Anyone who has sat through the blandly whimsical Kiwi romcom Love Birds – a film that was fortunate enough to land British actress Sally Hawkins and then did nothing, absolutely nothing, to move her out of first gear; a film where “will they or won’t they win the pub quiz?” passes for a nail-biting cliffhanger; a film offensive in its sheer inoffensiveness – might be forgiven for being drawn to writer-director David Blyth’s R18 Wound, where the offensiveness is of the “torturing, murdering and cutting off the member of your sexually abusive father with a pair of scissors” kind. Who couldn’t be doing with some of that? It sure beats Rhys Darby and that damned duck.
Actually, oddly, the penis severing is one of the less offensive scenes in Wound, even though it’s blessed with better special effects than most (I doff my cap to prosthetic designers Heath Mortlock and Karl Otto): the zenith of offensiveness would have to be the scene where a mother hits her pregnant daughter’s stomach with a bat to bring on a miscarriage; the nadir of special effects would have to be the rendering of that daughter’s vagina as the miscarriage takes place. (Feeling queasy yet? Gone way past queasy? And way past way past?)
Of course, with Blyth, mired as he is in both a B-movie schlock – not to say shock – aesthetic and the limitations of a 12-day shoot for less than $100,000, you can never be sure when the bad special effects are intentional and when they are just … bad.
Blyth is the director who famously received the censor’s epithet “contains punk cult material” for his debut feature, Angel Mine, back in 1978; this time around, after the lobby group Family First tried to get Wound banned, he received, by way of the censor’s backhanded permission to proceed, the comment that the impact of the film’s more shocking content was limited by the low budget and “unrealistic” nature of the special effects.
That lack of realism isn’t just because of Blyth’s B-movie mindset and funding restraints, though. Wound is a film whose escalating illogicalities come to gain their own inner logic as we appreciate that much of what we are witnessing is not actually happening to but inside the troubled mind of Kate O’Rourke as Susan.
The question is, how much? It’s a question important not only for our understanding of the film’s fractured narrative but also for how much slack we cut Blyth for his direction of it. Is Ian Mune meant to be as flat as he is as a doctor because he is a projection of Susan’s damaged psyche or is it just a poor – or poorly directed – performance? Likewise with the two-dimensionality of other characters, both as written and as played – O’Rourke’s Susan being an honourable exception: she is terrifically convincing as she descends deeper and deeper into madness.
Susan – or Susan’s subconscious – heaps humiliation upon humiliation upon herself, with the film drawing heavily on the fetish and dominance and submission scenes of Blyth’s earlier documentaries Transfigured Nights and Bound for Glory. But you can’t escape the feeling that it’s Blyth who’s really heaping the humiliations upon her – including a particularly demeaning scene where her “master” clips clothes pegs to her nipples – as he turns her into no less of a cipher than the characters in her dreams.
In interviews included as DVD extras, Blyth talks about the psychiatry books he drew on, the “profound” consequences of family abuse he wanted to explore; the “master and mistress” scenes being a metaphor for the establishment and the fact “we all have to submit somewhere along the line”; the influence upon him of Luis Bunuel’s cinema of the unconscious.
This is a film where the art house meets the slaughterhouse.
“For those of you who have seen Angel Mine, you will know that I’ve ploughed exactly the same field again,” Blyth tells an audience at a screening at last year’s Incredibly Strange Film Festival. “But I feel this time I’ve made a mature film … I feel I’ve seen a little bit more of life now and I wanted to express it in this film.”
What is striking about Wound, though, is how essentially immature it is, how little Blyth has moved on from Angel Mine – the film he made when he was 22. He is still tilting at the same windmills, at the same bourgeois bogeymen; he is still so reductionist.
There are elements of real accomplishment in Wound – the orchestrated levels of its dreamscape (not quite Inception, but impressive nonetheless); moments of startling imagery and once or twice of actual beauty. Even the miscarriage scene goes on to attain a theatrical lyricism amid all the blood.
At times, you wonder what a David Cronenberg or David Lynch might have made of the same material – or Blyth with the budget of a Cronenberg or Lynch.
Ultimately, though, the material needs a more sophisticated sensibility, a subtler intelligence, than Blyth brings to it. Without that, you are left with the impression that the thing most haunting Susan’s mind is not so much a legacy of family abuse as of having seen too many bad movies.
Still, at least there are no ducks.
See also Diana Wichtel’s 2009 interview with David Blyth.
nzonscreen interview from March here.