First person narration in films can be a tricky proposition. Not only can it become monotonous but it can also work against the visual storytelling, imposing a structure on the film that frustrates the viewer’s attempt to interpret and come to their own conclusions about events, characters and dialogue. One of the rare exceptions to this often overused device is Rolf de Heer’s THE QUIET ROOM (1996), the story of a marriage coming apart as told by the couple’s seven year old daughter. Seen from her viewpoint, the increasingly hostile relationship is something she can’t fully comprehend but she decides to take steps to alter her unhappy situation by refusing to speak until her parents reconcile. Despite a highly stylized visual approach (the cinematography is by Tony Clark), THE QUIET ROOM is a simply told but emotionally complex character study with moments of magical realism and a refreshingly unsentimental but compassionate look at how one child reacts to a marriage on the rocks.
When the film opens, the young girl (no character is identified by name) has already started her vow of silence though her parents are not sure why this is happening. Nor does the child explain herself through written messages or pantomime. Instead, she hopes her behavior can affect a positive change in her mother and father’s relationship. But her parents can’t read her thoughts and, as their marriage deteriorates, their child sometimes retreats into escapist fantasies or finds herself witnessing happier times in the presence of a younger version of herself.
Most of THE QUIET ROOM takes place within the home of the protagonist who, as played by Chloe Ferguson (her sister Phoebe plays her at age 3), is on-screen for almost the entire 92 minute running time. Despite the claustrophobic nature of the narrative, the film exerts a hypnotic allure due to director Rolf de Heer’s original approach to what could have been a conventional domestic drama. For one thing, the striking art direction (by Beverly Freeman) and production design (by Fiona Paterson) transforms Chloe’s bedroom with its goldfish tank, toys and drawings into an almost enchanted realm, highlighted by the deep blue-toned walls. The intimate and occasionally wry voiceover narration (written by de Heer) also rarely hits a false note with its unique insights on the adult world as seen through the eyes of a child. Early in the film, Chloe says, “Dad asks me what I think of death when I still used to talk. Nothing, I said. I think nothing of death. He’s always asking me questions I don’t have words for. Sad…sad because…I can’t say why sad.” At another point, she states, “I don’t have problems anymore since I’ve stopped talking. Maybe talking’s the problem.”
Some viewers may find the young girl’s narration too articulate and wise beyond her years for a 7 year old but I think de Heer brilliantly captures her psychological and emotional state in a way that seems true to life and completely believable. Part of the credit belongs, of course, to young Miss Ferguson who has a natural, unaffected screen presence and carries the burden of the movie on her shoulders, despite excellent support by Celine O’Leary and Paul Blackwell as the disillusioned parents.
Even though Chloe gains the sympathy of the viewer by virtue of being the narrator/protagonist in THE QUIET ROOM, we begin to realize by the halfway point that the child is not entirely correct in her assumptions or understanding of her parents’ problems. Her vow of silence might even be aggravating the situation further and, as in any situation involving marital discord, it is too complicated to easily blame either party for the failing marriage. One can only imagine what a major Hollywood studio would do with this material but since THE QUIET ROOM is an independent Australian production and not a mainstream melodrama designed for broad appeal, there is no manufactured, happy ending to the film. But it doesn’t end in despair either. Instead, there is hope that the parents can reconcile without divorcing and that is the closest thing to closure that the movie offers.
In an interview with Andrew L. Urban (for the website Urban Cinephile), de Heer described what motivated him to make THE QUIET ROOM and his approach to the subject: “What I was interested in was a seven-year-old’s perception of adulthood. As I had to give it some sort of structural format, it seemed to me that the marriage breakdown was the thing to use. There is a dynamic, there is conflict, there are all sorts of possibilities. But where I began was with a seven-year-old’s perception of adulthood…..I’ve been interested in kids and the way they think a long time … since I was four. It has always seemed to me that adults tend to underestimate the way kids think. Kids will jump from one way of being to another as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you want them to be this way, they will be. They move easily between being quite sophisticated and adult in the way they view things, and then quite childlike. I also like working with kids and this particular film, because of the way it was done, in that there was a window of opportunity in which to make it, I needed something that I could write well but quickly. Because I have kids of my own, I have readily accessible to me a whole amount of information.”
Although THE QUIET ROOM was barely distributed in the U.S. and seen by very few people at the time of its release, it was highly praised by most critics who saw it. New York Times critic Stephen Holden proclaimed, “Rarely has a movie entered the consciousness of a child as deeply and convincingly as ‘‘The Quiet Room,” which was filmed in Adelaide, Australia. What holds together this beautifully woven series of impressionistic family scenes and occasional flashbacks is the girl’s artless voice-over narration. You never question for a second whether her observations or vocabulary might be precocious for someone her age…”The Quiet Room” is much more than a portrait of an adorable child coping with a potentially traumatic family crisis. It is an exploration of the power that children wield over their parents and an almost intimidating reminder that not much escapes our children’s vision, as much as we wish it might. Every joyous hug, every casual dismissal, every harsh word registers and is recorded.” Variety critic David Stratton wrote, “On the surface it might seem like a simple concept, but de Heer’s acute insights into a child’s mentality and speech patterns, his bold visual design and the quite amazing performance of Chloe Ferguson as his young protagonist, will rivet audiences willing to take a chance on this rigorous, uncompromising film….Chloe Ferguson gives an exceptional performance. Quite often she’s called upon only to gaze at the camera while her voice reflects her inner feelings, and her expressive face speaks volumes. The child captures every nuance with uncanny precision and effortlessly dominates the film, appearing in virtually every frame…De Heer’s skill in entering this child’s world so single-mindedly is astonishing. Few films about children have been as honest and dedicated as this one.” And Entertainment Weekly‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum called it an “unusual and beautifully made film…The mood study loses some intensity as it winds down, but De Heer (Bad Boy Bubby) and cinematographer Tony Clark sustain an enchanting, child’s-eye visual style throughout, lingering on textures and a deep crayon-hued palette with a pleasure that’ll make you want to sniff some Crayolas.”
Despite such glowing reviews from the critics and numerous accolades (it was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival), THE QUIET ROOM failed to attract audiences and was a box-office flatliner. Yet, due to the sale of distribution rights in Japan and the U.S., the film became de Heer’s most profitable release. Unfortunately, the director has yet to score a box-office hit in the U.S. or attract any major media attention for his work. Even in his own country Australia, de Heer’s films do not draw audiences despite critical acclaim and awards. But when you look at the body of de Heer’s work, one thing is certain; he is one of the most original and adventurous filmmakers working in current cinema. Although born in the Netherlands, the director has lived in Australia since the age of eight and many of his films display an engaging curiosity and occasionally acerbic view of that nation’s culture and landscape. His second feature, Encounter at Raven’s Gate (1988), is a quasi-supernatural thriller with sci-fi overtones that bares some similarities with the apocalyptic menace of both Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave by fellow Australian filmmaker Peter Weir. Dingo (1991), an offbeat homage to jazz, follows a struggling musician from the Outback who eventually gets to meet his idol, the legendary trumpeter Billy Cross (played by Miles Davis in his only role in a feature film), in Paris. Bad Boy Bubby (1993) looked like it was going to be the turning point film for de Heer as it won numerous film festival awards and generated controversial word-of-mouth for its audacious character study of an emotionally stunted and abused adult male who escapes his captivity to make his way in the world. The first third of the film is disturbing, squalid and unwatchable for some due to scenes of incest and animal cruelty (involving a cat) but the darkness gives way to light in the second section as the title character grows as a human being through the wonders of sex, rock ‘n roll and pizza, ending up as a functioning and happy member of society by the fadeout. Unfortunately, Bad Boy Bubby‘s mix of the outrageous, tragic and whimsical were too unclassifiable and art house niche to attract a U.S. distributor but his subsequent film, THE QUIET ROOM, was no easy sell either with its unorthodox approach to a troubled marriage as witnessed by a child.
Still de Heer continued to march to the beat of his own drummer, regardless of poor box-office prospects, and helmed Epsilon (1995), a visionary fable that pondered the existence of alien beings while questioning the future and value of the human race. The film was shorn of ten minutes and released by Miramax Films in America under the generic title of Alien Visitor – it bombed.
Dance Me to My Song (1998) was another challenging and unexpected character study focusing on a woman with debilitating cerebral palsy and her awakening sexual desire. de Herr also embarked on an unofficial trilogy about Aboriginal culture beginning with The Tracker (2002), starring David Gulpilil (Walkabout) in a period allegory about a native hunter who leads three policemen on a search for a wanted killer; Ten Canoes (2006), an ethnographic adventure made with the participation of the Ramingining community on the Arafura Swamp in Arnhem Land (the remote northern territory of Australia) and Twelve Canoes (2009), a documentary portrait of the Yoingu people who inhabit the aforementioned Arafura Swamp region. In 2007, de Heer made Dr. Plonk, a black and white silent comedy about an eccentric inventor that pays homage to the silent comedies of Buster Keaton and Charles Charplin. Other one-offs include Alexandra’s Project (2003), de Heer’s harsh dissection of a dysfunctional marriage which has some of the disturbing power of a Michael Haneke film; the awkwardly titled The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001) starring Richard Dreyfuss in an exotic jungle adventure (filmed in French Guiana) and the oddball black comedy/suburban drama, The King is Dead (2012), which follows an escalating feud between a young married couple and their obnoxious, unruly neighbor.
If you have never seen a de Heer film, then I recommend you start with either THE QUIET ROOM or The Tracker before moving on to edgier, more provocative fare like Alexandra’s Project or Bad Boy Bubby. Eight of his movies are available on Netflix including the rarely seen Dingo or you can spring for the 6-film Rolf De Heer DVD box set which includes the lesser known Dr. Plonk and The Old Man Who Read Love Stories. For more information on THE QUIET ROOM and de Heer, check out the links below.
http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=199&s=Interviews (interview with Andrew L. Urban)