Because its concerns are emotional, because its subject is the often devastating texture of ordinary life, the thoughtful and finely drawn "The Last Days of Chez Nous" (at the Sunset 5 and the NuWilshire) takes a bit of getting used to. For films usually do not care to be this honest about the nature of relationships, do not want to risk being truthful about what people do to each other and, most especially, to those they nominally love.
To audiences who remember "My Brilliant Career" and "High Tide," it will not be a surprise that "Chez Nous," nominated for 11 Australian Film Institute Awards, was directed by Gillian Armstrong. Though her Hollywood output has been erratic, on her home territory Armstrong has shown a gift for realistically exploring the core of people's lives without over-dramatizing what she finds there.
What drew Armstrong back to Australia was novelist Helen Garner's exceptional original screenplay dealing with what looks to be a mildly eccentric family living in bohemian ease in contemporary Sydney. But though it starts out like a celebration, "Chez Nous" turns inevitably into an examination of the way people grow apart, of how, through nobody's fault, missed connections and levels of resentment turn loving relationships suddenly angry and sour.
The life force of this particular family is Beth (Lisa Harrow), a successful novelist who, on the surface at least, is the picture of assurance and self-reliance. Though both her French husband J. P. (Bruno Ganz) and her teen-age daughter Annie (Miranda Otto) may grumble at her bossiness, they also take the competence and compulsiveness that keep the family together very much for granted.
Disturbing this psychological balance is the arrival of Vicki ("An Angel at My Table's" Kerry Fox), Beth's complex younger sister who simultaneously idolizes Beth and is resentful of her success. Irresponsible and self-dramatizing, an energetic free spirit who doesn't function well in the real world, Vicki's presence exposes the fissures in life as it has been lived and makes it increasingly difficult for things to go on as before.
But to describe "Chez Nous" (Times-rated Mature) only from Vicki's point of view is to shortchange it, because the film's strength is the way it non-judgmentally examines this family from any number of perspectives. J. P., for instance, more and more feels overwhelmed and left out by Beth's forcefulness, resenting mightily the very qualities that probably attracted him to her in the first place.
And Beth herself, while juggling all of this, is increasingly concerned with her prickly relationship with her cantankerous father (Bill Hunter, currently in "Strictly Ballroom"). Indulging in what J. P. scornfully calls her "mania for resolution," she decides to abandon her family and take a three-week drive with her father into the outback, a decision that has repercussions that no one anticipates but that are foreshadowed by what has gone before.
Garner's polished script believes in the power and relevance of small domestic moments, and director Armstrong makes sure the texture of scenes such as J. P. exploding because someone has eaten his prize cheese before its time is strong and accurate. The hostility and anger endemic to loving relationships, the difficulty of emotional communication, the stubbornness of people even when it's self-destructive--this film manages to capture it all.
"Chez Nous" is well-served by its cast, all of whom, especially Lisa Harrow as Beth, respond with grateful delicacy to a film that offers no resolutions or solutions, only a portrait of fallible people trying to get along as best they can. In its intimacy and agonizing honesty, this quiet film's greatest accomplishment may be the way it gives the cliched field of family drama back its good name.
'The Last Days of Chez Nous'
Lisa Harrow: Beth
Bruno Ganz: J. P.
Kerry Fox: Vicki
Miranda Otto: Annie
Kiri Paramore: Tim
Bill Hunter: Beth's father
Released by Fine Line Features. Director Gillian Armstrong. Producer Jan Chapman. Screenplay Helen Garner. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson. Editor Nicholas Beauman. Costumes Janet Patterson. Music Paul Grabowsky. Production design Janet Patterson. Art director Catherine Slim. Set decorator Kerrie Brown. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.