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Metro Pulse Bubbling Up Down Under

The Aussies are at it again -- this time, scoring with a "quirky" little comedy called "Love Serenade."

By Zak Weisfeld

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Since the days of Ptolemy, people have hypothesized about the general strangeness of life on the other side of the world. Some believed there could be no intelligent life there, as anything other than a bug would be burned to a cinder by the heat. Then there were those who scoffed even at bugs, making it clear that anyone not immediately immolated by the rivers of fire would simply plunge off the end and into the abyss. Other, more optimistic writers reported a race of people with only a single large foot who hopped about an unwelcoming terrain of scorched earth and barren rock. I can only imagine what they would have said had they known about Australia.

Though I've never been there myself, all the evidence, including its two main exports—back-packing tourists and quirky movie comedies—points to a world even stranger than the ones imagined by the ancients. After all, what kind of country could produce Strictly Ballroom, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Muriel's Wedding, and Children of the Revolution? And the case for the country's deep-seated weirdness is only strengthened by the latest Aussie release, Love Serenade.

Written and directed by Shirley Barrett, Love Serenade won the much coveted Camera d'or (French for Camera of Gold) for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival and has since been taking the world by storm. It is a movie whose charms are readily apparent.

There are, however, two great difficulties in reviewing Love Serenade. The first is that I really hate the word quirky; and yet this is one of those cases where it seems almost painfully apt. The second is that to reveal the most persuasive reason why I have to use the dreaded word is to give away a secret worth keeping from anyone planning to see the movie.

Suffice to say, Love Serenade is the story of two small-town Australian sisters in pursuit of the affections of a big-city DJ recently arrived in town. The sisters, not to mention the DJ, are, of course, very quirky.

One of the finest aspects of Love Serenade is the portrayal of the Australian small-town. The sense of place created by Barrett in the imaginary town of Sunray is captivating. Definitely not on the Australian Chamber of Commerce video, Sunray is an oddly suffocating mixture of repressed, lower-middle class suburbia and bleak wilderness. And it's probably this geography that goes farther than anything in explaining the aforementioned Australian syndrome.

Populating the windswept town of Sunray, "The Angler's Paradise," are the Hurley sisters, Vicki-Ann and Dimity. Vicki-Ann, the oldest sister, is played to the hilt, and occasionally beyond, by Rebecca Frith. An irritating mixture of soothing platitudes and barely concealed hysteria, Frith is forced to walk a fine line between a complex, interesting character and an imbecilic parody. In general, she manages to do it and make Vicki-Ann sympathetic without ever being really likable.

The real star of Love Serenade, however, is Miranda Ott, who plays sister Dimity Hurley. With her knock-knees, hunched shoulders, and scrunched-up face, Ott gives full vent to Dimity's peculiarities. Her most impressive accomplishment is her portrayal of Dimity's peculiar sexual awakening. Ott makes it awkward and funny but keeps a poignant erotic edge to her scenes that makes them among the best in the film.

Playing against the bizarre pairing of the sisters is George Shevtsov as DJ Ken Sherry. Shevtsov's warm, oily, DJ voice is perfect for the fishy Sherry and the ultimate disguise for his unctuous and cynical live-for-the-moment clichés. Barrett gives Shevtsov a difficult task, too, and that is to be repugnant but still believably charming enough to ensnare the two—albeit desperate—sisters. Like the rest of the cast, Shevtsov is up for the material.

But lurking behind the charming quirkiness of the characters is the deeper weirdness. From the stuffed Marlin on the wall with the glaring eye, to the post-apocalyptic park where the sisters eat lunch, Barrett never lets it out of the frame. The bleak setting and the soundtrack of '70s R&B and soul, especially Barry White's "Love Serenade," lend everything a surreal edge that makes the especially bizarre ending seem acceptable, if not sensible.

The question remains, where does this material come from? What peculiar combination of geography and culture and '70s music gave rise to the recent spate of quirky Australian comedies? The answer is shrouded in mystery; perhaps we should hope for the earthquake that makes California an island—then we can start producing these things domestically.

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