Great Britain (100 mi) 1971 d: Nicolas Roeg
From start to finish, this isn’t really like anything else, although Peter Weir’s gorgeously abstract later work Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) comes to mind, as this is one of the best films ever made that blends together two different cultures so well, largely because it makes no attempts to explain either one, but simply allows them to naturally coexist without an ounce of sentimentality or pretense. Beautifully shot by the director himself, showing a fascinating use of editing, this is a stunning work not only in how well crafted it appears, but by the subtle ways it co-mingles and heightens the differences between cultures, offsetting one against the other as a way of better understanding each one. Opening in an upper class school in Sydney, where all the students wear the same uniforms, the camera veers around a corner of a building and we’re suddenly jettisoned into the Australian outback, a flat horizon for as far as the eye can see. A family picnic between a father and his two children goes terribly awry when he inexplicably starts shooting at them. After dousing his car with gasoline and setting it on fire he shoots himself in the head, leaving both to fend for themselves out in the middle of nowhere. Jenny Agutter is the prim and proper well behaved 15-year old sister to Luc Roeg, the director's son, who plays her playful and inquisitive 5-year old brother. Showing little emotion, without explaining what happened, the two of them start walking into the distance, walking for several days under a blazing hot sun. Just when it looks like they may die lost and alone, they discover a small oasis of a water hole under a single fruit tree, which they make their home for awhile. During the night, animals eat all the fruit and the water disappears, leaving them startled, but they stay, hoping the water will come back. What makes these sequences interesting are the Terrence Malick directoral flourishes showing creatures that live naturally in this habitat, how strangely different they appear than these properly dressed city children who obviously live elsewhere. What makes this especially interesting is that WALKABOUT was made two years before Malick’s first film. Also interesting is the heightened sound design imagining what animals in mass must sound like to one another, as it’s a cacophony of what sounds to humans like noise, unable to distinguish between the sounds. This is quite a contrast to the swelling, oversaturated strings by John Barry who wrote much of the music for James Bond films, or the introductory sounds of a didgeridoo playing while swarms of pedestrians make their way through the busy streets of Sydney.
Out of nowhere, a young Aborigine boy is seen coming over the hill, a 16-year old boy who is out on his walkabout, a tribal custom where he must learn to live off the land for months by himself to prove that he is worthy to enter adulthood and become a man. This boy (a young David Gulpilil) carrying two spears is quite capable of finding prey every day, starting a fire, finding water, and fending for himself, though he continually speaks in his own native tongue which is never translated, and never understood by the girl, while the young boy learns to use gestures and hand signals to communicate with him. Mostly, the duration of the film is wordless and what follows plays out through images alone where we lose all track of time, which is rather stunning in its conception, beautifully integrating landscapes with the open ended possibilities of these young lives, where we are lured into this symbiotic coexistence between life and death, even when there are aspects we may not fully comprehend. This puts the audience in a similar mindset as these kids onscreen. Naturally, they follow where the Aborigine kid leads them as he feeds them every day, and even without communicating, they become friends. Agutter continues to maintain her proper distance, though it’s impossible for her not to notice the young man is wearing only a loin cloth, while the young boy takes to the older one like a brother. But there are moments where we see Agutter swimming alone completely naked in an idyllic natural setting, where it would be hard for the Aborigine boy not to notice how in the heat of the day, she wears less and less clothing as time goes on. Without ever speaking, their relationship is vividly intense even from afar.
As he leads them back to white civilization, the balance of nature begins to change. There’s a strange scene where they pass by an outpost where a white couple on their ranch are mixing with a group of Aborigines making cheap art objects for sale, showing absolutely no interest for one another’s ways, where it’s a completely exploitative relationship, while this “Tarzan and Jane” couple with a young chimp for a kid tagging along has a bold curiosity and a much more sincere form of respecting one another. In an even stranger scene, like something out of Lina Wertmüller’s SWEPT AWAY (1974, also not yet made), a group of scientists are in the outback with weather balloons, where the men are leering at one of the scientists who is an attractive woman, staring under her skirt when she shifts her legs, or coming close to talk to her in order to get a better close up view of her exposed cleavage, more overt signs of nonverbal sexual signals. When our travelers discover an abandoned ranch house next to a paved road, civilization takes an interesting turn, as our couple suddenly have time for one another, but she’s overtly nervous, not yet ready to abandon her prudish yet dignified upbringing. This is intermingled with a stunning sequence of white hunters in a jeep shooting the wild game for sport and leaving their carcasses behind to uselessly rot under the hot sun, actions witnessed by the Aborigine boy who lays down in a dream of animal bones to purify himself from this callousness. But this is an ominous sign of natural discord, where Agutter is equally clueless about Aborigine customs, including a heartbreaking mating dance ritual that she fails to respond to, with disastrous consequences. What follows is a beautiful segway of emotional distance and extreme longing, where a mature audience may be tempted to read signs into this relationship more than the young participants themselves, who remain aloof and don’t yet know how their lives will be forever imprinted by this time they spend together. This is hardly an idyllic or idealized portrait, but instead remains an elusive and mysterious journey where the three characters are endlessly fascinating, unintended spokespersons or ambassadors for their respective cultures, leaving behind an astonishing blend of sumptuous beauty and haunting devastation, a rare glimpse into our own future of innocence and paradise lost.