Monday, 18 March 2013

Submerge at the LLGFF

Australia 2012
Directed by Sophie O'Connor
Full production details on imdb


Amateurish but fairly enjoyable b-movie. praiseworthy for the understated treatment of bisexuality and fetishism.

Day two of the 27th BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and I'm off to see some pornography. Well, Submerge was originally conceived as a porn film by co-writer/producer Kat Holmes. In the 9 long years it has taken to reach the screens of the BFI it has come a long way.

Submerge tells the story of Jordan (Lily Hall) as she struggles to balance her own ambitions as a history student with her mothers ambitions for her to be a professional swimmer as well as an evolving social and romantic life. Co-writer/director Sophie O'Connor describes the film's lofty aspirations to serve as a commentary on generation Y, while Holmes has more Australia-centric aims - "it's also about the juxtaposition between mind and body. Australia is a country that worships its athletes, but often neglects to recognise the important work being done in universities."

Holmes had originally wanted to make some "good lesbian porn because there is not very much out there." She and O'Connor are vague about when the decision was made to make a mainstream feature film, but O'Connor speaks with passion about the desire to create a film which features a lesbian main character, but which isn't all about her sexuality. Holmes is very happy to be able to include her passion for history and politics - the film is set around such a university department - which probably wouldn't have attained much focus if it had ended up as pornography.

The film begins slowly, depicting the lives of Jordan and best friend Lucas (32 year old Kevin Dee), as they go to lectures, have casual sex and hug each other a lot. The pressures on Jordan are built up fairly slowly, as is the evolving friendship between her and teaching assistant Angie (Naomie Watts look a like Christina Hallet). Their relationship is core to the film, and works because it is so understated. There are no long conversations, but the chemistry lives in the looks they exchange (even if some of Hall's are painfully over acted), and the way they effortlessly become closer. Naturalistically trusting each other and letting each other into their lives. The sexual tension and angst at their situation becomes palpable, as does Angie's internal struggle. Her face and actions say everything, and the film benefits from the absence of patronising conversations in which her thoughts are spelt out to the audience.

l-r: Sophie O'Connor, Kat Holmes, Lily Hall
answer questions following the screening
O'Connor's low budget directorial d├ębut certainly has an amateurish feel. Several supporting characters, including Angie's partner Cameron (Andrew Curry) who gets a lot of screen time, have not been that well fleshed out as characters, and their acting leaves a lot to be desired. Several times a technique of sound obfuscation is used, where whole conversations are not heard or not included in the film. In one example, several characters share a dinner and the main conversation is cut away until we hear the tail end of a joke and some badly acted laughter. This could be a technique to try and keep the calm, naturalistic feel of the film, without getting caught in the details, but equally it feels like the writers could simply not do small talk. The use of music is similarly odd, clumsy almost. A strange selection of songs are used, and in a very heavy handed way. There is no subtlety in the abrupt change of song to set the tone, and it is not just the biography of the Lily Hall that makes it feel slightly like a soap opera. 

The sets are interesting, the club and fetish scenes in particular are testament to O'Connor's feeling that it is "important to me to have a tactile environment." There are a few carefully constructed exterior camera shots which also lend the feel a more aesthetic feel, and advantage is taken of the Melbourne location without feeling like a tourist infomercial. 

Water is predictably a key part of the imagery to the film. The title combines a swimmers feeling of security and calm, with a potential to drown, and is an obvious reference to the main character's literal and metaphorical experiences. Interestingly, Jordan had originally been written as a tennis player, but had been changed so as not to have clashed with the character of Dana from TV's the L Word,  who they considered iconic within lesbian culture. This definitely strengthens the film, in which water, submergence, reflections are a running theme. O'Connor "had been toying with the idea of using water to convey the shifting essence of Jordan's worlds" and in interview Hall cannot help but talk in water based analogies.  

Submerge is not an excellent film. But it is enjoyable and fundamentally it achieves O'Connor's original aim - it features a lesbian, or possibly bisexual, main character, but it is not all about her sexuality, which makes it a cinematic rarity. The tension between Jordan and her mother is about their different aspirations for her professionally, and it does not degenerate into a coming out story. Yes Jordan is 'submerging' into a world of alternative sexuality and fetishism, and yes she is falling for a woman, but these are all part of this study of the over pressured, confused generation Y, and not presented in and as of themselves as controversial, or even noteworthy. Perhaps this freedom from sexual judgement is the benefit of founding an idea in porn.

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