Beneath the delicate lantana blossoms lies a thorny undergrowth and a still-life scene that’s very still; in fact, it includes a dead woman. Her ripped nylons and torn flesh float in a bed of thorns swallowed by the sound of insects in the dark. Without explanation, we go straight from death to sex to a pensive unwinding of tension between multiple couples and the psychology that holds them in tow.
Lantana, an Australian film directed by Ray Lawrence (Bliss), is a modern-day film noir characterized by a dreamy blue-and-gold color-bathed atmosphere, a stylized, reverberated running-guitar soundtrack to match and a “whodunit and why?” plot path.
Psychiatrist Valerie Sommers’ paranoia and liquid emotional shell are central to creating an ambience of suspicion, well executed by actress Barbara Hershey who always seems to have a whirlwind screaming just below her skin. Her character hits the nail on the head when she states, “Trust is as vital to human relationships as breath is to life.”
Everyone is suffocating in Lantana. Sommers and her husband John (Geoffrey Rush) are weighed down by the grief of a lost daughter, which strains her ability as an objective professional and slowly strangles their relationship. Sonya, her patient, laments over her disintegrating marriage to emotionally constipated Leon (Anthony LaPaglia), a cop who moves about on-screen like a fist about to explode.
Unfortunately, repetitive music and similarity of shots from scene to scene tend to even out any emotional peaks, and the coincidental inter-tangling of these characters’ lives and unveiling of information come off as too deliberate.
With the recent release of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a new precedent for contemporary film noir has been set. Lynch’s film absolutely requires audience participation to piece together a filmic reality, whereas Lantana’s viewers’ hands are held and they are led into a predetermined direction without being given the opportunity or the information to conclude for themselves.
The end result is a nagging feeling that you’ve been had, like falling for a multiple-choice question meant to trick you. Despite all of the above, Lantana is stylistically pleasing with solid acting and an intense depiction of the very serious repercussions of fear.
Opens Friday at the Birmingham Theatre (Old Woodward, S of Maple, Birmingham — 248-644-3456) and the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak — 248-542-0180).