The films of Bill Mousoulis
by Maximilian Le Cain
This article was first published in Metro, No.135, Autumn 2003.
Lovesick (2002) is the challenging and brilliant new film from independent, Melbourne-based film-maker Bill Mousoulis, a self-financed feature that deals with l’amour fou. In it, a couple (played by Clay Ravin and Holly Marshall) leave their office jobs to give themselves over to the exploration of their inner feelings, with vague aspirations towards artistic creation; writing in her case and music in his. Their flat-bound life of just hanging about interspersed with frequent sex is interrupted by simultaneous chance encounters with two acquaintances, a writer (Stuart Black) and a musician (Marie Ng) who offer their assistance in getting the couple started in their chosen fields. When the writer visits the couple, they spontaneously murder him. The same fate befalls the musician when she drops in later. When the police (in the form of another couple played by John King and Josie Scott) turn up at the flat, the lovers hide and subsequently separate, going on the run. When they meet again, they are arrested, but appear happy to be together again.
The film opens with a brief, almost ritualistic scene in the business district of the city in which the lovers, dressed for office work, meet and divest themselves of the trappings of their former lives, trampling calculators underfoot, smashing mobile ‘phones against the pavement and stuffing briefcases into a rubbish bin. This done, they retreat to their flat. Here, Mousoulis observes their domestic languor with great patience, capturing their movements and stillness in long, frontally composed takes. The characters are never psychologically rounded out, remaining at a distance from the audience which inevitably creates a sense of mystery around their emotions. Whereas most love stories invite us to share in the lovers’ emotions, Mousoulis discreetly allows his heroes to keep the specific inner mechanics of their feelings between themselves. Dialogue is kept to an expositional minimum. This secrecy makes their love appear extremely powerful; an idealized, timeless state, rather than just another story, with no beginning and no visible limits, neither money or work nor even respect for human life.
Rather than dramatizing the psychology of their relationship, we are invited to engage with the couple’s relationship with the space around them, to draw our conclusions about them from the uncommon sense of physical intimacy created in these early scenes where the couple hang out, read, try to write, strum the guitar, play, eat, lie in bed, make love, listen to music. This intimacy is achieved through the amount of time the director lavishes on these everyday activities, building whole, frequently one-shot scenes around these small events, investing his uncluttered tableaux of domestic space with a hypnotic tranquility that becomes the vehicle for conveying the lovers’ closeness.
The only thing undercutting this tranquility is the uneasy awareness of the fragility of their escapism. One of the first acts they perform after leaving their jobs is to stick a handwritten sign on the inside of their door stating that ‘the outside world does not exist’. The extent of their rejection of any reality external to their own has its most extreme expression in the couples’ reaction to the events of September 11. When images of the Twin Tower catastrophe appear on television, they turn the set off immediately and begin kissing. As well as emphasizing their complete absorption in their own private world, Mousoulis’ bold use of this atrocity footage serves to link a potentially completely abstract existence to a reality familiar to us all—we all remember where we were when we heard about the attack and that suddenly gives the characters a place in the reality of our lives, validating their existence in the real world by linking them to what must be the most universally noticed and felt event in recent history. Their discussion and purchase of Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft album, released on 11 September, and subsequent scenes devoted to their listening to it, serve a similar function in grounding the lovers’ floating world through participation in a widely experienced moment of cultural reality.
The event of their leaving the flat for the first time since the start of the film is marked by the removal of the ‘outside world does not exist’ sign, but initially they seem to carry the hermetically sealed spirit of their flat life with them onto the street. It is only on a subsequent foray into the ‘outside world’ when they go off on their own for the first time, leaving themselves open to outside influences, that they each simultaneously meet an attractive acquaintance of the opposite sex who offers the possibility of a concrete step forward in the artistic fields that they each claim to be interested in. Thus, these unwitting intruders represent a threat to the harmony of the closed-off stasis of the lovers’ lives.
This threat is brilliantly dramatized at the beginning of the first murder scene, when the writer drops in on their flat unannounced. The door is open and the girl sits cross-legged in the middle of the floor in a meditative position, reading a book. Positioned at the centre of the frame, there is something intensely private and vulnerable about her posture, perhaps brought about chiefly through her complete absorption in her reading. When the writer enters, she looks up startled or even frightened, as if suddenly caught naked—a wonderful piece of acting on the part of Holly Marshall. The violence of her almost physical response and sensitivity to the intrusion of an outsider is an indication of the extent to which private space is used as the container and dramatic vehicle of the lovers’ intimacy.
The film abruptly changes tone for the two murders. The writer’s reception is chilly, to say the least, but he installs himself in a chair and makes strained small talk. She comes out of the kitchen with a pan and knocks him out with an almost comical abruptness. The couple then strangles him and frantically begins making love. On a gestural level, this scene marks a radical break in the previously understated, naturalistic performance style. It seems the lovers are ‘playing’ an act of violence rather than actually carrying it out.
They suddenly behave with such melodramatic theatricality that they appear to have assumed roles in a genre fiction, completely removed from the carefully developed calmness of the reality around them, with the spontaneous playfulness of Jacques Rivette’s heroines in Celine and Julie Go Boating (Celine et Julie vont en bateau, 1974, a film ‘remade’ by Mousoulis at the start of his career as Christine and Linda Go Skating, 1983, a 16-minute short on Super-8). It is as if this ‘performance’, this sudden will to fiction is the creative act that the heroes have been trying to accomplish since leaving their jobs, and not the halfhearted attempts at music and writing we have witnessed. Ironically, by becoming their victims the ill-fated writer and musician have indeed managed to help the couple in their artistic endeavours.
The musician’s murder follows immediately, although the film’s mysterious atmosphere owes much to the fact that the viewer is never completely certain of exactly when any given scene takes place in relation to the previous or subsequent one—a free-floating temporal strategy anchored by a general timescale with titles stating that the first scene occurs on 7 September, 2001, and the closing scene on 21 December. The second murder is as stylized and as much of a ‘performance’ as the writer’s, although contrastingly staged. If the writer’s death is a breathless ‘improvization’, the musician’s is carefully ‘rehearsed’ and planned. The musician sits in the same place as the writer with the couple facing her. Their manner is gloatingly cold, a caricature of sadistic power and control, carrying over the role-playing element of the previous scene with a humorously mannered interpretation of clichéd behaviour.
These killings are so bizarrely out of keeping with the rest of the film that they feel as if they carry no moral weight, as if they suddenly dropped in out of the blue from another film; the province of narrative driven drama instead of Mousoulis’ present-moment contemplativeness. Surrounded by the unbroken tranquility of the lovers’ intimate world, manifest in Mousoulis’ use of space and time, these sudden events that normally occupy a place of such importance in film storytelling are boldly and irreverently divested of their usual narrative and moral authority. Like pebbles tossed into and immediately swallowed up by a pond lazily reflecting the clear summer sky, they vanish into near irrelevance against the quiet strength of the film’s rhythm. In this way Mousoulis calls into question aspects of the dominant narrative mode of cinematic storytelling, and its relationship with cinema’s primal capacity for observing the surface of the world, through a fascinating process of reversal: whereas most films use atmosphere as a subsidiary stylistic prop to strengthen and sometimes define dramatic incident, Mousoulis uses dramatic or even melodramatic incident as little more than a pretext for a study in hypnotic atmosphere. His almost humorously knockabout disrespect for his narrative set-pieces is probably even more unusual than his rapt, poetic fascination with the details of domestic life.
The one moment of genuine terror in the film is the arrival of the police at the lovers’ flat for the first time. It is also the only moment of traditional narrative suspense, as the cops knock on the door and the couple hides. Superficially, the suspense is derived from the obvious question of whether or not the heroes will be apprehended, but there is also a deeper anxiety, connected with the film’s formal identity. The police appear to bring with them the authority of traditional film drama, the ability to transform this movie of enchanted space and deeply personalized time into one of generic dramatic events, where the couple’s world is no longer theirs to create but at the mercy of occurrences imposed from the outside. It is as if halfway through Philippe Garrel’s Le Berceau de Cristal (1976) the hired killers from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson suddenly burst in on Nico’s sepulchral solitude. It would amount to the desecration of a potent yet vulnerable place set aside from the outside world for the nurturing of an isolation (Garrel) or a togetherness (Mousoulis) that can so charge the atmosphere of a space that immersion in it is enough to convey the necessary emotion to an audience without recourse to any form of psychological performance.
When the couple subsequently split up and go on the run, it is as much the film itself becoming a fugitive from the policier that threatened to take it over. The second half is as gently observational and devoid of traditional incident as the scenes leading up to the murders. Like the lovers separated by circumstances in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) or Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935), the couple remains somehow spiritually connected, a fact established by the frequent mirroring of their actions from one shot to the next, such as a shot of one of them eating followed by a shot of the other eating. But in marked contrast to Vigo or Hathaway, the presentation of this longing is very understated, finding its most dramatic expression in two consecutive shots in which each of the lovers perform the simple gesture of looking at a photograph of them together. Mousoulis reprises his absolute focus on capturing the present moment that he deployed in the first half. Far from being a guilt filled, angst-ridden neo-noir experience, the fugitives’ progress seems like a beautifully observed, impressionistic documentary on figures in an urban landscape in summer. Although cumulatively hypnotic, each individual shot has a harmony and a self-contained materiality that would allow it to stand alone like a Lumière Brothers short. This is how Lovesick outruns the neo-noir plot that tries to claim it, by concentrating so much on the pre-narrative wonder at cinema’s ability to capture a moment in time or a living gesture that murder itself, tied as it is to cause and consequence, becomes irrelevant.
But this impressive technique is not an end in itself. It serves the story by creating a world at once physically very realistic, yet also as closed off from everyday reality as the couples’ flat was in the first half—a sort of shared state of grace (Mousoulis has never been shy about admitting the influence of Robert Bresson on his cinema) that unites the lovers even when they are apart. In the street, on the bus, in rented rooms ‘the outside world does not exist’. Crucial to the creation of this experience is the sense of the story unfolding outside of time, as if the heroes’ love for each other occupies a constant present tense. Although we are given dates for the opening and closing scenes, the evenness with which the action unfolds, the unity of mood (except, of course, for the murders) and lack of nighttime exteriors create a haunting impression of temporal unity, as if the whole movie took place on one calm, sunny Sunday afternoon.
Another major element in Lovesick’s games with genre convention is the brilliant characterization of the two detectives on the couples’ trail. They are also a couple, a man and a woman, but not necessarily romantically involved with each other. Their demeanour and behaviour are closer to that of mild-mannered real estate agents than cops. When they search the flat and discover the corpses hidden in a cupboard, the male cop’s awkward nonchalance is priceless. ‘Oh—there you go!’ is his only comment as he briefly opens the cupboard door, as if his partner were a prospective property buyer and he had discovered a leaking pipe. This detachment is not callousness; it is more like a perpetual bemusement. Yet it does heighten the sense that the killings are completely without moral consequence.
Another major scene involving the police has them walking out of the railway station and looking around. The only dialogue: ‘Where to?’ ‘Dunno.’ They then put on shades and he lights a cigarette, fetishized tough guy gestures subtly disempowered through the slightly bumbling way in which they are performed. Their admission of not knowing what to do next is more than simply a statement on the case’s progress; it is a confession of disorientation in a cinematic world that follows the rules of the lovers’ state of mind rather than the morality and temporality they operate in. Not only do they represent traditional narrative virtues, but their office worker mannerisms and appearance show them to embody the mindset the heroes abandoned at the film’s opening. When they catch up with the lovers at the end, it might be by pure chance. All they can do is observe the heroes’ silently ecstatic reunion with their habitual bemusement. It is as if the two couples occupy different planets.
Mousoulis has said: "I pride myself on making strange films. It’s to do with impurity (of genre, plot, style, etc.), the way I mix things up, the way I seem to be using something conventional, but then I don’t follow through with that." In Lovesick Mousoulis has more than lived up to this declaration, taking up and developing the modernist project of deconstructing traditional film storytelling, supplanting the inheritance of the motor of dramatic plot with a new approach to the medium driven by plastic and temporal values. In initiating this film practice with L’Avventura (1959) Michelangelo Antonioni set in motion a traditional mystery story, only to have it pale into insignificance as the film progressed. By the time of Lovesick, Mousoulis is taking up where Antonioni left off, telling a story where the traditional elements are already redundant, slightly ridiculous remnants of genre left floating adrift in a dream composed of pure cinematic reality.
Maximilian Le Cain is a film-maker based in Cork City, Ireland. He has written for Film West and Senses of Cinema.
© Maximilian Le Cain, December 2002.