In the midst of life, the heroine of Look Both Ways is in death—breathing it and having it for breakfast with jam and brushing her teeth with it twice a day. A modern-day Cassandra, greeting-card illustrator Meryl Lee (Justine Clarke) has the gift of seeing disaster wherever she looks. That train coming across the trestle? One second away from tumbling into the abyss. That bucolic swimming pool? Swarming with sharks. That nice-looking man walking up the steps? About to plug a bullet into Meryl’s chest.
The visions don’t come true, and Meryl never confides them to anyone. But when she happens on a real-life accident—a young man inexplicably killed by a train—the incident drags her fears into the open and reverberates through everyone affected by it, including a happily married editor (Andrew S. Gilbert), a cynical, divorced reporter (Anthony Hayes), and a haunted photographer named Nick (William McInnes) who’s just received a cancer diagnosis.
Thrown together arbitrarily, Nick and Meryl embark on a tentative romance, which threatens to unravel at any and every moment, thanks to the cloud hanging over Nick’s future and the memory of his father’s long and agonizing death. Did I mention that Meryl has just buried her own father? And that the lead item on the evening news broadcast that opens the film is the derailment of another train, with a good dozen or so corpses thrown in for good measure? Not since Crash has a movie been so ruthlessly espaliered around a single theme. And like Crash, Look Both Ways comes laden with honors, including Australia’s equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar. It’s the kind of movie you figure you’ll just have to close your eyes and swallow down, knowing you’ll be a more evolved human being after it’s over.
But here’s the not-so-nasty surprise: Sarah Watt’s debut feature is conceived not as dirge but as melancholy lark, an ensemble rom-dramedy of the kind patented by Richard Curtis. Think of it as Death Actually—or, better yet, as Four Funerals and a Wedding. Indeed, the most immediately pressing questions Look Both Ways raises are of the Bridget Jones variety: Will Meryl and Nick put aside their respective morbidities and find shared neurotic bliss? Will Mr. Bitter-Pill Reporter get a clue and commit to the nice girl he’s impregnated? Will Mr. Nice-Guy Editor successfully give up cigarettes?
OK, so not all of the questions are equally interesting. And Watt’s comedic touch isn’t exactly Austenesque. But the writer-director does keep all her plot threads quivering along, and she’s assembled a bright and attractive crew of lovers (who, being Australian, get to have real-world, three-square-meals-a-day bodies). A gifted animator, Watt particularly excels in portraying Meryl’s dark fantasies, which keep erupting through the live-action narrative in bursts of agitated line drawing: a dog walker transformed into a strangler, a lone figure swept away by an ocean wave, a murderous van surging out of a tunnel—each leaves behind a frisson of absurdist dread. Ditto for the unanimated life history that flashes before our eyes in the few seconds it takes Nick’s doctor to give him the bad news.
As stylish—as fun, even—as these interludes can be, they’re exactly what holds this film back. Frissons, it turns out, are about as far as Watt wants to take things: She’s less interested in laughing Death in the face than in smiling him into a lull. There’s a certain relief to that approach, no question, but levity needn’t preclude seriousness—and Look Both Ways, finally, is so averse to putting you through the emotional wringer that it’ll probably leave you longing for a good wrenching. The only nugget of wisdom to take away from Watt’s crosshatched plotting is, essentially, Shit happens—get over it. That might pass for profundity in the greeting-card world of Meryl’s employer, but it doesn’t amount to all that much in this one. Look Both Ways, where is thy sting?
Sumptuous pictures and undernourished story are likewise the calling cards of Cate Shortland, another Australian writer-director. Her own first feature, Somersault, is as grim on the subject of Eros as Look Both Ways is sweet on Thanatos.
Sixteen-year-old nymphomaiden Heidi (Abbie Cornish) has to flee home after making moves on her mom’s boyfriend. Rudderless and impoverished, she ends up in an Australian ski town—yes, it looks as sad as it sounds—and strikes up a vexed fling with Joe (Sam Worthington), a young member of the local gentry. By night, the two of them find sexual solace in Heidi’s motel room. By day, they find only cross-purposes: Heidi wants to be consumed by love; Joe wants just the opposite. Frustrated by his resistance, Heidi begins to retreat into the very hedonism she’s been trying to escape.
In its essentials, the rich-boy/poor-girl dynamic of Somersault isn’t too different from that of Pretty in Pink—or, come to think of it, of a thousand and one John Hughes movies. But the erotic sequences are considerably more intense, and Shortland already has a fully evolved visual sensibility and a distinctive rhythm. Shots break off just a second or two before you expect them to, and certain images lodge in your mind like scraps of music: the bathysphere view from inside a car as it’s being de-iced, the neon blare of a BP station at night, the menstrual jolt of Heidi’s bright-red gloves against her pallid body.
The story itself wanders in unexpected directions, too, with Joe doing a suspicious amount of horsing around with his best pal and even flirting with a gay neighbor. Mostly, though, Somersault just wanders—the ending is less a wrapping up than a giving up—and its female protagonist can’t bear even the minimal weight that the film exerts on her. Passive, unintelligent, and utterly helpless with men, Heidi commands our attention almost exclusively as a composition (albeit an uncomfortably ravishing one).
Maybe it wasn’t Shortland’s intention to objectify Heidi in the same way all the men around her do. But what exactly was? Though her script pays lip service to “opening up” the heart and the healing powers of true intimacy, neither Heidi nor Joe has grown in any perceptible way by movie’s end—which doesn’t stop the former from announcing, “I think it’s really good that we met.” You can’t blame a girl for putting a positive spin on some bad business, but the problems of these two underdeveloped characters don’t amount to more than a hill of beans—or, for that matter, of Australian snow.CP