Celeste premiered last year at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and is writer-director Ben Hackworth’s first feature since 2007’s Corroboree. Radha Mitchell stars as Celeste, an aging soprano once considered the darling of Australian opera. After ten years of living as a recluse in far north Queensland, following the death of her husband, preparations are underway at her home—Paronella Park—for her return to the stage. In the weeks leading up to the event, she quietly slips a letter to her estranged stepson Jack (played by Thomas Cocqueral), inviting him to stay. Jack, who cavorts with prostitutes and two particularly shady men, decides to use the opportunity to hide out for a while. A lingering and predictable sexual attraction soon asserts itself between the pair, and they are forced to confront the grief and guilt that has afflicted them for the past decade.
Reading the synopsis for Celeste, I had expected something more theatrical. This slow-burning family saga with Oedipal overtones put me in mind of something a little more melodramatic, like Luca Guadgnino’s I Am Love (2009) with its operatic climax and elegant, passionate characters. The film certainly felt like a Euro ‘high art’ film, with its many silences and lavish visuals, but it relied too heavily on its rustic-chic aesthetic to the detriment of the plot.
Celeste, beautiful and damaged, spends much of the film languished on a day bed or curled beneath mosquito nets with a ‘tension headache’, speaking from beneath a cold flannel. Needless to say, this became tedious fairly quickly, and though it is later revealed that there is a reason behind all of this, it caused a reaction so ambiguous that the revelation carried little weight. Her identity as an artist is often glossed over, despite her best friend’s (played by Nadine Garner) insistence that her comeback performance means ‘everything’. The film, whether deliberate or not, seemed to keep the extent of her grief at a distance, though Mitchell did succeed at giving depth to her pain and unpredictable nature.
Jack is in a similar state, by turn unsympathetic and endearing in his attempts at escapism from his sense of abandonment. Mitchell and Cocqueral are both beautifully poised in their performances, though any sense of intimacy between them seemed fragmented due to poor editing and writing (some of the dialogue, especially between workmen, was hilariously banal). The result of this is that the film never quite achieved the tension required for what should have been a heart-wrenching finale.
There is also the small challenge of having to compete for attention against the backdrop of Paronella Park, a setting so picturesque and curious that it often overshadowed—rather than enhanced—the performances. In the real world, the park has persevered through flood, fire and cyclone events, all of which—along with pink wallpaper and flowers in kitschy pots—make it beautiful in that very ‘Byron Bay fashion’ editorial kind of way. The surrounding park is lush but claustrophobic, artfully overgrown to match the artistic dilapidated building it contains. It was originally built by José Paronella, and was opened to the public in 1935, having always been intended as a sort of community centre; complete with a theatre, dance night, and tearooms (Google tells me you can still visit today). The park is a bastion for Celeste and her boho cronies, a community in the same sense as the French Court at Versailles: elegant, rich, decadent and insular.
This is an exquisitely shot film, and it is easy to surrender to its dreamlike, ethereal visual; too easy in fact, as the understated plot seemed unable to ground the audience. Though it possessed the lofty ambition of a sophisticated Euro drama, it is a film that ultimately won’t require much from the viewer beyond abandonment.
Celeste is screening at Luna Leederville now!