This is a difficult one to pigeonhole. On the surface it’s an ordinary story of an ordinary couple in the suburbs. Then slowly, as the film unwinds, we learn awful truths about the couple and the hidden things behind closed doors.
Steve (Gary Sweet) is 40 today. He’s got two great kids and a great wife, Alexandra (Helen Buday). She’s unhappy in herself, but this isn’t Steve’s fault, she needs to put in more effort... or so he thinks. He goes to work on his birthday knowing that Alexandra has prepared a big surprise party for that evening. So he spends the day at work in his usual wanker style and sexist manner before he comes home to an empty house. His first hint something is wrong is when his key won’t work, but luckily he finds the front door open. Still this must be part of the surprise. The furniture has been stacked up ready for the shindig, but all the lightbulbs are missing. Finally, after searching the house he finds a videotape insisting he Play Me.
What he finds on the videotape slowly brings out some home truths about his wife, himself and what he thought was an ideal situation (which for him, it was).
So begins what can best be described as a taut psychological thriller. The eeriness of the vacant house that still bears all semblances of life is paramount, but there are more and more of these creepy triggers oozing from the contents of the videotape. As Steve’s birthday plays out, his very foundations are deteriorating as he learns more and more of his wife and her unmet desires. There’s a growing tension that has been captured in exacting style by director Rolf de Heer (Bad Boy Bubby) who also penned the screenplay.
A self-confessed budget film, Alexandra’s Project has been created on leftover film ends and single take cameras shooting the television picture as a character. (Consider this; if you shoot to Hi 8 as many times as you like to get the image right, it costs nothing to reuse videotape time and again. Once it’s done, you play it on a TV and record the TV with cameras in one, single, cost-effective shot. Videotape doesn’t fluff its lines).
Still, the budget of the film is rarely apparent here and goes a long way toward showing that anything can be made great with great writing. (Just look at South Park - great animation it is not). The close proximity of the single room in which Steve views the videotape creates a stifling sense of claustrophobia that builds the tension brilliantly. The fact the house is wholly secure from the outside with metal blinds and rollers also adds to the tension with the lights out and bare streaks of fading sunlight angling into the room. There are definitely some confronting moments on the videotape, but these shouldn’t be shied from; in fact they make the film all the more barbed. Had they been left out or glossed over, the film’s impact would have dispersed quite rapidly.
Alexandra’s Project is a much better film than I was expecting and even Gary Sweet does great work here, no doubt having fun in his role of a totally self-centred wanker. About the only horror in his role is when we see him with his gear off, but thankfully that isn’t long (heh). Performances from the other major cast member in Helen Buday is the film though as we witness years of unresolved tension unraveling at breakneck pace via the videotape. Her portrayal of Alexandra is saddening, yet we feel a defiance from her that ingests the story with the anger it needs to tell things correctly.
This film is living proof that there is no need for multi-million dollar budgets to tell a good story well, nor any need for the showiness of CG or exploding cars to master filmmaking. De Heer has made an incredibly terse film on no money that looks just as good as the content does.
I suppose in a closed environment like the actual interior of the house they used as a set here, it’s easier to get everything looking just right and this is captured dynamically in the transfer. Nothing out of place, a clean image, great colour and blacks are true. That’s important when there are so many shadows lurking about in this darkened house, and thankfully the shadow detail is great and makes the best use of itself to add to the overall creepiness. While the film is delivered in the full cinema aspect of 2.35:1 with anamorphic enhancement, it could have succeeded just as well with a 1.85:1 delivery. Still, I’m not complaining. A great transfer here without real qualms.
Alexandra’s Project is one of those films that stays with you for a day or two past watching it. It is brilliantly shot and acted and the story, while confronting in parts, is dynamic and compelling. Performances are spot on and the transfer to DVD is quite amazing. De Heer has made a film here that proves Australian cinema is just getting better and better as the 21st century spreads out before us.
Not recommended for the kids by any means, but adults who enjoy a good gripping story with a tense subtext are bound to find much to please here. While it isn’t a pleasant film, it is well told and not quite as confronting as some of De Heer’s earlier efforts and is well worth the investigation.