SIFF 2010: Emerging from Down Under: Ana Kokkinos

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, June 2, 2010]

Among the trio of directors crowned as Emerging Masters by the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival, Australian Ana Kokkinos seems a mite premature. On the evidence of the three Kokkinos films I’ve seen—Head On, Blessed and The Book of Revelation (not in SIFF but available at Scarecrow)—this onetime lawyer turned filmmaker is a long way off from joining the masterly company of fellow Aussie directors Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong.

Kokkinos’ strong suit lies in dramatizing the flesh-and-blood bonds—sustaining or smothering—that tie parents and offspring, and in finding the dynamics of emotion in dance. Drawn to the power of color to code emotional states, she likes to saturate key scenes in hot shades of gold, red and blue. Notably, her command of storytelling falters; narratives feel overlong and aimless, adrift in Melbourne’s mean streets, as though the lady at the helm doesn’t quite know where she’s going or how to stop.

In Head On, her 1998 feature debut, homosexuality works as a metaphor for the unbreachable divide between old-fashioned Greek-Australian immigrants and their feckless kids. Pointlessly interspersing black-and-white archival footage of the older generation’s battles for assimilation, Kokkinos follows Ari, a handsome, halfway closeted 19-year-old, through a long dark night of the soul fueled by sex, drugs, dancing. We watch Ari ping-pong gracelessly between straight and gay worlds, flirting with rough trade, an old girlfriend as lost as he is, a handsome Aussie offering something besides another degrading hook-up.

Kokkinos uses dance as a measure of familial/tribal/gender order or dysfunction. In one strong scene Ari, his mother and sister boogie to a pop song till super-macho dad barges in to put on old-style Greek music. As the women watch, father entices reluctant son into a paso doble, their arms intertwined, one leaping, the other kneeling. For a moment, the men share the same homoerotic rhythm and choreography, but anger soon disrupts their fragile rapport.
That intimacy takes a twist later, when Ari’s flamboyantly cross-dressing friend Toula invades a Greek dance club. Mocking laughter fades as s/he moves seductively to tinkling Greek music. Flaunting a transgressive allure, Toula sabotages her audience’s narrow notions of sex and gender.

Head On depends on our willingness to hang out with Ari as he “trips” from bar to back alley to police station. But a vapid pout is the only expression Australian soap opera heartthrob Alex Dimitriades can muster to convey his character’s pain and confusion. And it’s hard to really care what happens to a slacker with zero self-awareness or empathy — not that Kokkinos gifts anyone in his circle with much in the way of nuanced personality.

It’s modern dance, and the erotic possibilities of a beautiful male body in motion, that’s at the center of Kokkinos’ ambitious Book of Revelation (2006). Three masked women kidnap a dancer, keeping him in chains while they rape and humiliate him—until at the climax of his captivity they demand their shattered boytoy perform for their pleasure. (Anna Torv, currently a strong presence on TV’s Fringe, may or may not be one of the perpetrators.)

Clearly, Kokkinos means to explore how such helplessness and loss of control—an unsettling reversal of what we’re used to seeing in innumerable woman-as-victim movies—affect the masculine psyche. The idea’s provocative, but its execution simply goes flat. Post trauma, Daniel’s journey into madness or self-knowledge is neither convincing nor compelling. That’s partly the fault of another inexpressive, pretty-boy lead (Tom Long), partly Kokkinos’ inability to keep a story on track.

Although Blessed (2009), the director’s latest, suffers from some of the same narrative drift, it’s a major step forward. Its two sections, “The Children” and “The Mothers,” show events first from the POV of a tribe of troubled street kids, then through the eyes of their screwed-up and/or misguided moms.

The impact of these stories grows out of moving performances from the whole cast, but especially from Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park) as Rhonda, a raddled roundheels juggling her latest live-in boyfriend, a sympathetic social-services rep and her fourth pregnancy. Without the slightest jot of irony, this lost soul insists her children (one in foster care, the other two runaways) are “a blessing.”

But Blessed is far more than a psycho-social blame game. These characters may be blinded by self-interest, but hunger for some kind of sustaining connection drives them into one trap after another. When handsome young Roo signs on for an interview to become a model, he soon finds himself huddled in a barren room, browbeaten into masturbating for a porn film. Kokkinos hems the weeping, humiliated boy with high, ugly walls painted Madonna-blue, improbably embellished with disembodied, fluffy-white wings—suggesting failed, perverse sanctuary.

Sanctuary’s mostly a mixed and transient blessing for these kids, and their mothers, too. Most poignantly, Rhonda’s two waifs take refuge in a bin for cast-off clothes, burning a candle and sharing stories to keep each warm. To her older brother’s horror, the little girl discloses her longtime abuse by mom’s boyfriends, without dramatic affect, as though such things happened to everyone. Bathed in golden light, hiding in their “castle,” they resemble children in a fairy tale, dangerously bewitched by dreams of their mother dancing like a queen.

Blessed opens on the sleeping faces of its children, so innocent and full of promise, their flesh as sweet and untouched as that of infants. It ends with a woman dancing, a primal tribute to the umbilical connection between mother and child, one flesh no matter what estrangements may come. Out of tragedy and loss, Ana Kokkinos delivers authentic benediction, mother-child reunions of the cinematic kind.