"Cactus" (Beverly Center Cineplex) opens with one of the most spectacularly beautiful moving camera shots in any film this year: It's a languorous pan that sweeps from the porch of an Australian country home and slowly takes in all the mellow greens and yellows of the countryside--before ending on the house again, and (as if in afterthought) beginning to follow the characters and the story. This shot--a real virtuoso piece--subtly suggests that this will be a film about seeing, and ways of seeing.
It's fitting. Writer-director Paul Cox began as a photographer, and he's often specialized in artists and painting. And, in the movie, it's a character's failing sight--and her need to go beyond it--that provides the story's spine. "Cactus" is about Colo (Isabelle Huppert), a woman slowly going blind, and her relationship with a man blind from birth (Robert Menzies). He is a young cactus-grower, introduced to her by friends as a kind of therapy.
When Colo's sight begins to fail--after a car accident sends a sliver of glass into one eye and the other is sympathetically affected--her response seems numbed. The blind man--cynical and fiercely proud, the kind who can snap at passersby trying to help him cross a street--is a virgin, happy in his solitude. She brings him out of both solitudes, and they meet in the darkness descending around her--and now, in new ways, beginning to imprison him as well.
The cactus itself is a deliberate symbol: a plant that supposedly thrives on neglect--but, like these ravaged lovers, really needs care. Symbols and slow pans, blind lovers and slivers of fate: This is a movie with a lot of obvious built-in traps and tendencies toward sentimentality or pretension. Unfortunately, Cox falls into some of them.
It is unfortunate, because Paul Cox is a brilliant maverick of a film maker, and "Cactus" is obviously an attempt to fly against current fashion, and make something fine, humane and honest. But it's a mixed achievement. In a way, it's the most visually beautiful of all his films, but it has a hollow feel. The love story seems empty, the characters remote--and not remote in any way that's unusual or expressive (as in the films of Dreyer or Bresson). It's a a kind of desperate, reaching emptiness: like a singer straining for a few notes he can't quite hit.
Cox's original idea was based on his own boyhood expereince, the shock he experienced during a period when his mother went temporarily blind. When Huppert expressed an interest in working with him, he wrote this screenplay very rapidly--with actor Norman Kaye and Bob Ellis--and then rewrote it again shortly before shooting. It shows. The haste doesn't seem to have released his unconscious, but, instead, dredged up parts of a lot of old movies about lovers and blindness.
In "Cactus" (Times-rated: Mature), Cox largely avoids two of his greatest assets, his biting sarcasm and his flair for emotional violence. In both "Man of Flowers" and "My First Wife," the surreal humor and savagery kept colliding against more tender, vulnerable feelings. The contrast made them more precious. Here, there is no contrast. Cox is like the acid-tongued wit who's decided to say only uplifting things and winds up sounding like Kahlil Gibran. Even the actors are affected. Sometimes, they seem to be straining so hard for the deep or inexpressible, that the amateurs walk off with the scenes. The film's best performance is not by the usually superb Isabelle Huppert, the sensitive Norman Kaye or newcomer Menzies--but by Lionel Kowal, an amateur, impersonating his real-life profession of eye specialist.
Yet Cox and his cast--and cinematographer Yuri Sokol-- still deserve high praise for a brave, sometimes lovely try. If they've strained for a beauty and truth that's eluded them--like that eerie faraway cry of the whip bird, which dominates all the film's forest backgrounds--we should applaud their effort anyway. Without tries like this, the movie world might begin to seem more barren than a desert: a sandy waste without a cactus in sight.