Aussie helmer Alex Frayne debuts notably with "Modern Love," a starkly filmed gothic psychodrama about a family man afflicted by radical personality change in a weird coastal town. Already screened at several fests last year, pic deserves a shot in Oz arthouses prior to cult status on DVD.

Aussie helmer Alex Frayne debuts notably with “Modern Love,” a starkly filmed gothic psychodrama about a family man afflicted by radical personality change in a weird coastal town. Though occasionally too caught up with bold visuals and a complex audioscape, this mood piece has a suspenseful storyline and enough fleshed-out characters to maintain interest. Already screened at several fests last year, pic has so far notched sales to Germany, Italy and France, and deserves a shot in Oz arthouses prior to cult status on DVD.

Film looks and feels like almost nothing else in the Australian genre catalog. Establishing a disquieting atmosphere via imagery drained of all but the boldest of colors, prologue finds an old man fatally felled by gunfire while he’s hunting ducks. Deftly edited sequence raises the question of whether it’s suicide or murder.

Action switches to the suburban house of John (Mark Constable), a middle-aged businessman who’s the dead man’s nephew. Told his uncle Tom has committed suicide and he’s to inherit the farm, John packs up distant wife Emily (Victoria Hill) and shy son Edward (William Traegar) for what’s supposed to be a quick visit to tie up loose ends.

The spooky, time-warped seaside town where John was raised by his uncle is the kind of place you can check out of but never really leave. Among the local oddballs who remember Tom as little more than a sad old hermit is John’s disturbed brother, Daniel (Craig Behenna), whom John left behind when he ran away years ago.

Beneath gloomy skies and in dank interiors, lenser-writer Nick Matthews raises the specter of a family curse as John banishes his family to a drab motel and hunkers down in the farmhouse, where he begins to assume the dead man’s personality. Final straw for fed-up Emily is John’s casual admission that voices on the radio are telling him uncle Tom met with foul play and it’s best to stay and sort things out.

Frayne’s firm tonal control and the understated perf of Constable give the main character a surface normality while dislocated voices in his head provide the true picture. Sometimes overdone soundscape has the desired effect of making things uncomfortable for auds and advancing the plot’s murder-mystery elements.

Making good use of locations along the South Australian coast, pic is enhanced by a subtle, piano-based score and production design littered with remnants of long-gone better days. Screening caught was digital Betacam projection. A 35mm print from the Super-16 original, with presumably more definition in some too-dark scenes, is in the works.

Modern Love

Australia

Production

A Sputnik Films production. (International sales: Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich). Produced by Alex Frayne. Executive producers, Maureen Ritchie, Catherine Powell, Pamela Forrest. Directed, edited by Alex Frayne. Screenplay, Nick Matthews.

Crew

Camera (Cinevex color/B&W, Super-16mm), Matthews; music, Tom Heuzenroeder; production designer, Robert Webb; sound, Heuzenroeder. Reviewed at Adelaide Film Festival, Feb. 25, 2007. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Mark Constable, Victoria Hill, William Traegar, Craig Behenna, Don Barker, Barbara West, Kym McKenzie.
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