white evening dress he supplies recalls the negative of a black and white film. She is to be either pure white angel or black devil, not a whole woman. The stranger too dresses in black and white. This is in the realm of primitive splitting mechanisms where a person is perceived as either all good or all bad to relieve the tensions caused through experiencing paradox in another.

Melanie tries to conform to the roles she is assigned through the stranger's negative projection. In quick succession this idealised, caricature of the feminine becomes angel, tart, mocking persecutor and victim. The stranger may also be an aspect of Melanie's inner world – a charming, seductive animus figure, full of poetry, music and wisdom about Melanie and her life. With his Italian shoes and 'cultured' background he is a romantic, tempting opposite to her, far from her conscious inner and outer experience of life and the rough, tough blokes of the coast who hunt, shoot, fish and fart in bed.

Perfect Strangers plays around from the beginning with the concepts of inner and outer realities and the tensions between different ways of seeing – between interior (subjective, imagined) reality and exterior (concrete, factual data) reality. The opening black screen invites the viewer to imagine and project her own meaning onto sound effects of swishing, sighing and metallic thudding. Through these initiating sounds and images the viewer is invited to feel cut up, to be prepared for a change of state and to imagine meaning. The sudden image of an onion being chopped brings the first external image into view and the shock is almost amusing. During the film other strange images dislodge the viewer from taking this all too seriously. Melanie trudges along the shore with the stranger in a wheelbarrow, alive and dead. She hides in the dunny (long drop toilet) and later leaves Bill tied up in there, using the door for target practice with the help of the stranger's 'ghost'. At this stage, with the stranger dead and anchored inside her head, she chats to his corpse which she has deposited in the freezer/coffin – a problem undeniably on ice for a bit. These unusual, slightly gauche images are like punning dream language that lightens things up a bit and point a way to meaning. 

Viewed from a more analytical angle, the onion has been used as a psychotherapeutic metaphor for wholeness whose separate layers may be peeled back to reveal aspects and experiences of a personality – an image of the parts and the whole together. Relating to people and to our selves as projections or part objects can have a dismembering effect and limits the capacity to evolve and to experience a greater sense of wholeness. The opening image of Melanie chopping an onion is rather an image of wholeness dismembered, of pain and anger. This image contrasts with her full, pregnant belly at the end of the film where she is dressed in lunar white for her 'shot-gun' wedding. She has got her man in the end, or has he got her, along with the unconsciously destructive dynamic he represents.

Melanie rejected Bill at the beginning of the film. Her 'See you around', is followed by a sliver of song, ' I'm here to say my brother caught you'. And 'he' has, both inside and out. The debonaire stranger, Bill's opposite, a shadow brother, dances with Melanie behind her eyes. 'He' remains an unresolved problem who may cause more mischief unless she can make use of his powers creatively. The future is inside her.

Songs and music appear regularly throughout the film suggesting meaning and creating atmosphere. But in an atmosphere of disorientation one wonders how best to relate to the message of these 'inner voices'. For instance as Melanie accompanies the stranger to his boat in the dark a male voice sings 'Anchor me in the middle of your deep blue seas'. She wakes up to find herself literally and figuratively in the middle of deep blue seas way out of her depth. Her Cupid with his winged shoes from Italy has spirited her away into an experience that is far from anchoring. He ensnares her and makes her his own through the spilling of his blood. He visits her after his death and, like a vampire, returns to his coffin in the freezer before dawn – a nightmare, death in life. Marion Woodman, a Jungian analyst, observes that the negative animus (masculine image) in women is cold and impersonal. His sole purpose is to lure his victim out of life, to keep a woman enthralled and 'wailing for her demon lover' (The Pregnant Virgin, p. 132[i]). The roles played by both the stranger and Melanie seem to fit this description.

The island shack is the antithesis of received ideas of romance and security. This is where the stalker acts out his nightmare with the woman victim, where she turns the tables on him, kills him, takes on many of his attributes (his clothes and rituals) and herself becomes a rescuer and scheming persecutor. Melanie has gone into the bush she says she fears where men go to hunt and kill. The bush could also be an image for the unknown territory of the unconscious, both of Melanie and the stranger. The darkness of the landscape, lit by the occasional smile of light reflects the intense and changing moods of the stranger and the desperateness of the situation. The island could also be seen as the site of a woman's animus complex where she is confronted by aspects of her inner masculine. Patriarchal images of masculinity can be killers of personal growth - oppressive, critical and disempowering of women. In thrall to her own inner demons, created through early childhood neglect, Melanie is compelled to play female lead in the stranger's internal film. Killing him however only buys into the complex and Melanie sinks into further unconsciousness when he dies. The boat sinking into the sea could be an image for this as well as an image of deep emotions – of grief, of falling in love or being in the grip of fear - and of other savage depths.

According to the fairy story the stranger tells Melanie, the wicked Queen, her mother, abandoned Princess Melanie at an early age 'with nary a backward glance'. Her father played around with 'courtesans' and she was generally neglected. Then a stranger arrived and rescued her. She doesn't challenge the fairy story and later asks him how he knows so much about her. The story is a plausible scenario for a woman who seems to have such low self-esteem. 'You need to feel good about yourself though' is a 'self-help' mantra she repeats to herself later with little conviction.

Melanie, abandoned by both parents is likely to have negative internal images of both male and female and have trouble forming a secure sense of self. She is easy prey for the kind of inner and outer drama that the stranger hooks her into. She may continue to search for the unconditional love she lacked, trying to fill the emptiness inside through sex. Insecure early attachments to parents mean she has trouble committing to an adult relationship. As the stranger says 'your secret is safe with me – you're afraid of commitment'. The fears, longing and internal abuse he represents is part of her problem.

A woman may fantasise about being rescued but may just repeat the experience of being abandoned and abused by her unconscious choice of partners. Melanie's former lover Adrian left her for another woman. She may also buy into the dismal stories these inner characters tell her about herself and her life. Melanie's wisdom lies in knowing when a man is a sleaze or a tease, but the dark compulsion to repeat earlier abuse is seductive and attracts her to men who keep playing it out with her. Bill, the man she rejects earlier in the pub, is perhaps too safe for her, but she will get him to collude with murder through his desire to rescue and to have a warm back to snuggle up to.

Once she has got him, Melanie initiates Bill into the victim game, as she was by the stranger, who is now more fully active, if unconscious, inside her head. She violently chops another onion and plays the aria 'One Fine Day' from Puccini's opera while he soaks in a candle lit bath. The aria sings of the heroine's longing to be reunited with her husband Pinkerton who has been absent for years, leaving her to raise a child. When they first met, Madame Butterfly was a geisha girl, serving men, as Melanie has done and will continue to do both inside her head and in the outer world. Madame Butterfly eventually stabs herself to death with the knife her father committed suicide with on learning that Pinkerton has married another woman. Her father committed suicide at the Emperor's command – the reigning patriarchal principle. Madame Butterfly dies, unable to evolve into a full enough adult woman beyond her identification with the negative aspect of a patriarchal culture, a culture that both idealises and devalues the feminine.

Madame Butterfly, Melanie and Bill are caught up in a stunting cyclical pattern. During cycling there is usually potential for growth, opportunities to become aware and do things differently. Transformation, however, can take many moons. What is popularly called the way forward actually involves going around and around while being conscious of the process. Perfect Strangers illuminates a corner of the New Zealand psyche in a complex and creative work, full of references and nuances, which elicits further exploration and reflection about ideas of wholeness, consciousness and the roles internal images of masculinity and femininity play in relationships.

[i] Woodman, Marion, The Pregnant Virgin : A Process of Psychological Transformation (Studies in Jungian Psychology, Issue 21) Toronto, Canada : Inner City Books, c1985


TAKE - Deborah Shepard

May 2004

Gaylene Preston is one of those rare breeds of multi-talented, creative film-makers who works successfully in both drama and documentary format. She expresses her ideas across a range of genres from feminist thriller, to comedy, biopic, various strands of documentary including portrait of the artist, oral history, feminist documentary and now a film that spans several styles - feminist thriller, feminist fantasy, romantic thriller fantasy, black comedy and fable/fairytale. Through much of the work - Mr Wrong (1985), Kai Purakau: Keri Hulme - Teller of Tales, (1987) Ruby and Rata (1990), Married (1992), Bread and Roses (1993) War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us (1995) Titless Wonders (2001) and Perfect Strangers (2004) there is a consistent thread linking the oeuvre. Women dominate the narrative, their particular experiences, their achievements, their dreams, their aspirations, their deepest fears and highest hopes are the subject of exploration. In each instance there is a feminist sensibility infusing the film-making, one that is fully cognisant of the male dominated nature of the New Zealand and wider film industry and one that seeks to rectify the imbalance. The results are often startling. Her films never aim to comfort or seduce. They are challenging, unsettling, unusual and Perfect Strangers with a plot that allows its female hero to plunge a knife into the body of a deranged tormentor and bring about his death, continues the tradition.

There's a touch of all of Gaylene's women-oriented movies in Perfect Strangers. Melanie shares the anti-hero qualities, the feisty wilfulness of both Rata and Ruby in Ruby and Rata. Like Sonja in Bread and Roses she overcomes significant obstacles and takes control of her destiny. Faced with a threat to her life she exhibits the will to survive of Neva McKenna, abducted, stripped and threatened with rape and death by Palestinian soldiers in World War II, in War Stories. But the strongest link is with Gaylene's very first feature Mr Wrong (1985) a film that emerged partly as a response to the cluster of male feature films which appeared in New Zealand in the late 1970s and early '80s. In those films - Sleeping Dogs (1977), Middle Age Spread (1979), Goodbye Pork Pie (1981),Smash Palace (1981), Carry Me Back (1982), Came a Hot Friday (1984), - women were never central to the plot. They were side-lined as the sex interest, the butt of male jokes, the women who got in the way of kiwi male bonding. And Gaylene, who worked as the art director on Middle Age Spread and gritted her teeth at the macho joke telling and being nick-named, 'Bruce,' was sufficiently ignited to want to intervene in the 'man alone' discourse and craft a film that presented a female and feminist perspective on aspects of being a woman in New Zealand society. As she reflected later, 'I wanted to make a film that didn't have a car scene, didn't have a rape scene and didn't have Bruno Lawrence playing the tortured neurotic male with a gun and chooks.' (1)

Mr Wrong was also a response to a particular moment in the history of international feminism when feminists were engaged in research and awareness-raising on the issue of violent crimes against women. As part of a world-wide campaign to empower women there were 'Reclaim the Night' marches in Europe, America and New Zealand and the first self-defence classes for women were established. It was out of this phase of pro-active feminism and in response to feminist critiques of the thriller genre that Mr Wrong was conceived. Gaylene had formed the opinion that the thriller genre, with its depiction of pretty women as helpless victims of male predators, 'had a lot to answer for' and in subtle ways had contributed to women's fear of the night. Reflecting on the fate of her female hero in Mr Wrong in a 1991 interview she said: Unfortunately the fact is that women are victims of sexual violence far too often... There are a lot of crimes that are committed that are unsolved... a lot of people walking around New Zealand that have been killed in cars on deserted roads just like that... In this society there's a big silence left by the victims. Once you're dead you're silent. I had to empower the silent ones... (2)

Mr Wrong then aimed to reverse the classic formula by allowing the female victim an opportunity to connect with her inner resources and escape - there is actually a television clip in Mr Wrong, of Sue Lytolis conducting her 1980s self-defence classes for women, which the female hero, Meg, sees and draws upon when her life is under threat. Likewise in Perfect Strangers there appears to be a reference to an actual event in the opening stages of the film when Melanie is coaxed onto a boat and then abducted. The close-ups of Melanie locked in a claustrophobic cabin, desperately thumping on the ceiling and shouting to get out, are evocative of the tragic, disappearance of two Marlborough teenagers Olivia Hope and Ben Smart on New Years' Eve 1998. In her film, thankfully, Gaylene ensures there is no silence left by the victim. Melanie uses her grown-up wiles and gritty determination to extricate herself from the dangerous situation. 

But there is something more going on in Perfect Strangers. Gaylene is reworking ideas and themes that have interested her since the 1980s but this time within a post feminist frame. Where Perfect Strangers departs from Mr Wrong is in the construction of its female hero as a sexually seductive woman, very aware of her power over the local young men. This character is miles away from pragmatic, down-to-earth Meg in Mr Wrong who ran through the wintery night in a voluminous cotton nightie with parka slung on top, to escape her tormentor. Melanie in contrast is a vision of femininity, her hair soft and wispy, her make-up delicately applied, her dress low-cut and clinging to her body. In the intervening years, since Mr Wrong feminist film-makers have graduated from the change-oriented politics of the 1970s to a more sophisticated and even contradictory feminism, one that allows a female director the space to recreate and expand her female character. This doesn't imply a shallow role swapping which is what has happened in Hollywood. One of Gaylene's motivations for making this film was to complicate what she saw happening in American movies:

I went to the AFM in Los Angeles in 1990 and every poster had gone from guys with guns to girls with guns - and the girls always had big tits and long legs - so this was meant to be proactive females on screen... I wanted to explore something a bit more modern and less same old same old. (3)

Perfect Strangers then began as an exploration of romantic love, or of the process of falling in love which Gaylene believes is, 'to fall into a state of madness' and gradually evolved into something more complicated, something that mimics the twists and turns of an emotional female mind gripped by desire. The result is a complex female character. Melanie (Rachel Blake Lantana) combines a stroppy, bordering on perverse streak with feminine vulnerability, a canny resourcefulness with an edgy emotionality. Bored with her life as a fish and chip shop assistant in small town, Gryemouth and anxious to escape her predictable fate as the future wife of Bill, a solid, reliable, kiwi joker, she fantasizes about meeting the perfect stranger. Miraculously her dream comes true. A suave, silent stranger (Sam Neill) enters her life, complete with all the necessary accoutrements of a Prince Charming - there is a humourous reference to Mr Wrong in the seduction sequence of Perfect Strangers, the perfect red rose placed alongside two glasses of champagne, echoing the gifts of the spooky predator in Mr Wrong. Very quickly Melanie discovers she has been granted more than she wished for. Her Prince Charming is in fact a psychopath who wants to marry her and lock her away in a tiny cabin at sea and keep her there for his enjoyment. The dream has turned nasty and Melanie must gather her wits and her strength and engage in a battle for survival. The struggle becomes violent and she seriously wounds the man. Now she has the upper hand or does she? Realising that her only way out of eternal entrapment, is by enlisting the help of the man she has just seriously wounded, she switches to saviour. At this point the film changes key and moves into a different, more experimental mode, something that feels more like fable, or hallucinatory love story. As Melanie, carefully, gingerly stitches him together again she becomes aware of her tormentor's fragility, of the wounded human being beneath the psychologically deranged man and she melts. 

This is not such a new development in New Zealand women's film. When Melanie sleeps with the inert body of her former tormentor, her kiss like a fairytale bringing him back to life and love-making, the film allies itself with a tradition of experimental female film-making that began in the 1990s. Directors like Jane Campion, Alison Maclean, Niki Caro, Jessica Hobbs, Fiona Samuel, Christine Parker, Nicky Marshall, Gillian Roberts, Katherine Fry and Christine Jeffs have all mined the rich territory of the female unconscious and interestingly a number have been drawn to the erotic possibilities inherent in a relationship between a woman and an unconscious man. In Alison Maclean's Kitchen Sink a woman delivers a tiny foetus-like character from her kitchen sink who slowly swells, in her bath, into a fully grown man. In turn fascinated and repelled by his slumbering sexuality, the woman is driven on by her curiosity and sexual desire. She proceeds to civilise him, trimming his eyebrows, shaving his body, moulding and preparing him to share her bed. In Niki Caro's Sure to Rise the theme resurfaces when a young woman rescues an unconscious parachutist and drags him home to her bed where he lies inert under her gentle ministrations. And the theme recurs yet again in Overnight by Fiona Samuel and Jessica Hobbs when Sina knocks an intruder unconscious with a small buddha and then hauls his heavy weight into bed with her. In all of these films it is the vulnerability of the subdued male figure that appeals, his suspended fragility making him more human, more loveable. It has been this very area in Perfect Strangers however beginning with the exhilirating moment (depending on your gender) when the female character stabs the male tormentor, that has produced disquiet. It is the subversive shift and Melanie's rapid trajectory from victim to oppressor to lover, that some male reviewers have objected to. It isn't plausible they argue although follow the logic of emotional entanglement and the changes seem inevitable. In Reframing Women: a history of New Zealand film I labelled this strand of film-making 'the wild zone' borrowing a term first used by literary critic Elaine Showalter (1981) to refer to a 'a no-man's land of women's culture that is unique to women and unknown to men.' And that may explain the male resistance. Such film-making is oppositional, it challenges the status quo, disrupts conventional modes of representation and clearly it sometimes alienates the male viewer. 

Perfect Strangers has been well received internationally. Diana Rigg of the ABC awarded the film a five star rating and located it in an impressive tradition of female 'anti-Romance' films, comparing Preston's film with works by Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Virginie Despente and Jane Campion with Perfect Strangers 'the wildest anti-romance of all.' Rigg was so appreciative that she also described Preston as, 'a filmmaker at the height of her powers.' The Sunday Telegraph referred to the film as 'a little gem, full of great atmosphere' and David Stratton in Variety considered it, 'taut and well directed.' But the reception in New Zealand has been less than generous. The reviewers for Metro, the Sunday Star Times, the Auckland Herald and the Listener have been unequivocably critical of what they perceive to be a 'weak', 'incoherent', and even 'weird' plot and for failing to conform to the rules of naturalistic narrative - 'basic script writing rules and structure have been thrown out the window.' The criticisms on this level are picky. One reviewer stuggles with the image of a dead Sam Neill, 'trundled around in a wheelbarrow.' Another finds fault with aspects of naturalistic detail and continuity: 'a deep puncture wound is laboriously stitched... people wade across a bay to a boat which is tied up at a jetty; even the old classic of a shipwreck survivor with instantly dry clothes gets an outing.' But what about the visual whimsy of Melanie wheeling the man across the bay in a wheelbarrow? Is it not reminiscent of the surreal scenes of a mother playing the piano and a child pirouetting in the sand, in a film which was loved for precisely those unusual elements? One of the reviews compared the plot of Perfect Strangers with the thriller Dead Calm a film that was also set at sea and starred Sam Neill. It was an interesting comparison for in that film there are scenes that stretch credibility to the limits. When Sam Neill finds himself trapped in a watertight compartment his only hope of survival is a small air pipe filled with cockroaches the size of your palm. And towards the end of the film, the psychopath riddled with bullet wounds, dunked and trapped under the water for at least half a day is resurrected one last time in a bloodcurdling final twist. As viewers educated in the rules of the thriller genre, we are prepared to suspend belief. We have been doing this since Arthur Penn's spectacularly choreographed, extended shoot-out finale to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) because we enjoy the tension and the spectacle, the fantasy and the escape. Perhaps then with Perfect Strangers we just need more exposure and a little more open-mindedness to the chimerical possibilities inherent in a table-turning, feminist film. In a more receptive frame of mind we might then appreciate the inventive touch of a film-maker 'at the height of her powers.' 

1. Deborah Shepard. Reframing Women: a history of New Zealand film. Auckland: Harper Collins, 2000:
2. Deborah Shepard. 'Writing a Woman Film-Maker's Life and Work: A Biofilmography of Gaylene Preston.' MA thesis, University of Auckland 1992.
3. Interview with Gaylene Preston. SPADA conference newsletter, October 2003.
 

IF MAGAZINE - Ruth Hessey

October 2003

A PERVERSE FAIRYTALE

Who knows why we have to wait so long for Rachael Blake to turn up on screen. Suffer no more, as Blake (Wildside, Lantana) is indeed the star, engine and salt of PERFECT STRANGERS, a new film not from Australia incidentally, but from our somewhat more perceptive, if risk-happy, filmmaking neighbours in New Zealand.

Gaylene Preston has carved out an impressive career as a documentary filmmaker in NZ. WAR STORIES Our Mothers Never Told Us (1995) was actually a box office hit there. Twenty years after the first inkling of PERFECT STRANGERS knocked on her head, she has brought the film to fruition through a dazzling collaboration with New Zealand's legendary best – from Sam Neill playing opposite Blake to Alun Bollinger, the cinematographer whose name pops up in the camera department credits of some of the most significant NZ films ever made (including Vincent Ward's Vigil, Jane Campion's The Piano and Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures and Rings Trilogy.

Preston has written a perverse fairytale played out as a journey to the heart of darkness. Blake's Melanie oozes sexual confidence and challenge as she prowls the bars of a small New Zealand town. Is she still looking for Mr Right, or does her glamour hide the soul of a woman dying inside?

Preston hurls this quite recognisable 21st Century every woman into every woman's worst nightmare. Is the handsome man (Neill) she picks up one fateful night her prince come at last, or has her game of romantic roulette played its last shot?

Most of the action takes place on a deserted island as wild and lush as any Garden of Eden, with memorable sequences at sea and during tremendous storms. Set against this tempestuous natural environment Preston drives her heroine through the emotional equivalent of extreme sports. Its not just a case of physical survival a la Dead Calm. Melanie's existential journey takes her to the brink of madness. And where does she go from there?

Some will find the ending of PERFECT STRANGERS presents one twist too many in the heroine's psychological evolution. But in another way, Preston's decision to include 'a happy ever after.' Is the final challenge of a riveting thriller, and signals another chapter lurking in the wings.
 

SCREEN DAILY - Frank Hatherley

14 August 2003

After its sold-out premiere at the Melbourne Film Festival, Gaylene Preston's 'chilling romance' has, unsurprisingly, been invited to Montreal in September, a timely reminder that New Zealand cinema has more to offer than Lord Of The Rings blockbuster fantasy. Perfect Strangers is an adult, finely acted feature that cleverly subverts audience expectations as the intriguing narrative unwinds. Just when we think we know where she is going, veteran writer/director/producer Preston changes emotional gear with the invaluable assistance of Australian actress Rachael Blake (Lantana) who delivers a bruising, naturalistic performance of considerable nuance and brilliance. Paired with a moody, menacing Sam Neill, Blake is a certain award contender. 

Though basically an intense three-hander, the psychological thriller also boasts spectacular South Island scenery, mid-ocean storms and shipwrecks. Arthouse interest seems assured both at home (where it opens early next year) and in Australia (Oct 9), and it could well be the second New Zealand film this year to attract real international interest after the success of Whale Rider. 

Blake plays Melanie, an independent, emotionally empty thirtysomething serving fish and chips in a small coastal town. After work she goes looking for booze and men, hoping to find some newcomers, certainly not reliable ex-lover Bill (Tobeck). In a hotel bar the well-oiled Melanie meets her 'perfect stranger' - a rugged, fixated seaman (Neill, identified only as The Man) who has clearly planned her subsequent kidnapping on his motor launch. 'I don't really go for this nature shit,' says Melanie when she finds herself in a run-down, candle-lit shack on a steep rain-forested island, obliged to wear clothes and jewellery provided by her love-struck captor. He is surprisingly cultured and caring and clearly knows a lot about her: she is not averse to giving him what she assumes he is after. But the psychology of both characters is complex and unpredictable. 

The mood keeps changing along with the wonderfully filmed weather and there are some painful physical encounters as Rachael fights for her freedom and, soon, her common sense. This progression is brilliantly charted by Preston and hypnotically portrayed by Blake. There then comes a major midpoint plot twist, forcing Melanie (and the audience) to venture into unexpected, uncharted waters. 

Bill returns (Tobeck is convincingly baffled by what he finds) and Melanie struggles to make sense of her unexpected journey from town-based brittleness to island emotionalism. 

It is a challenging ride, directed with great skill, although some may find the ending a psychological step too far. All production departments make significant contributions. Soundtrack music and effects add greatly to the growing tensions: there is standout production design and editing. But perhaps the most memorable creative partner is the New Zealand setting, captured tellingly by cinematographer Bollinger. Has ever such an intense inner struggle been played against such wide and towering locations?
 

SBS Movie Show - David Stratton and Margaret Pomerants

Rating: **** (4 stars)

PERFECT STRANGERS is one of the best films to come from New Zealand in recent years.

Margaret: Tonight, 'your place or mine?' a tryst with a twist in Perfect Strangers

David: Boofheads are doin' it for themselves in Gettin' Square

Margaret: And the restoration of Melville's ice cold noir, The Red Circle

David: Good evening

Margaret: Hi

David: There's also the birth of a nation in Gods And Generals

Margaret: And the frustrated folkies of Finding Joy

David: But first to the tense tango of Perfect Strangers

Clip

David: Melanie, Rachael Blake, lives alone in a small city on New Zealand's South Island; she works in a fish and chip shop and, on Saturday nights, she goes drinking with her friends, hoping to find a man. On this particular night she meets a stranger, Sam Neill, who offers to take her back to his place...

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David: Gaylene Preston's very accomplished film skill-fully plays with genre expectations. It starts out like a thriller in which a vulnerable woman apparently makes the fatal mistake of going off with a man she doesn't know, but a series of twists and turns, plus an unexpectedly mordant sense of humour, keeps the audience guessing. Rachael Blake, so wonderful in LANTANA, gives another superb performance here, intelligent and touching, while Sam Neill successfully combines charm and menace as the stranger who changes Melanie's life. It's virtually a two-hander - though a third character appears late in the day - and the other star of the film is the landscape, the wintry west coast of the South Island which is so evocatively photographed by Alun Bollinger. 


WEST AUSTRALIAN ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT - Ron Banks Preston's

11 September 2003 | Rating: 3.5/5

FAIRYTALE INTO NIGHTMARE Preston's PERFECT STRANGERS plays out the idea of desire, deception and the imperfection of relationships in chilling fashion, sometimes in ways that are far too icy for anyone's own good

Like a Japanese Story, it's just not possible to comment on the plot twist that takes Melanie's physical and psychological journey into dangerous waters both literal and metaphorical. Lets just say that the disaster in the shack is followed by a tremendous storm at sea – filmed very convincingly – that tests Melanie to the limits of her survival instincts. But in becoming a survivor, the power between the man and woman shifts back to Melanie, who must begin to live by her own wits.

The problem however, is that the psychological pressures of coping with dangerous events send Melanie adrift in yet another fantasy world. This is a world that becomes increasingly erratic and detached from reality. The film shifts gears again to Gothic mode with Melanie's own behaviour quite frightening in its ruthlessness – the kind of extreme reaction that drives her towards despair and misery. Blake gives a wonderfully resonant performance as the woman who's dream of a handsome prince rescuing her from the dullness of ordinary life rapidly turns into a nightmare. She is on screen virtually the entire time. Conveying the downward spiral of her character towards a particular kind of fantasy-fed madness with remarkable subtlety and sensitivity.

Neill has the easier task in conveying his character's killer charm, but he's one of those actors who seems to know instinctively how to play the seducer without seeming too loathsome.

The third character in this tale is the New Zealand coastline itself, which with its winter light and stormy seas is both threatening and beautiful. The scenes of spray drenched boats entering dangerous harbours where the waves crash on the rocks are stunning and provide a haunting background for this sometimes macabre tale that will keep you guessing.
 

THE DOMINION POST

26 March 2005

A striking feature from New Zealand director Gaylene Preston(Bread and Roses, War Stories). One night bored 30-something Melanie (Rachael Blake) goes out drinking with her friends. When she goes home with a handsome stranger (Sam Neill, she's captivated by his charm and attentiveness. He sails her away to his castle – a rundown shack on a deserted island. But when seduction becomes deception and passion becomes possession, Melanie realises she has been kidnapped. Stylish and haunting, Perfect Strangers deftly blends many different genres to tell a truly original tale, as Melanie turns the tables on her captor. Torn between fear and desire, Melanie must escape, but her ardent admirer has other plans.

AUDIENCE COMMENTS:

Pip Boag, 
wine sales rep
Wellington

I loved it. It was fantastic.

Highlight: Probably what happens to Sam Neill.
Low Point: The end. There was no real low points, the story happened a bit fast. She went from quite normal to quite strange real quickly.
Would you recommend it: Oh, definitely. Absolutely.
Rating: *** 1/2

— 

Linda Strong
career development consultant
Dunedin

Good, I've been thinking about seeing it for a while and this was the perfect opportunity.

Highlight: I quite like the turn around.
Low point: No low points. It took a wee while to get into it.
Would you recommend it: Yes
Rating: *** 1/2 

— 

Ron Walters
Architect
South Coast

Fantastic.

Highlights: Lots really. The suspense, Edge of the seat stuff.
Low point: I don't think so. There was a bit of death and destruction.
Would you recommend it: For sure.
Rating: **** 1/2

— 

Trisha Aitkin, 47
trust account manager
Wellington

Amazing. Amazing scenery of the West Coast. This movie's going around the world.

Highlight: The scenery is fantastic.
Low point: The horrible twist at the end.
Would you recommend it: Definitely
Rating:*****

Bex Pearce, 27
photographic assistant
Wellington

Pleasantly unpredictable.

Highlight: The scenery was beautiful.
Low Point: None
Would you recommend it: Hell yeah
Rating: *****

 

THE DAILY POST

5 February 2005

A near perfect weird little drama, with more than a few nasty surprises.

Those with good memories will remember Sam Neill's superb documentary made in the mid 1990s about the history of New Zealand movie making, A Cinema of Unease. In that documentary he stipulated that the abiding theme of cinema made in this country was a sense of dislocation, disembodiment. If New Zealand had a psyche, then the mirror held up to it in the movies made by it's own people reflected a profoundly troubled individual.

Perfect Strangers conforms perfectly to this prognosis. It could almost be termed a Kiwi gothic.

It tells of the experiences of Melanie (Aussie Actress Rachael Blake, of the superb Lantana) who, in the best tradition of Kiwi socialising , hooks up with a complete stranger at the pub one night.

And what a coinky-dink. That stranger is played by none other than old Sam. It's a small world etc. 

'My place or yours' he asks

'Yours. I've been to mine.'

Ladies have you ever been literally swept off your feet by a bloke? The stranger takes Melanie back to his place, a shack on an offshore island. But as his passion reveals itself as more of an obsession, Melanie realises she has been kidnapped.

And then the real sinister stuff begins to happen…

As close to a New Zealand David Lynch movie as you would ever want to get, Perfect Strangers is a near perfect weird little drama, with more than a few nasty surprises.
 

WOMEN IN FILM AND TELEVISION - Helen Martin

June 2004

Rejecting the gauche advances of her drunken pub mates, bored small town fish and chips waitress Melanie goes home instead with a handsome, taciturn stranger. Here we have the makings of a conventional fairytale. That the stranger's 'home' turns out to be a shack on an island (the wild South Island West Coast) is a little unsettling. Then things take a turn for the even-worse when Melanie realises the guy is crackers – determined to number her among his permanent possessions, determined not to let her go. So far, so thriller. 

Remember Gaylene's first dramatic feature (also a Preston*Laing collaboration and the first New Zealand film made by a female producer/director team), the genre bending Mr Wrong (1985)? In that subversion, where thriller meets feminist practice head-on, a woman pursued by a homicidal creep pretending to be a suitor rescues herself and, by extension, other potential victims, with satisfying panache. The Preston*Laing feature that followed this, Ruby and Rata (1990), also packs much of its punch in delivering the unexpected. 

So, when needy Melanie falls for her captor, and when he becomes the victim of her dangerous desire, we're way out of conventional thriller territory and right back into a Preston*Laing bender that could go anywhere. Gaylene's first original screenplay, Perfect Strangers is a delicious thriller/horror/love story/comedy, exploring further the psychological terrain canvassed by Alison Maclean in her influential short film/fable Kitchen Sink (1989), while adding depth in its defiant 'woman alone' challenge to the 'man alone' tradition that has obsessed so many for so long in New Zealand storytelling. Perfect Strangers keeps you dangling till the last frame. 

The humour is deliciously black – the body in the fridge episode echoes Theatre of the Absurd in its prime, the scene heralding 'rescue' and the denouement are comic highlights – and the frights are real. 

An ensemble piece that is essentially a two-hander, Perfect Strangers is brought to life by superb acting from its leads Rachael Blake, Sam Neill and support Joel Tobeck. The other 'character', the West Coast landscape (including the Punakaiki rocks, guesting in their first feature), is captured by DP Alun Bollinger in images both striking and bizarre (Melanie, the beach, a full wheelbarrow). And faithful to the project of telling stories of her 'own land', Gaylene accompanies her story with a great score of New Zealand music - Crowded House, Don McGlashan, Barry Saunders, Hammond Gamble, Dame Malvina Major and Plan 9, who were also the arrangers.

To date the film's life includes a special gala screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival and a review from Variety's David Stratton calling it 'one of the best films to come from New Zealand in recent years.'
 

SALIENT - James Robinson

Issue 1, 2004

Never before have the promos for a movie been so misleading. The trailer and blurb for Perfect Strangers is a good description of probably the first 20 minutes of the movie. This is a cunning move that works in it's favour, as by billing the movie as a straight kidnap come psychological thriller, Gaylene Preston is able to brilliantly subvert audience expectations. Perfect Strangers is far from a horror movie, it is a daring and brilliantly intense psychological love story – which will linger in your mind for many days and screams out for repeated viewing.

The movie starts in a fish and chip store, where three ladies giggle and chatter in anticipation of a night on the town in small town New Zealand. They hit the pub, hit the drinks, look for boys. It's late, Melanie (Rachael Blake) reaches for a lighter only to have her cigarette lit by a tall, dark stranger (Sam Neill). He's been to Italy. She's impressed. They return to his boat where Melanie passes out drunk – waking up in the middle of the ocean halfway out to his island getaway. He says he loves her, won't let her leave – they struggle. She stabs him and from this point on, leave all your expectations aside!

Gaylene Preston directs with a masterful hand, capturing the evolving relationship between Melanie and her perfect stranger brilliantly – Melanie's descent into madness is portrayed with frightening realism. Sam Neill plays his sinister stranger effortlessly – intense and frightening one moment, soft and tender the next. Director Gaylene Preston is the star though – directing the movie through it's numerous twists and turns, it seems at times that she is toying with the audience.

Gone it seems, are the days when every second New Zealand movie runs along the lines of the nauseatingly 'kiwi' comedy/drama popularised by such 'classics' as Via Satellite and Jubilee. Perfect Strangers showcases New Zealand's beautiful countryside without the publicity of a Whale Rider or Lord of the Rings, and highlighting that with all the success and acclaim of those two films, there is a lot else to proud of outside them. Perfect Strangers is a head–spinner of a movie, a twisted romance. Gone are the days when people could say this was 'pretty good for a New Zealand movie' – Gaylene Preston has created a film that leaves a lot of it's Hollywood counterparts for dead.


CAPITAL TIMES - Graeme Tuckett

11 February 2004

Imagine, if you can, for one rose tinted moment, a New Zealand that may well exist in some other, more poetic dimension than this.

A New Zealand where the mist is forever lifting from the bush-clad hills, where every silence is pierced by the cry of an unseen bird. A Nw Zealand in which every boat will run into a storm of biblical proportions within an hour of slipping its moorings. Where every pub has a table of four locals who do little with their lives but look on with malevolence whenever a stranger or a woman walks into the room. A New Zealand where enigmatic strangers come striding from the tree line, a fresh carcass across their oil-skinned shoulders and a wry but rough-hewn philosophy forever ready on their chapped-but-sensual lips.

This is the New Zealand in which directors Geoff Murphy and Vincent Ward plied their trade, where grim but bleakly funny films full of misfits and misanthropes raised a tiny and black-nailed two fingered salute to Hollywood and the organised religion of the three-act story structure.

It's a place where the women were all stout-hearted sheilas, and the men were (mostly) Bruno Lawrence. A place that reached its zenith with the release of Vigil and Smash Palace, that re-emerged briefly but gloriously in The Piano, and is still visible, a palimpsest, in The Locals.

A near forgotten New Zealand which defined itself through uneasy juxtapositions of long-suffering mateship and a fierce desire to be left the hell alone.

Perfect Strangers reaches us like a broadcast from this place. It is a dark and feminised reinterpretation of our pervasive national mythology - an immediately iconic and absolutely bloody delightful piece of filmmaking.

Alternating wildly in tone between brooding and anarchic, flawed, muddy, improbable, infuriating, hilarious, bloodied and utterly unbowed, this is a film to celebrate, to love, to hate, but above all to watch, and watch again.


CHRISTCHURCH STAR - Nick Paris

8 February 2004

While everybody's having a whale of a time with New Zealand cinema one hopes that Gaylene Preston's 'PERFECT STRANGERS' won't slip under the radar in the box office.

Bristling with confidence this carefully engineered psychodrama delivers all the necessary ingredients to keep the audience attentive from first frame till last.

Returning to New Zealand's 'cinema of unease' Preston provides some welcome relief from more charted territory that has dominated the local industry lately. In fact this is Sam Neill's first local feature since Campion's 'PIANO' indicating his willingness to return to the wider arc of acting.

Rachael Blake who's scintillating turn in the excellent 'LANTANA' and Joel Tobeck (MEMORY AND DESIRE) round off a more than capable cast to compliment Preston's antithesis to genre film making .

In the beginning all starts within boundaries with our bored, listless waitress Melanie whose flirtatious glances attract handsome stranger (Neill). Both hit the rustic docks of Greymouth well warmed with plonk and share the small talk within the bowels of the stranger's boat. Melanie passes out and awakes in pitch black darkness to the pitch and roll (a genuinely scary moment) of the 'Dauntless' well on the way to a shack on a remote island.

Kidnapped and worried by the stranger's irrational behaviour from romance to total possessiveness Melanie battles this nightmare and fixes this Mephisto once and for all ending in a well staged storm sequence (thanks Weta!), but not before key narrative tempts you into dropping convention and embracing role reversal, a clever about face that Preston uses wisely. 

Blake here swings her empowered performance like a pendulum,' she doesn't like nature', a self confessed landlubber she transcends different reality 'states' with the confident swagger that reminds me of Pam Grier's Blaxploitation era features. One can only be refreshingly ecstatic by Preston's mould of a female protagonist long overdue (forget Lara Croft!!) in cinema today.

Alun Bollinger's seductive camerawork right in his own backyard (Reefton, Punakaiki) perfectly captures the essence of 'PERFECT STRANGERS' In misty beaches, the unforgiving ocean and the trill of avian habitat in what the director rightfully calls the 'fourth character'. 

Joyfully ritualistic (see APARTMENT ZERO and CUL de SAC) this cat and mouse game and tantric tale combines many filmic nuances and homage's and trumpets Prestons best work to date.


DAILY TELEGRAPH - Vicky Roach

9 October 2003 | Rating: 3.5/5

MACABRE ROMANCE IS FULL OF SURPRISES.

A working class thirty something good sort heads to the pub on Friday night looking for Mr Right – or at least Mr Good Enough.

Four sheets to the wind, her thick blue eye shadow smudged, she pulls a cigarette from a torn packet.

A handsome stranger with a twinkle in his eye materialises as if from nowhere, to light it for her.

They laugh, flatter, and finally go home together. Sounds too good to be true? Well of course he is.

Our neighbours across the Tasman seem to have a rather darker view of romance and so it is with Gaylene Preston's latest film set on the wild west coast of New Zealands South Island.

When Melanie (Rachael Blake) wakes up the next morning, she finds herself literally at sea.

'His place' turns out to be a shack on an uninhabited island towards which they have chugged all night.

In the right circumstances this might be very romantic but the man (Sam Neill) at the helm is extremely intense and Melanie is trapped.

To reveal much more would be to spoil the film's surprises. Suffice to say PERFECT STRANGERS has more twists than Chubby Checker, one too many perhaps.

The film walks a tightrope between fantasy and obsession. But despite its bunny boiling beginnings, PERFECT STRANGERS is no FATAL ATTRACTION or MISERY but more a Grimm Sisers fairytale in which the balance of power is passed back and forth between the two.

A macabre romance played with chilling conviction by its handsome leads.


AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

4 October 2003

A MAD, BLACK PSYCHO-DRAMA

Set largely on an island off the romantic West Coast of the South island of new Zealand, Perfect Strangers starts out as formulaic as Fatal Attraction – then turns into a psychological study of survival before leaving you at the end thinking you've been watching a fable.

It's a difficult film to categorise although the plot is quite straightforward. It suggests young women shouldn't go off with strangers they meet in pubs – especially when drunk…

Written and directed by Gaylene Preston this two hander is assembled with surprising sureness. The performances by Neill and Blake are complex and involving as Melanie enters a bizarre version of the Stockholme Syndrome with a frozen cadaver.

Had the film been a little tighter, and the action more compressed, it would have been the best Hitchcockian film since Hitchcock. As it is, it's still pretty good.


THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH - Paul Le Petit

2 October 2003 | Rating: **** (Four stars)

She's a young woman with a lust for drink and good men – although she hasn't managed to find too many of those in her life. So when Melanie (Rachael Blake) goes out drinking on a Friday night with her girlfriends, it would be unfair to say they're on the prowl, but they're certainly not averse to a good offer.

Which is what she gets when a suave stranger (Sam Neill) offers a light for her cigarette, a drink and a bit of friendship. It leads to a night out which ends when he takes her, not home, but to his boat tied up at a jetty.

It's all a little romantic –the boat, the champagne, the wooden surfaces, but the next morning romance turns into a nightmare...

This is just the start of a story that leaves the viewer guessing to the end, that realises a lot of fears and fantasies along the way, and uses everything – the skill of the performers and the startling settings which range from banteringly beautiful to menacingly malevolent.

Director Gaylene Preston has produced a little gem here, a film of great atmosphere using its actors to the full.

Neill is at his most assured until – well we won't go into that – and Blake has found a work in which to showcase her abilities, her desperation and angst of any number of intelligent young people.

This is a roller coaster of a ride loaded with thrills and spills galore and Preston proves that New Zealand filmmakers with a different view of the world can turn anything – romance included – upside down.


ABC RADIO NATIONAL - Julie Rigg

Rating ***** (5 stars)

Once Upon a Time, back in the seventies when women began to get their hands on movie cameras again, there was this desire to tell it like it really is. Women were many other things besides glossy and admiring objects of male fantasy; they were ready to break out of the narrow roles to which post-war filmmaking had consigned them. The apron-clad Debbie Reynolds and Ava Gardner vamps were discarded. There was ground to make up, and a world to explore. Cinderella snorted, put on Doc Martens and went out to find a better-paying job. When she could afford them, she acquired a briefcase, a good suit and her own mortgage.

Almost the last world to explore was that of the psyche. Female lust could be admitted, but the dark and dangerous impulses – the attraction to dangerous men, the wish for revenge - never. When women killed it was for self-defence, or to sacrifice themselves for another. 

What no one could account for was the surprising persistence of female fantasies of falling in love. The dream of perfect union, perfect fulfilment, and living happily ever after. 

There's a very interesting group of films which I think is beginning to address this puzzle. Let's call them the 'anti-romance' films. In France, filmmakers like Catherine Breillat who made Romance and then A Ma Soeur have turned their attention to the female psyche. In English-speaking cinema, Jane Campion was among the first of the post-seventies feminists to peer into the sometimes perverse female psyche. Sweetie admitted female narcissism, repression and the fiercest of sibling rivalries; The Piano explored such things as woman's protest directed against her own body; sex as subversion, sex as currency, sex for curiosity. Campion's heroines were always, in their own ways, lustful. Some of these anti-romance films use genre to make their points. Virginie Despentes's Baise-Moi used a splatter version of the road movie to rework the 'rape and revenge' genre which, fashioned by men, has usually combined titillation with high moral ground (see, for example, Shekar Kapur's Bandit Queen. 

Baise-Moi shocked because it exploited the sex and violence conflation most women refuse because it's usually directed at us. But in this film, pace Godard, the girls had the guns. 

In The Cut, releasing here next month, is Jane Campion's most explicit film, yet about the craving which will lead a woman to seek out sex with a man she distrusts and even fears. She has compromised the ending, and that's a pity; but the critics who misread it as a suspense-less thriller fail to see that it's about sex first and fear second. Female desire that is. Who was it said 'Perfect love casts out fear'? Maybe it should be female fantasy.

Some anti-romance films employ fantasy in the most matter-of-fact register. Claire Denis's Vendredi Soir is an encounter between a woman stuck in a monumental Parisian traffic jam, and a male stranger who gets into her car. She spends the night with him, and their courtship dance is delicate and fraught as it always is. In the morning she walks away to her new life without a backward look. 

Now there is Gaylene Preston's Perfect Strangers in some ways the wildest anti-romance of all. Preston is an accomplished New Zealand director whose last three features have played out on a social canvas. 

This film is different. The heroine is Melanie, and she's played by Rachael Blake in a performance which fulfils – exceeds - all the promise she showed in Lantana Melanie is not a good girl. She's wanton, and she's bored. She works in a fish and chip shop in a small town on the wild West Coast of New Zealand. And she can have her pick of any of the men at the local pub. One Friday night she meets the perfect stranger there at the pub. He's tall dark, handsome and unusually well mannered. He's played by Sam Neill. 

'Your place or mine?' he asks. 'Yours,' she says, 'I already know mine.'

In the morning she wakes up to find herself at sea. He's sailed her away to her own little island...and he knows all about her. 

This film addresses a situation every women dreads and most at some time have experienced. What do you do when you find yourself in this kind of danger? If you want to live, do you fight, or do you submit? But that's only the start of the story.

Perfect Strangers is a wild combination of thriller and fable. It plays with our expectations of the handsome prince fairy story, and the stalker story as well. It has a great deal to say about the craving for love, and its wellsprings. 'Falling in love,' says Preston, 'is to fall into a kind of madness.' I cannot tell you more about the story. But I can guarantee this film will surprise you. It confirms Rachael Blake as a magnificent actor, and Gaylene Preston as a filmmaker at the height of her powers.


REVIEW - Louise Keller

16 July 2003

A challenging and intriguing film that never lets you off the hook until the very last frame, Perfect Strangers is for those who like their love stories wild and way off centre. While at times the storyline veers dangerously to the edge of credibility, the film never loses its appeal and we are never sure what is going to happen next.

Written, produced and directed by award-winning New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston, the film is superbly shot and produced and its haunting music score is an integral part of its fabric. The complexity of the script demands much from the very small cast: Sam Neill and Rachel Blake are superb, offering myriads of colours from a never-ending palette. The blend of reality, fantasy, adventure and romance is a beguiling one, and the fact that Melanie's protagonist is such a down to earth, no-nonsense type, compounds the impact of the events. 

When Melanie meets the stranger in the bar, after a long day's work, there's something different about him from the other men she meets. He lights her cigarette, their eyes meet, and when he answers 'Italy' to her question about where his shoes come from, as they dance, we can sense the appeal immediately. 'Your place or mine?' he asks; 'Yours - I've been to mine,' she answers, quick as a flash. 

But her elation soon turns to terror as darkness, claustrophobia and the incessant sound of water pummels her brain. Echoing themes from John Fowles' The Collector, Melanie realises she is an object of desire to her captor, and the combination of romantic allure with forceful coercion is frightening and bizarre, especially given their isolated location. Wonderfully incongruous images capture our imagination. Like the scene when Melanie is immersed in a very full bath surrounded by white burning candles, while the stranger stands in the kitchen next door chopping off the head of the chicken they are about to eat for dinner. Clothes are laid out for her - a silk camisole, a black dress and pearls- and he has poetry and promises as his offering, rejecting sexual advances until his love is reciprocated. 

New Zealand's wild West Coast makes a perfect setting, with its stony beaches, jagged rocks and stormy grey waves: the location moans and groans, just like the characters. I like the inventive costumes, which utilise every-day clothing to suit the circumstances. As the plot thickens and events become more and more chilling (literally), the relationship between the characters takes an unexpected turn.

A chilling story about obsession, Perfect Strangers puts a dent in the mould of fairy tale romance by allowing the prey to become the hunter: the ingredients of love and fear are roughly stirred to deliver a magical combo.


REVIEW - Andrew L. Urban

For all our efforts to keep the synopsis vague, you will no doubt pick up more of the plot details elsewhere. Don't. This is an infuriatingly difficult film to review, because to provide a reasoned window to it, a reviewer has to reveal elements that are really best revealed as you watch the film, developing your own micro-responses to each scene, and drawing your own conclusions. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers and start with commending the film's cinematic virtues, from Alan Bollinger's wonderful cinematography to the terrific soundtrack (and Plan 9's great original work), through the production and costume design. 

The wild South Island settings in New Zealand are a sure fire travel winner too, but note that this was shot in the relatively benign months of the year. Performances are, as expected, outstanding; Sam Neill really nails his character as the 'perfect stranger' - especially in the one short but crucial scene where he has to make us believe he can be irrational, perhaps psychotically injured. Rachael Blake is sensational in a difficult, complex role - she's really the one who's been damaged. The excellent mise en scene and the story's narrow focus on the two central characters combine to give Perfect Strangers extra edge.

Reminiscent at first of themes explored in The Collector (1965), Perfect Strangers changes gears to become a psycho-thriller and then again to a fully fledged, psyched out fantasy. You have to be patient with this film until the very end to unlock its secret. On the way, it upends the romantic notion of being whisked off by the perfect stranger. Until then, I found myself a trifle irritated by a few small things: cinematic simplifications (cutting away to not reveal how it's done) of things like a woman manoeuvring a man's inert body, or the after effects of certain acts of violence. It is only in the final scene that these apparent oversights fall into place as the subtle hints to the filmmaker's subtle intentions.

It'll be hard to market, but it's a sure conversation starter. And one thing is undeniable: it is the work of a genuine filmmaking talent, who has something important to say.

IMAGES
CAST

CAST

The Man - Sam Neill
Melanie - Rachael Blake"
Bill - Joel Tobek