Alena Lodkina on ‘Petrol,’ Shooting Melbourne, Taking Audiences Down a Rabbit Hole


Alena Lodkina’s first feature, “Strange Colours” (2017) took her deep into the Australian outback, to the rough-as-guts opal-mining town of Lightning Ridge, before bringing her to the Venice Film Festival, where the film premiered. It augured a distinctive new mood in Australian cinema – understated but keenly observed; a little sinister – as represented in recent editions of Rotterdam (David Easteal’s “The Plains”; James Vaughan’s “Friends & Strangers”) and Cannes (Thom Wright’s “The Stranger”).

Her second feature, produced by Kate Laurie at Arenamedia and funded by Screen Australia, VicScreen, the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund, SBS, and Orange Entertainment, takes its bow at the 75th Locarno Film Festival.

In the evasively-titled “Petrol,” the Russian-born filmmaker turns her gaze towards the city she calls home: the film ascribes a certain kind of decadent mystique to Melbourne, where Lodkina has lived for the last 10 years. “You don’t see cities portrayed in Australia that much,” the writer-director observes, “I think because people are drawn to the outback – as I was. But after ‘Strange Colours,’ it was an exciting prospect to film something in the place where I live.”

“Petrol’s” Melbourne is as seen through the eyes of Eva (Nathalie Morris), a film student who yearns for the kinds of life experience that will ground and shape her artistic sensibility. She finds a sort of guide, a muse, in the enigmatic multi-disciplinary artist Mia (Hannah Lynch), who invites the thoroughly enchanted Eva into her bohemian circle. Mia’s affections prove changeable, however, and she’s revealed to have inner demons that seem to be coming for Eva, too. Between the dropped locket that brings the two women together and the film’s deliberate confusion of identities, Jacques Rivette’s existential 1974 romp “Celine and Julie Go Boating” presents itself as a key touchstone.

So too Lewis Carroll’s archetypal tale of a girl who gets in over her head (from which “Celine and Julie” also takes cues): in “Petrol,” Eva’s curiosity leads her and the viewer alike “down the rabbit hole,” says Lodkina, and into a Melbourne touched with the uncanny. A computer glitch reveals a spectral silhouette, doors swing open and shut as if according to supernatural whim, and insights into the future are derived from the sodden dregs of tea leaves.

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“I wanted it to be part of the atmosphere of the film that everything is a little bit curious, even really banal things,” explains Lodkina. “I was quite inspired by Gothic ghost stories” – she mentions Edgar Allen Poe and Henry James, but also Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan – “where everything could possibly be a sign of something, and Eva gets seduced by that.”

But the film’s magical elements are not only foreboding in nature. Some are playful, too: a beach picnic or a glamorous outfit change can be conjured with just the wink of an eye. Lodkina describes it as a bit of “old cinema trickery” of the sort used in Soviet-era fairytale films. In particular, she makes direct reference to Nadezhda Kosheverova’s “Cinderella,” (1947). “It’s my mother’s favorite film. It’s a really fascinating work, and a really popular film for Soviet people.” Without CGI, magic had to be achieved through strictly practical means. “That kind of magic has real charm I think,” she says warmly.

Elements of Lodkina’s own biography feature in “Petrol” even more prominently than in “Strange Colours”: in addition to the Melbourne backdrop and the film school material, there’s Eva’s close relationship with her mother (Inga Romantsova), which is modeled on the filmmaker’s own. She is clear, however, that these parallels are not reflective of a desire “to ‘tell my story.’” Her interest is rather in crafting “a personal cinema”: “The way the film was written was diaristic and collage-like – just putting together lots of notes from life, but also dreams and stories friends have told me. When I came to write the script, I sort of shuffled it all together. It’s a mix of both real and imagined things.”

The result is something that has a texture of authenticity even as it veers deeper into the realm of dream-logic. “The film is an attempt to kind of exist in that space between subjective and objective, you and the world,” Lodkina says, almost echoing words spoken by her protagonist. “You find something in between.”

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Alena Lodkina Credit Audrey Lam