Families. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. That's the depressing yet moving theme of the Australian director Gillian Armstrong's new film, "The Last Days of Chez Nous," in which "Our House" takes on the mythical resonance of a fabled disaster like Pompeii.
But the volcano that destroys Beth's house isn't from under the surface of the earth. It's from under the surface of the skin. It's lava from the heart -- hot, strong, unstoppable -- that buries Chez Nous.
Beth (Lisa Harrow) is a novelist living in a suburb of Sydney, with her somewhat dyspeptic French husband, J. P. (Bruno Ganz), her teen-age daughter, Annie, and a roomer, Tim. It's one of those chaotic "artistic" households -- long on emotions, compassion, humanity and creativity, short on discipline and neatness. Who does the dishes? Sometimes everybody, sometimes nobody. Who cares?
When an additional member of the household arrives, however, it's as if the Earth itself has begun to crack; what comes spilling out from down below will spell the end. Vicki (Kerry Fox) is Beth's younger sister, returning from a turbulent but unspecified time in New York, radiating neurosis and failure. She, too, wants to be a writer, but unlike Beth, she hasn't succeeded.
Armstrong, who jumped to worldwide fame with "My Brilliant Career" and followed up with a slew of other vivid Australian dramas such as "Starstruck" (she did not have much luck with an American picture called "Mrs. Soffel," even though it starred Mel Gibson), is a specialist in domestic discord, particularly the scratchy relationships between women. She understands that a lot of family business is political, and that the flow of power is apt to shift as new alliances are forged in the heat of mutual discontent.
Thus, part of "The Last Days of Chez Nous" feels like convention coverage as it documents the breakdown of one strong alliance, the formation of another and the ultimate collapse.
Beth feels obligated to make some provisional peace with her grouchy father (played by the consummate Australian pro Bill Hunter). She journeys to the outback with him (their squabbling in a car is so authentic it made my hair curl), J. P. and Vicki, each of whom nurses obscure grudges against Beth (after all, she supports them both; therefore, she deserves to be betrayed). When J. P. and Vicki are drawn together, their union is the death of the family.
I think "Last Days of Chez Nous" achieves truly tragic power when Beth returns, and the vibrations of sex and betrayal are so heavy in the air even the audience can feel them. Armstrong is brilliant at the vicious nature of emotional warfare and the depressive quality of post-spat anger and lassitude. It feels like the end of an empire, once so proud and invulnerable, with a seemingly limitless future; now in ruins, its survivors muttering, "Why?" It shows a world ending with a whimper.
/# It opens today at the Charles.
"The Last Days of Chez Nous"
Starring Lisa Harrow and Bruno Ganz.
Directed by Gillian Armstrong.
Released by Fine Line.