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MOVIES : Consider the Record Set Straight : Australian director Gillian Armstrong works on her own terms: 'To set the record straight, yes, I consider myself a feminist person, but I consider myself an artist . . . women will never have true freedom as artists until people stop talking about the gender issues in their works.'

March 21, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Director Gillian Armstrong's "The Last Days of Chez Nous" is an oddly unsettling movie for one simple reason: It is a brutally unromanticized love story. All the players in this ill-fated triangle of intimacy are shown with warts-and-all honesty. Though Armstrong is known, much to her dismay, as a feminist director, the women characters in "Chez Nous" are as flawed and fatally human as the men. In fact, all the characters in the film seem to live in a state of bewilderment.

On the surface, "Chez Nous," which stars Lisa Harrow, Kerry Fox and Bruno Ganz, chronicles the dissolution of a marriage. On a deeper level, however, it's an exploration of the aftermath of feminism. The women in "Chez Nous" are discovering that the rejection of obsolete and constricting female roles comes with an emotional price tag, while the men are struggling to reconcile traditional ideas about masculinity with the newly empowered woman.

"This is a film about how the rules have changed and how we're still trying to work things out in the '90s," says Armstrong, whose debut film of 1979, "My Brilliant Career," garnered international critical acclaim. "Chez Nous" premiered last February at the Berlin Film Festival and is currently playing at Laemmle's Sunset 5 and Monica.

"It's now not uncommon for there to be marriages where the woman is more successful and has more money, " Armstrong says. "The feminist movement was very strong in Australia and brought about a lot of change, and many men are lost as to how to deal with the new modern relationships."

So, despite her protestation to the contrary, "Chez Nous" is in a sense a feminist film. About that, Armstrong sighs and says, "This issue always comes up in things that are written about me, and as you can tell, I'm getting a bit sick of it. To set the record straight, yes, I consider myself a feminist person, but I consider myself an artist as a filmmaker, and like all male directors, I'm a selfish, egotistical artist in my work. Women will never have true freedom as artists until people stop talking about the gender issues in their work, and it's real ghettoized thinking to assume that any woman who makes films about women is a feminist."

Armstrong, 41, is briefly in Los Angeles before returning home to Sydney, Australia, where she lives with her companion of 20 years and their two daughters, ages 4 and 7. Stylishly dressed in tailored clothing, her straight blond hair pulled back in a headband, she looks every inch the modern young career woman. You wouldn't guess to look at her that Armstrong is a staunchly independent artist of quirky tastes, who thumbed her nose at Hollywood when it came calling after the success of her first film. "I have no interest in making films just to make money," says the director, who made "Chez Nous" for $2.5 million. "And that makes it easier for me to wait for the ones I really want to do."

Armstrong decided to make "Chez Nous," which was shot in eight weeks on location in Sydney in the summer of 1991, because of the script by Helen Garner. "It's a beautifully crafted script and I couldn't bear the thought of anyone else directing it," she says.

The script was also what attracted New Zealand-born actress Kerry Fox, whose critically acclaimed performance in the Jane Campion film "Angel at My Table" established her as a gifted young actress. "It was an unusually humane piece of writing and was filled with characters I'd never seen in a film before," Fox says. "My character in particular was a very true-to-life portrayal of a type of person I've often encountered--young people who desire to be something and do something but don't really know what direction to go in. The challenge for me in playing this character was to make her extreme behavior understandable and to make her blameless in her own way."

London-based actress Lisa Harrow also loved the script, but it was the chance to work with Armstrong that brought her on board. "I've always loved Gillian's work because she gets really interesting performances out of actors, and now having worked with her my respect for her has only grown," says Harrow, who was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1969-71 and has since appeared in several BBC productions. "She casts with meticulous care--in a sense, half her work as a director is done at that stage--then on the set she illuminates the text with utter sureness and delicacy."

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