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The Last Days of Chez Nous

Rated R, 96 min. Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Starring Lisa Harrow, Bruno Ganz, Kerry Fox, Miranda Otto, Kiri Paramore, Bill Hunter.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 21, 1993

This Australian film from director Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel) presents a microcosmic story of an extended family in the twilight hours before its final dissolution. Beth (Harrow) is a successful writer (though only once is there a scene which shows her working at her craft and the point of that scene seems more designed to show her reaction to her husband's criticism). J.P. (Ganz) is the husband, a Frenchman about to become a naturalized Australian, though his alienation from living in this foreign (and, to him, less civilized) culture is evident. Also in this house are Beth's teenage daughter from a previous marriage and a young male boarder. As the film opens, Beth's younger sister Vicki (Fox) returns empty-handed from a romantic sojourn in Europe and sets up residence with J.P. and Beth. Vicki has always played the flake to Beth's more driven achiever though their connection to each other is symbiotic and essential. For all Beth's individual accomplishments, she becomes unhappy unless she is able to provide happiness for others. But neither is Beth selfless and all-giving. I suspect she's meant to be iconographic of the state of modern feminism. That Beth is also the only sympathetic character in this story seems something of a setup. Ganz wanders through this story as if he hasn't a clue as to what he's doing here. Though he's been given the unenviable task of playing a character with few redeeming qualities, I found his J.P. to be strangely likable, if only because the story is stacked so heavily against him. Armstrong wants to hang more of the blame for the failure of the couple's marriage on J.P.'s aloofness and the betrayal caused by his affair with his sister-in-law Vicki. I'm not so willing to absolve Beth of her own responsibility for her failures in personal relationships. She herself chooses to leave the household at an inopportune time to go off on a desert vacation with her father in the vain hope of resolving some old parent-child knots. She steamrolls her sister through an abortion because she's certain it's the right thing for Vicki but never hears Vicki's murmurs of ambivalence. She makes no secret of her lack of respect for the institution of marriage and candidly lets it be known that she married J.P. so he could get a green card. Last Days' strength is its realistic feel. Despite the characters resemblance to unfleshy icons, the set they move through and their individual appearances have the looks of things not gussied up for the movies. Armstrong must also be recognized as coaxing great performances from her leading actresses. Harrow is every bit as memorable as Judy Davis was in My Brilliant Career. And while Armstrong may present significant insight into the ambivalences faced by feminist women today, her narrative structure in Last Days has all the subtlety of propaganda.
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