Though he has not yet attracted the international attention he deserves, Aussie auteur Rolf de Heer has established himself as an uncompromising filmmaker who, with pics like “Bad Boy Bubby” (1993) and “The Quiet Room” (1996), has boldly explored themes rarely tackled in contemporary cinema. His latest, an unflinching drama that takes the viewer into the painful world of a young woman confined to a wheelchair and unable to talk, will be an exceedingly hard commercial sell, both at home and abroad, but de Heer’s compassion and the amazing performance of his leading actress, Heather Rose, will certainly cause debate and receive admiration wherever the film is screened.
An opening credit describes “Dance Me to My Song” as “a film by Heather Rose”; de Heer thus hands the possessive credit to his courageous collaborator and, in the process, emphasizes that what follows is to be seen from Rose’s perspective.
Rose, who was born with severe cerebral palsy, is a lovely, intelligent personality trapped in a twisted, stunted body. She can’t speak, but communicates via a computer screen and attached voice box; nor can she walk, or dress, or feed herself. She appeared in a small role in “Bad Boy Bubby” five years ago, and became fascinated with the filmmaking process. Working with part-time writer Frederick Stahl, she came up with the scenario of “Dance Me to My Song,” with the leading role written for herself, and brought it to de Heer.
Co-author plays Julia, who, like Rose, lives independently but relies on caretakers, supplied by the health department, to help her survive. The caretaker’s role is vital to the patient’s very survival; Julia is unable to do anything without assistance.
Julia’s current caretaker, Madelaine (Joey Kennedy), is hopelessly ill-equipped for her task. Selfish and short-tempered, she performs her work in a grudging, perfunctory manner, and often loses her temper with her helpless patient. When this happens, the hapless Julia may find herself abandoned, sometimes left sitting on the toilet, sometimes left in her wheelchair with the wheels locked.
Madelaine’s world centers on sex; she longs to find the right man, but seems to attract the scrungiest guys around. Sometimes she brings her latest man to Julia’s house and allows the woman she refers to derisively as a “spastic” to watch.
Julia’s tragically constrained life begins to change when she meets Eddie (John Brumpton), an amiable fellow whom she bumps into with her wheelchair. Eddie appears to take pity on the cheerful and determined Julia, and starts spending time with her. But Julia wants more than companionship; she wants love and she wants sex.
If the film has a flaw, it’s in the rather shallow character of Eddie, who’s seen entirely from the perspective of Julia. We’re never told who is he, what he does or how he feels about Julia, but must take everything at face value.
But this is a relatively minor problem because Julia (and, to an extent, the jealous Madelaine) sees Eddie as an ideal man — handsome, kind, loving and in complete contrast to the type of guy Madelaine normally attracts. It’s Madelaine’s jealousy that sparks the film’s dramatic climax.
The film is structured around the presence of Rose. Although she’s portraying a character, in many ways this is clearly a self-portrait, and an immensely brave one at that. Rose and de Heer never flinch from depicting the most intimate aspects of Julia’s limited life, and she communicates almost as much with her eyes as she does via the machinery she uses.
“Dance Me to My Song” has been given an upbeat and quite joyous ending, but it still may prove too direct and disturbing for some people.
Joey Kennedy is excellent as the vain, spiteful Madelaine, whose life is, in some ways, even more miserable than Julia’s. Rena Owen makes an impression as Julia’s sympathetic lesbian sister, who has problems of her own and feels unable to devote more time to her demanding sibling.
Production values are modest but just right for this small-scale production.