In the years since she broke through with My Brilliant Career (1979), the Australian director Gillian Armstrong has evolved an evanescent style of naturalistic storytelling, a way of letting a movie float along on wisps of mood, detail, and interior revelation. The Last Days of Chez Nous is an edgy tale of marital breakdown, yet it’s no harrowing psychodrama like Scenes From a Marriage or Shoot the Moon. Armstrong treats the distances between people not as a tragedy but as a comic starting point. For her, the miracle is that we can make as many connections as we do.
In a tranquil suburb of Sydney, Beth (Lisa Harrow), a smart, beautiful, spiritually rigid novelist, watches her husband, the warm and narcissistic J.P. (Bruno Ganz), drift away. Is there another woman? There certainly is: Beth’s eccentric sister, Vicki (Kerry Fox), who has recently moved into the household. Between this movie, Damage, and the Woody-Soon-Yi imbroglio, a new theme is emerging in our culture: symbolic (that is, nonliteral) incest — forbidden love as a subversive reaction to familial discord. For Armstrong, the attraction between J.P. and Vicki is less a matter of lust than of overlapping temperament. This director is too busy tracing the ways people are drawn into one another’s orbits to make judgments about their actions.
The Last Days of Chez Nous might have been even more convincing if Armstrong had made a few judgments. The last section, in which Beth emerges with a new, sunny-souled optimism, requires a leap of faith that seems woefully naive. Until then, Armstrong enters the kind of intimate emotional spaces that remain all but invisible to most filmmakers. A-