Oscar and Lucinda

14 Feb 1998

Paul R. Potts

This is a movie worth seeing twice. Set in Autralia, it is a historic romance of a sort, tracing the history of two misfits, a religious nut and a proto-feminist, both, oddly enough, who have developed addiction to gambling. Interestingly, the young Anglican priest’s deeply conservative religious father’s opinion makes his gambling almost as unacceptable as the young woman’s. But clearly, Oscar has a special dispensation from the almightly — a combination of a charmed life and insistent innocence seem to lift his character out of every dismal scene fate puts him in just as it propels him onward.

There are some ancillary pseudo-love-triangle partners, but from the moment we meet Oscar and Lucinda there is not any doubt that they are meant only for each other. This illustrates the strength of the casting and the impressive extent to which the principals have become their roles.

The first hour of the film has a tendency to move a bit slowly. It accelerates when Oscar and Lucinda place their final bet: that Oscar can deliver an impractically lovely glass-and-iron church from Sydney to a mission in New South Wales. The scenes of Oscar fighting his phobia of water inside this lovely doomed structure are the most strangely beautiful thing I’ve seen happen on a raft since Aguirre, the Wrath of God. One realizes that the first half of the film exists entirely to make this implausible event not only imaginable, but inevitable.

The film has a high degree of heavily-clothed eroticism that I found fascinating. The cheaper side of life holds deep red visual fascination, while the life of the monied displays its stiffling repression in its upright palette of linens, blues, and golds. Glittering glass, shining water, and deeply textured costumes give this film a real tactile quality in addition to its broad palette.

The cinematography of the violent and erotic acts is surprisingly inventive, lingering on what you don’t expect it to and passing over what you do. The unconventionality of the shots makes these events slip past the viewer’s expectations and defenses and appear again fresh.

Oscar’s appealing doomed oddball is a fascinating character; oddly effeminate, tending towards passivity, allowing the flip of a coin to choose his fate, and panicked around water, he pulls out some amazing fire when pushed to the breaking point. Lucinda’s aggresive nonconformity and ability to make life-changing decisions instantly and never look back make her Oscar’s perfect foil.

There are stunning examples of beautifully symbolist filmmaking. In one vivid sequence, Oscar, having just been caught in a largely unwitting but catastrophic sin, walks away from the camera with a woman in a scarlet dress, the camera aimed squarely at the sinfully decorative bow bobbing on her heavily skirted bottom. The sinking sun has made the world they walk into a sickly, grisly yellow.

In the next scene, Oscar walks down a dusty path, kicking along a black, twisted stick — a serpent — “you shall crush its head, and it will bite your heel.” He retreats to his beautiful glass church to pray, but the camera lingers on a curvilinear crack reflecting rippling water — the serpent has caught up, and his tragically shattered character can’t escape the wrought-irony that pulls him on to the movie’s mysteriously redemptive and circular conclusion.

Wow, I can hardly believe I wrote that last sentence. Is that pompous or what? Anyway, it’s a good movie, and the kind of independent that deserves more attention. Go see it.

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