The Power of the Dog / Bad Luck Banging

The Power of the Dog

Now playing in Australian cinemas.

* * * 1/2

During the end credits of Jane Campion’s new feature The Power of the Dog, she thanks a colleague who gave her the novel on which it is based. Her friend thought she’d like it; it’s easy to see why. I haven’t read the book but Campion’s screenplay and filmed version of it echoes repeatedly in all manner of ways with her acknowledged masterpiece, The Piano (1993).

That film, set in the mid-1800s in isolated New Zealand, placed a newly-married woman and her daughter into a psychosexual pressure-cooker involving two men, one rough as guts and one highly refined. This film, set in 1925 in isolated Montana, places a newly-married woman and her son into a psychosexual pressure-cooker involving two men, one rough as guts and one highly refined. There’s even, not only a piano for the woman to play, but a scene of rough-as-guts workers carrying it across rugged landscape into a refined house for her: a case of a director paying almost risibly direct homage to herself.

The film pans out differently, but thematically it’s of a piece with The Piano, and shares with that film plenty of top-tier craft, including a suite of excellent performances and an outstanding original score (this time by Jonny Greenwood). But the film hums frustratingly along on that single frequency of psychosexual tension without a huge amount of actual dramatic energy. The Piano swept you along: it was ecstatic cinema. The Power of the Dog is restrained for its entire two hours and six minutes, and we, the audience, unfortunately may feel as bound and suffocated by its reserve as the woman, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) does by her observed, isolated new life.

By all means see the film, and preferably on the big screen; it’s sure to feature heavily in awards – including Oscar – conversations, and it does have an eerie, enigmatic quality (and some great acting). But be prepared to settle calmly in your seat, as this film settles into its one very consistent tone.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Opens 25/11 in Australian cinemas.

* * *

Much has been made at various festivals, including the recent Sydney Film Festival, of the explicit opening of Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. And it is indeed full of genitalia and explicit sexual acts – for about three minutes. After that the film settles into a story of how those acts, as featured in a sex tape privately filmed by a school teacher, gets her into hot water when they appear online. The film is a colourful, unsubtle attack on hypocrisy and conservatism, in Romania and beyond, in the time of Covid: there are masks, and attitudes to wearing them, all over the film. Jude is shrewd: his film won’t make Marvel Box Office, but it’s precisely engineered for maximum festival marketability. Hopefully if you come for the porn, you’ll stay for the social critique.

The Trouble With Being Born

Opens in Australian cinemas 3rd December.

* * * *

Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner’s challenging second feature is intelligent and thoughtful, legitimately subversive and transgressive, conceptually ambitious, but most of all, devastatingly sad. Straddling sci-fi, family drama and provocation, it operates as a darker B-Side to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).

In a world otherwise not markedly different from our own, realistic robots with advanced A.I. exist. In summer, in a suburban house in Austria, a man and his robot live together. He is middle-aged. The robot represents as female, around nine or so years old. Every facet of their relationship, and every facet of our response, is complicated.

This is one brave movie. It takes on massive thematic concerns unflinchingly. It will not be for everybody. It will not be for most. But it is guaranteed to make you think, and in particular, think about technology, grief, memory, and the conceptual link between them. It is a provocation only in that it dares to deal with possibilities we’d rather not think about, but it is not at all exploitative, grotesque or squalid. It is beautifully crafted along cool, formal lines, featuring exquisite naturalistic performances and sublime cinematography. It is rigorous, thoughtful and deeply heartfelt. One of the better films of the year, and almost certainly the most audacious.