Among controversial film topics, few can pay such high dividends as budding female sexuality. There are risks, of course: Broken English, which is no Showgirls, was rated NC-17 for its portrayal of “buttock thrusting.” (That is, its one nude lovemaking scene is not shot in the traditional series of coy closeups.) But sex has sold foreign and indie films since the early ’50s, when British and American sophisticates visited arthouses to glimpse a naked Harriet Andersson in Bergman’s Summer With Monika. And it just might sell Broken English and Ripe, neither of which offer any more competition to Bergman than to Verhoeven and Eszterhas.
Of the two, Broken English is the more traditional story. Basically, director/co-writer Gregor Nicholas’ film is Romeo and Juliet juiced by the specter of Bosnia and New Zealand’s guilt over the treatment of the Maoris. We see little of Romeo’s kin, but there’s rage enough for both families in Ivan (Before the Rain’s Rade Serbedzija), a brooding Croatian patriarch newly arrived in New Zealand (where his family has citizenship because his wife was born there). Ivan finds himself surrounded by people much stranger (if less threatening) than the Serbian enemies he has left behind: When his freewheeling daughter Nina (Aleksandra Vujcic) brings home some friends from the restaurant where she works, they’re Maori and Chinese. One of these is her new lover, Eddie (Once Were Warriors’ Julian Arahanga); another is Wu (Yang Li), whom Nina has agreed to marry (for money) so he can become a legal resident. Ivan is not happy to meet either of them. When a drunken Wu tells his potential father-in-law that he’s going to marry Nina, Ivan thumps the bridegroom against a steel beam.
By opening with shots of devastated Bosnia, the film suggests that both Ivan and Nina have been transformed by the civil war; Nina’s opening voice-over (partially written by Vujcic) recalls walking with the tanks while seeking “the shelter of my mind.” Where Ivan is bitter and clannish, Nina has become liberated and spontaneous. She decides she wants Eddie and gets him. Then she flaunts their relationship by having sex with him in her parents’ house. (Fortunately, they’re interrupted by Nina’s passive but sympathetic mother rather than by her father.) Nina is supposed to be bold and free, but all she ultimately wants is to settle down with Eddie and have a baby, an ambition that (her lover’s ethnic origins aside) seems fairly Old World.
A recent Croatian émigré who had never acted before, sexpot-in-training Vujcic successfully conveys Nina’s flirtatious, rebellious swagger. Too bad that’s all there is to convey. The script (by Nicholas, Johanna Pigott, and Jim Salter) makes Nina little more than a catalyst and a symbol, the woman who runs with wolves. (Actually, in one of the film’s more engaging scenes, she swims with the dolphins.) Even those more sympathetic to interethnic romance than Ivan may wonder why Nina goes out of her way to provoke her fatherespecially when his reaction had been conspicuously presaged by the early sequence in which he brutally attacks a guy for “fucking my daughter” (Nina’s sister).
Evocatively shot by John Toon, Broken English renders a nighttime Auckland bathed in red and blue light. The film is actually pretty good on detail, both visual and cultural. Especially interesting is its portrait of a new New Zealand where none of the principal characters are of Anglo-Celtic origin. (“What is this, fucking United Nations peacekeeping force?” sneers Ivan of his daughter’s friends.) Nicholas researched the lives of recent New Zealand immigrants, taking many of the film’s incidents from their comments. Contrasted with such carefully drawn specifics, the characterization of Nina as an overwhelming force of nature seems puny.
Since it depicts 14-year-old girls (and stars 15-year-old girls), the unrated Ripe is potentially more controversial than Broken English. The first film by writer/director Mo Ogrodnik, this fanciful coming-of-age drama dispatches fraternal twins Rosie (Daisy Eagan) and Violet (Monica Keena) to an army base, where all that pungent masculinity provokes decidedly different responses: Rosie likes the guns, Violet likes the guys.
Ogrodnik previously worked on documentaries (including Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway’s Blood in the Face), but don’t expect real life here. Ripe is most cogent at its most dreamlike. The story itself ranges from implausible to ridiculous, which is why the most compelling sequence is the most poetically compressed: The film’s opening takes Rosie and Violet from a quick, ominous game of hide-and-seek to the car crash some seven years later that providentially kills their parents. (“Our dad was a real motherfucker,” explains Rosie.) Then the sisters are off on another game of hide-and-seek, attempting to stay invisible on the base lest the authorities find them and force them into the bosom of another unhappy family.
Ripe telegraphs its approaching conflict even more flagrantly than Broken English does: Rosie likes to squash copulating insects and rodents, and considers Violet “my queen.” Rosie protects Violet, and in exchange, “I made her promise: no boys.” This doesn’t bode well for the moment when Violet decides to experience sex for herself, an event that clearly can’t be long postponed after she begins the enjoy the attention of the soldiers. Like All Over Me, Ripe maintains that, for adolescent girls, growing up means growing apart.
Sneaking around after they see their pictures in a local newspaper, the sisters hitch a ride with Pete (Gordon Currie), a groundskeeper for the army base. He agrees to pretend that they’re his orphaned nieces, and the base commander says they can stay for a few days. Those days are packed with rites of passage: Rosie gets a gun, gets drunk, and nearly gets raped. Violet finds a copy of Playgirl, gets her first period, and theninevitably, Ogrodnik seems to sayloses her virginity. Rosie is not pleased.
The film’s title refers, obviously, to Violet’s blooming sexuality, but it could apply to some of the sensibilities at play here. Ogrodnik turned to Nan Goldin’s photos of sexualized teens for inspiration, and drew the scene of naked soldiers wrestling from D.H. Lawrence. (Just such an incident from Lawrence’s Women in Love was memorably committed to celluloid by that champion of overripe cinematic sexuality Ken Russell.) The director says her goal was to capture the “emotional reality” of becoming a woman in contemporary American society, but the result feels more emotional than real.
Hiding is one of the movie’s themes, yet Rosie and Violet could not be more conspicuous. Ogrodnik and cinematographer Wolfgang Held “flashed” the film to give it a sun-bleached look without true shadows to cover the girls’ actions. The effect signifies the sudden conspicuousness of the teenage girl, making the abrupt, awkward transition from cute to erotic. That the sisters react oppositely to this developmentRosie alarmed, Violet elatedis just another suggestion that the two characters really embody the conflicted responses of a single young woman confronting sexual maturity.CP