Review: Man of Flowers

[Originally published in The Weekly, November 21, 1984]

Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers begins with a painting and a striptease. In the case of the former (which appears behind the opening credits), the camera eye is at first focused in tight, on the refined profile of a Renaissance nobleman and, to his left, a pale forest of organ pipes. An actual forest is visible in the distance—to be precise, part of a meticulously landscaped park of which the gentleman seems to be taking survey from a balcony. Still inventorying the details of the painting—patterns of shrubs and trees, the statue of a satyr—the camera drifts rightward and then starts to withdraw slowly, so that we begin to perceive the composition entire. The last element we become aware of is a naked woman, alabaster and robust, a curving landscape unto herself and the real focus of the man’s transfixed (we now recognize) gaze.

The striptease which almost immediately follows recapitulates, but also revises, the dynamics of this aesthetic movement. This time we open on a closeup of a woman, a saucy working-class gamine (Alyson Best) who proceeds to remove article after article of her clothing, to the “Love Duet” from Lucia di Lammermoor, for the delectation of a well-to-do client. The camera pulls back slowly so that eventually we are watching from somewhere behind this seated gentleman’s left shoulder. As with the painting, the shot contains a great deal more information. The setting for the striptease, a room in the man’s house, is as meticulously and symbolically composed as the environment of the painting. In fact, the young woman stands in front of another painting, modern, abstract, a complex of curved and thrusting shapes evocative of human genitalia, male and female at once. The space surrounding her is replete with statuary, objets d’art—and vegetation. Whereas the painting behind the main title is by definition frozen in time, a snapshot of erotic potentiality, Cox’s “action painting” of another erotic moment not only suggests the Renaissance painting become movie, but also indexes the particular sensibility of Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye), the watcher/artist seated at right who has willed the moment into being.

Like the Norman Kaye character in Cox’s earlier Lonely Hearts, Charles Bremer is a lonely middleaged man with some quirks. Recently left a considerable fortune by his late mother, he has the freedom to indulge tastes which had heretofore seemed impossible to fulfill. Those Wednesday-afternoon stripteases, for instance, are followed not by any fleshly consummation, but rather by scurrying across the road to a nearby church where he coaxes passionate chords from the organ. He attends figure-study classes where, to the despair of the dogmatic instructress, he insists on superimposing nonexistent flowers over the outlines of the nude. He tends to ignore practical realities like the gas bills the postman brings, but never fails to write daily letters to departed Mother, keeping her up to date on his curious progress toward contentment.

Technically, Charles is undoubtedly quite mad. Eventually we learn that he has spent time in a sanitarium (he obtained release principally because he was able to give the doctor “a big check—he said I was a good man and could see him anytime”). As a child, he was considered retarded because his direct responsiveness to the world of sensations led him to lay a hand on his aunt’s lush cleavage, and to follow her around the parlor with his nose pressed to her aromatic back. Yet his madness is as felicitous as it is benign. Charles collects and cherishes singular, beautiful things—artworks, people, memories, most especially flowers—in which he discovers still more beauty by combining them into a new aesthetic whole. He is an artist of the beautiful who composes within the frame of reality.

***

Let there be no assuming here that Paul Cox has added to the sappy/happy tradition of sainted-fool movies (e.g. most egregiously, King of Hearts), in which filmmaker and audience revel endlessly in the facile conviction that lunacy is wisdom and rationality a destructive dead end. As both man and artist-figure, Charles Bremer strives hard and conscientiously after whatever consolation and understanding he achieves. Rather than simply stringing together a series of bittersweet comic encounters between this quixotic pilgrim and an often out-of-joint world, Cox has devised a narrative which in its very form embodies Charles’s talent for seeing, and making existential and artistic sense of what he sees.

Norman Kaye and Alyson Best

Consider the flashes of childhood memory—pale flickering, home-movie–like scenes—periodically cut into the present-tense narrative. Young Charles and his parents walking in a park; a formative early linking of affection, aestheticized beauty, and a flower; enigmatic glimpses of familial disruption—these roil with primal yet seemingly accidental images. The deliberate technical “imperfection” of the photography, the blunt, ragged, handheld camerawork, enhance the suggestiveness with which, say, enormous red lips in closeup become a billboard image of terror and desire, a fleshy flower with teeth. (“Herzogian,” the viewer may register, recalling comparable home-movie passages in The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser—and then one realizes that Werner Herzog himself has been cast as the Teutonic razor-cropped father!) These interludes probe the roots of Charles’s neuroses, but without the insistent neatness of clinical diagnosis. They are simply the most direct and elemental representations of experience as apprehended and interpreted by two artists at different planes of aesthetic remove—present-tense character Charles Bremer remembering and stylizing his own past, and writer-director Paul Cox subsuming Bremer’s own perceptions within yet another frame.

Kostas (1979) and Lonely Hearts (1982), the other Cox films we’ve had a chance to see, evocatively explore sensuality and loneliness as primary themes of the human condition. All along Cox has displayed a talent for drawing sympathetic characters so richly imagined that their efforts to make contact provoke reciprocal commitment from the audience. Man of Flowers likewise boasts vividly idiosyncratic individuals who invariably come off as knowable people, not just collections of usefully entertaining shticks (the Wednesday-afternoon stripper, for example, has a well-developed life and history apart from Charles’s patronage). But the film also marks a quantum leap on Cox’s part in terms of formal and conceptual ambitiousness, and visual mastery as well. Kostas and Lonely Hearts seemed the work of a good writer and sympathetic director; Man of Flowers is the work of a complex writer whose direction fully realizes his literary ideas. Paul Cox is currently being hailed as the most worldly auteur to emerge from the New Australian Cinema, one who, unlike such willfully esoteric filmmakers as Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi with their quasi-aboriginal mystiques, locates the marvelous in the mundane. If you haven’t made his acquaintance already, this is a good time.

Copyright © 1984 by Richard T. Jameson


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