Roeg Retrospective

On November 23rd this year, Nicolas Roeg, one of the most interesting film directors of the 1970s, passed away. Roeg created some of the most unsettling, magnetic output to ever appear in cinemas. Varying across genres, some of his more notable films all share elements of humans being thrown into situations they are deeply uncomfortable with, and how they process them. His understanding of the depths of human emotion paired with his innovative filming style were at their most astounding when the subjects he tackled were controversial. With the Sydney and Melbourne Lift-Off film festivals just finishing, and the London Lift-Off Film Festival coming up this month, it seems all the more relevant to revisit two of his most memorable films as a way of celebrating Roeg’s legacy for both Australian and British film, as we discover new and exciting cinema by passionate artists that continue to add to what Roger Ebert referred to as “the empathy machine”.

His solo-directorial debut was Australian-based film “Walkabout”, released in 1971. Beginning with an introduction to an average urban family (or so we think), we observe the father and his two children (Jenny Agutter and his son, Luc Roeg) on a picnic in the Outback. For reasons we can only piece together with our imagination (extreme stress or boredom with his life perhaps), the father loses his sanity and starts shooting at the children, interspersed with an incoherent drivel of commands, culminating in his suicide. His daughter, already in her mid-teens, is able to filter her emotions and reaction enough to conceal what just happened from her much younger brother. Following this traumatic event, the children have no option but to “go walkabout” in an attempt to find their way home, quickly becoming exhausted and weak from lack of rest, food, and most importantly, water. This alone quickly creates a strong reality check, granted through an unlikely situation, just how fragile out balance and normality is. The children are abandoned and exposed in the outback, but eventually come into contact with an Aborigine teenager (David Gulpilil), who helps them survive in his world.

His next cinematic project also took on this sudden sort of disruption that is always liable to happen. It is from this basis that Roeg’s films draw their strength and poignancy. “Don’t’ Look Now”, released in 1973, is one of the most substantial and influential horror films to date. Another standard family is showcased; a married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) with a daughter and a son are enjoying what seems like an uneventful, quiet day at their country home in England. Before we are even able to process it, the daughter attempts to retrieve her toy fallen into the small river in their garden, and drowns. Sutherland’s performance in this scene alone is outstanding, and while we know it’s sensitive nature could be the reason, his acting skills explore much more than this. His role as a father losing a child to a terrible accident, in his own garden, results in absolute hysteria and incomprehension as of what to do. How does a couple recover from the death of their child? Their subsequent trip to Venice is an attempt to heal, and as to not spoil the rest of the film, suffice to say it does not end well. Roeg explores the psychology of grief in a thorough, brilliant manner, as the plot develops and our conception of what is real and what is not is blurred, resulting in an almost consistent state of fear throughout.

You can watch the trailer here: 

Both films begin with life-changing, traumatic experiences and follow the people left behind as they attempt to handle their situations, and yet both stories are incredibly different. Creating realistic situations that most people only ever read about, Roeg brought his viewers a little bit closer to the experience of such horrific things, and that ultimately, we are expected to heal as life, somehow, goes on.

The depth of variety in human experiences is precisely why cinema is Ebert’s  “empathy machine”, but it is not the primary reason filmmakers are drawn to making these sorts of films. If a film touches you, leaves you feeling soothed or troubled, moved or infuriated, then the chances are that the filmmakers had a story deep within themselves to tell. The independent film, short or feature-length, showcased at Lift-Off explores life from all angles, as we continue to add to the ever-growing documentation of human experiences.

Written by Eloïse Wright.

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