Saturday, 24 September 2022

Blaze (2022) - Movie Review

(cw: rape, childhood trauma)

The story of this film is deceptively simple, and truth be told, not a lot technically ‘happens’ over the course of 100-or-so minutes. On her way home from school, 13-year-old Blaze (Julia Savage) witnesses Hannah (Yael Stone) being raped and killed in an alleyway by Jake (Josh Lawson). In the midst of the trauma seeing such an event triggered in her, and retreating into her own mind as a result, she has been asked to testify in court as a witness to the assault.

It’s a rather straight-forward dramatic premise that could easily fit into a short film, which both director/writer Del Kathryn Barton and co-writer Huna Amweero have more experience with over anything feature-length. However, in the process of making it into a feature-length production, Barton has managed to create something that looks entirely unlike any other Australian film I have ever encountered, nor any coming-of-age story from here or anywhere else.

It starts out on another deceptive note in how ostensibly familiar it looks. The scenes set in the real world are presented in muted colours and (speaking as a Sydney local) eerily recognisable locales, and the depiction of the more full-on moments (not just the initial assault, but the following mental health crises as well) has some serious emotional impact. Kudos is deserved for how that assault was filmed and shown, as it emphasises Hannah’s point-of-view throughout, switching between her experience of the event and that of Blaze; this is about as unfetishised as a scene like this can get, which was definitely the right move.

The fantasy world inside Blaze’s head, however, is an entirely different story. Barton’s history as an artist comes primarily from being an accomplished painter, and approaching the cinematic form from that perspective goes at least some way to explain why these scenes, which make up the thematic bulk of the story, look the way they do.

The main fixture of Blaze’s imagination is a dragon, which… I’d say it’s her spirit animal, but as a white man, I don’t want to add to the nausea that is how Western civilisation has divorced that idea of all actual meaning. Let’s just say that it represents her inner self, and it indeed looks like something a child would think up, realised as a giant puppet with big eyes, a purple-heavy colour palette, and all the sequins. It admittedly took me a bit to get used to, considering just how many films out there (both mainstream and independent) go straight for CGI for this kind of creature, but the more tangible effect does wonders for the film’s visual aesthetic.

And that’s far from the only example of it here, as there’s a lot of multidisciplinary art going on here. Alongside the dragon, there is Blaze’s ‘army’ of porcelain figures brought to life with CGI, but very minor CGI; the furthest it goes is to make the figurines blink and smile. There’s also a small doll that, with the dream logic going on with these visuals, likely represents something else about Blaze’s psychology, which is brought to life with stop-motion that looks like something out of Jan Švankmajer’s Alice. Then there’s all the montage work going on, with Barton, DP Jeremy Rouse, and editor Dany Cooper creating some true psychedelia in the raw symbology on display.

I freely admit that I have something of a weakness for these kinds of psycho-fantasies, where the richness of the fantasy world takes place entirely in someone’s mind. Alice In Wonderland, the film version of The Wizard Of Oz, MirrorMask, A Monster Calls, David Lynch’s Lynchiest features, Brannon Braga’s better contributions to Star Trek; the intersection of psychological drama/horror and fantastical stories really does it for me. And here, it all works towards showing Blaze trying to comprehend a very dark and adult situation, through her still-growing understanding and vivid imagination. Most of the impact comes purely through the visuals, as it really does feel like I was staring into someone’s subconscious. Kind of like the opening shot of an eye staring out of an emptied cicada shell. Did I mention that this film is kinda trippy?

But to give the actors here their due credit, they add quite a lot to the film through their performances as well. Simon Baker as Blaze’s father strikes a perfect balance between trying to be what his daughter needs to overcome the trauma, and being frustrated at being unable to understand what is going on in her head and how much she relies on it. Quite the change-up from the last time I saw him give a dramatic perspective on fucked-up things happening to children.

Then there’s Julia Savage, who aligns really friggin’ well with the visual-first aesthetic here by delivering most of the character’s emotion through physicality. For the complex and occasionally obtuse ideas she’s been thrown here, it is quite impressive just how well she does with it all. And when she’s asked to deliver some banger dialogue, like when she directly confronts Jake, she absolutely nails that as well.

This simply being as visually unique as it is would be more than enough for me to give it my blessing. Getting the opportunity to see movies like this is why I’ve been pursuing this line of work for as long as I have. But with how well its visual aesthetic is used to dive into incredibly harrowing emotions and ideas, all while dropping cold-brick truths about the reality of sexual assault, not to mention the effect of trauma on a developing mind, it makes for a properly fulfilling cinematic experience. Del Kathryn Barton might go back to focusing on paintings after this for all I know, but if she’s capable of something this transcendent, I sincerely hope she sticks with it because the Aussie indie film scene needs this level of originality.

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