Friday, November 24, 2017


Teenage boy Fin spends his days deep in nature, stealing to the forest surrounding his town, collecting butterflies and imagining himself being lifted to the clean rustic light by hordes of them. He also daydreams lying with his inert mother on a picnic blanket as pixelated leaves cover their bodies. Today his departed mother would have been a year older and Fin creates a shrine of candles and pictures at an altar carved from a tree. Back home, his father Al beds one of his students.

One day Fin stops on his ride home from school at the sight of a display case left for the taking outside a house. He makes a mental note to come back for it but is cut short when he looks up at the window of the house to see a beautiful woman swathed in a stylised butterfly costume. We've already seen her in the opening credits, an ageless Melissa George gliding through a burlesque routine in slow motion. Now she's here. Fin tears himself away and rides home. Cut to the upstairs room. The woman is performing for a camera. Reverse shot; it's an autoshutter. This is not the glamour of a photo shoot. It's a lone woman in a costume taking selfies.

The next day, having discovered that Al and Fin maintain an arm's-length worth of ice between them, we see Al stop at the same house and note the display case. Al's thinking of his son but is surprised by our butterfly dancer Evelyn. A lightly flirtatious conversation later, she helps him put the case in the boot of his car and they make a platonic-sounding date for cake the next morning (she has already refused his impulsive invitation for a ride in his convertible). So, guess who else is in love.

Fin meets her face to face, is shown a flame red rare blossom which resembles an idealised vulva which he is told to get close to (Evelyn had traded burlesque for a florist business). She empowers him with a film camera (as opposed to a digital one) and he delightedly uses it on her. He also swipes a few cartridges which he correctly guesses are from her topless self portraiture before. Al, struggles to wrest himself from his dodgy affair (his student racks him in class with an embarrassingly candid poem about "fifty plus lust"). He realises his mistake with the affair but has not counted on his student's ardour. He takes up the offer of a morning tea date. Fin goes to Evelyn's as well. Evelyn's violent ex pays a visit. Things are getting mixy.

Ok, that's far more plot than I'd usually put in a review but there's a reason for that. What have you imagined from those details? A quirky love triangle with a father and son rivalry? A poignant comedy about growing up? A fable about grief and healing? Well, it's all and less. This frequently sumptuous film piles its buffet plate so high that the lime jelly with cream is being crushed by a square of lasagna, itself flattened by some cucumber salad.

The nature boy thread works as long as Fin remains naive but his worldliness appears as smoothly as a lounge singer during a sequence which only barely makes it into fantasy territory. Also, we don't see him at school. Fine, he's solitary and in tune with the trees but a little, just a little of how he handles the difference between the severe judgement of fellow teenagers might give us more to support him with. The one exception is the girl at the chemist. She provides some real adolescent warmth which he is blind to (as he believes he's in with a chance with Evelyn).

Al is either aware of the dodginess of his affair or just wants to escape the threat of peer judgement. He is given scenes that might have lent him some explanatory pain but instead have him rejecting the student clumsily. If you don't find yourself wanting her to slap him senseless and storm off screen for a real life then you shouldn't be going to movies. This renders him into a precious moper that not even his soft edged son becomes. At a twisted point in the plot Fin performs a punishing act against his father which is given an energetic treatment and funny music but is followed up by a disproportionately grave retaliation (I wondered, as I watched, if what happened wasn't in some way cleverly staged and would earn a disclaimer in the credits). So, is it a comedy, a dark coming of age or ... or what?

We're left with Evelyn herself, a  role given the best performance of the film by a seasoned actor clearly enjoying a decent role in a local film. It is a treat to hear her flint-glass voice shaped by its native accent (kudos here, also, to some confident dialogue which sounds genuinely Australian with nary a cliche in a line). Her fall from the glamour of the stage to a point below her new life in a house blooming with life and colour is told with real emotive power. Yet we are being asked to care about a pair of increasingly narcissistic monsters more.

The reason that Harold and Maude works on everyone and Wes Andersons shallow copies of it don't is because Ashby put into his masterpiece a pedal note of mortality audible beneath the heartiest of the laughter. We never get too much of Maude's hippy pontification because we suspect she has escaped from darkness. Her refulgent affirmation of life collides with the decades younger man's churlish ennui and, always, under every line or move, the big black grind of death and concentration camps. Nothing is too sudden. If grief there be it shall be without needing to beg our indlugence.

The Butterfly Tree is more like Wes Anderson in that it doesn't commit to its own themes until it has to. We don't quite know why we are expected to offer Al any empathy. Fin seems to get treasures without working for them. In the midst of this is a woman who struggles against her own narrative's capsule to give us something to care about and when she confronts her worst we are swept away to the thing we should have been far more curious about from the first scenes. It's poignant but it's sudden. It's grave but it's not surprising. It has precedent but it feels like it's come from out of nowhere. The revelation is well staged but we know we won't be caring as much as we should about it when the next scene starts. And we don't. After a feature length running time we watch the construction of the harmonious end the way we might watch an origami master fold a sheet of A4 into a swan.

This is a shame as The Butterfly Tree is one of the most gloriously beautiful new films I've seen for a long time. But the most glowing magical realism must be balanced by mortality. Mortality is at the centre of these themes. The task of meeting grief on the field and surmounting its challenge is a universal one. Could we have seen, instead, the colour and the gleam in service of the colourless dark? Maybe next time.

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