Not, as the title suggests, a documentary, "Topless Women Talk About Their Lives" is a sprawling relationship pic in which an invigorating central performance from Danielle Cormack is somewhat undermined by a multitude of characters and an overly noisy soundtrack. More could have been made from initially promising material, and pic's commercial prospects will probably be tough going outside its home territory, although it is likely to find favor with femme audiences. After an amusing prologue, in which a German tourist approaches a couple of women on a surf beach to ask if this is where "The Piano" was filmed, the story begins when Liz (Cormack) awakens in bed beside her lover, Geoff (Andrew Binns), and realizes she's late for an appointment to have an abortion. A week late, as it turns out, and now she's missed her chance --- she's too far gone for her doctor to agree to the operation.

Not, as the title suggests, a documentary, “Topless Women Talk About Their Lives” is a sprawling relationship pic in which an invigorating central performance from Danielle Cormack is somewhat undermined by a multitude of characters and an overly noisy soundtrack. More could have been made from initially promising material, and pic’s commercial prospects will probably be tough going outside its home territory, although it is likely to find favor with femme audiences.

After an amusing prologue, in which a German tourist approaches a couple of women on a surf beach to ask if this is where “The Piano” was filmed, the story begins when Liz (Cormack) awakens in bed beside her lover, Geoff (Andrew Binns), and realizes she’s late for an appointment to have an abortion. A week late, as it turns out, and now she’s missed her chance — she’s too far gone for her doctor to agree to the operation.

Resigned to becoming a mother, Liz isn’t surprised when Geoff, whom she’s known for only a short while, reacts strongly against the situation. The child’s father, Neil (Joel Tobeck), is equally unenthused. Before long, Liz is fired from her office job, but she’s able to make ends meet when she obtains money from the father of yet another ex-lover.

In the weeks that follow, Liz finds herself torn between various possible partners. Neil accompanies her to the Pacific island where her best friend, Prue (Willa O’Neill), marries Mike (Shimpal Lelisi), and during the visit he proposes to her. She seems to prefer Geoff, however, but he’s occupied with the return of his girlfriend, Bryony (Josephine Davison), from abroad.

Writer-director Harry Sinclair has gathered a charismatic group of actors who give engaging, naturalistic performances. That Cormack was pregnant during the filming greatly adds to the realism, and the radiant young woman casts a glow over the proceedings.

Less well integrated is the rather extraneous character of Anthony, nicknamed Ant; actor Ian Hughes looms as a bright, amusing personality, and for a while Ant is good company, but in the end he proves irritating. It’s Ant who provides the film’s title: He has written a documentary script, which is filmed by a German director, in which a group of topless women do, indeed, talk about their lives.

Scene of the gala premiere of this unlikely project, which unspools in German with English subtitles, isn’t nearly as amusing as it should be, and the humiliated Ant’s subsequent actions, which include savage and seemingly unmotivated violence, drag the film down. The fate of Neil in the film’s final stages also seems unnecessarily harsh.

In the end, “Topless Women” is top-heavy with characters; some streamlining and expansion of the more interesting members of Liz’s circle would have been of benefit. The almost nonstop music, which often threatens to drown out the strongly Kiwi-accented dialogue, is a questionable asset. Other technical credits are serviceable.

Topless Women Talk About Their Lives

NEW ZEALAND

Production

A John Swimmer production in association with the New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand On Air. (International sales: New Zealand Film Commission, Wellington.) Produced by Fiona Copland, Harry Sinclair. Directed, written by Harry Sinclair.

Crew

Camera (Atlab color), Dale McCready; editor, Cushla Dillon; music, Flying Nun; sound, Chris Burt. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 12, 1997. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Liz ..... Danielle Cormack Neil ..... Joel Tobeck Ant ..... Ian Hughes Prue ..... Willa O'Neill Mike ..... Shimpal Lelisi Geoff ..... Andrew Binns Ant's Mum ..... Frances Edmond Bryony ..... Josephine Davison

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