Friday August 1, 1997
"Love Serenade" offers as precise and merciless a comic vision as anyone could want. A wickedly funny examination of obsessive romantic behavior, its satiric vision of women in love and men on the make was devastating enough to earn writer-director Shirley Barrett the highly prized Camera d'Or at Cannes, given to the best first film both in and out of competition.
Barrett is Australian, the latest in a slew of filmmakers adept at creating bizarre psychological landscapes where comic delusion is the rule. "Love Serenade's" producer, Jan Chapman, has worked with both Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong, and though this is Barrett's debut, she gives every evidence of belonging in their company.
A perfectly acted four-character drama, "Love Serenade" is set in the completely parched hamlet of Sunray, where time has not so much stood still as been baked in its tracks. The local radio station, 101.4 on your FM dial, is so bedraggled it's never so much as seen a compact disc, and no one has broadcast from there for months.
Into the studio and the surrounding lunar landscape comes a refugee from the wider world. Ken Sherry (veteran Australian actor George Shevtsov), once the Drivetime King of Brisbane radio, arrives in town, complete with aviator sunglasses, reptilian smile and lounge lizard manner.
An aging hipster who favors shirts open to mid-chest level, Ken Sherry has a seductive voice that drowns its listeners in waves of ennui. He has a taste for rambling personal monologues and the funkadelic sounds of Barry White, and the whole package has a devastating effect on a pair of unwary twentysomething sisters whom fate has placed in the house next door to this self-proclaimed "fool where women are concerned."
Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith) is the oldest, a prim beautician who may be the only person in town to have heard of Ken Sherry. She casts covetous eyes on the new arrival from the big city, bombarding him with a baffling string of homemade casseroles and perky smiles.
Vicki-Ann, it develops, sees the world exclusively in glowing romance magazine terms. "Ken Sherry," she earnestly informs her mopey sister Dimity, "has come to Sunray to heal. Slowly, bit by bit, he may learn to love again."
Dimity (Miranda Otto, winner of an Australian Oscar for Armstrong's "The Last Days of Chez Nous") is not so sure about any of this. Awkward, ill-at-ease but more scheming than her fog-bound psyche would indicate, Dimity (who works at the local Chinese restaurant) doesn't see why uneaten casseroles need be the only route to a man's heart.
Never mind that Ken Sherry is a pig in a poke, a dissipated Barry Manilow wannabe addicted to fake intimacy. To Dimity and Vicki-Ann, he is closer to Prince Charming than they ever expected to get and, mutually and madly infatuated, they engage in a peevish rivalry for his wandering affection.
Drawn into this battle from time to time is Albert Lee (John Alansu), Dimity's boss, a man of almost regal formality and comic diction who has always admired Vicki-Ann from a distance. A stern moralist and spare-time nudist, Albert takes a strong dislike to Ken Sherry when he rashly questions the freshness of the establishment's prawns, and little happens to make him change his mind.
Beautifully consistent in tone from its waspish beginning to a savage, surreal ending, "Love Serenade" is one of those films that shows how essential it can be for writers to direct their own work. No one but Barrett could understand the bizarre nuances of this arch and heavily ironic comedy of obliviousness, with its subtext of men being another species altogether, or guide its actors so expertly toward understanding characters who have no insight themselves.
This is a pitiless kind of comedy, and it works especially well against the backdrop of the sullen romantic ballads of Barry White, including "Never Gonna Give You Up," "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More Baby" and the song that gives the film its name. In this cracked, hot house world, those throaty extravaganzas begin to sound as if they're making sense. "We're all odd," Ken Sherry says, and this film is not about to argue the point.
Love Serenade, 1997. R, for some sexuality. Released by Miramax Films. Director Shirley Barrett. Producer Jan Chapman. Screenplay Shirley Barrett. Cinematographer Mandy Walker. Editor Denise Haratzis. Costumes Anna Borghesi. Production design Steven Jones-Eveans. Art director Tony Campbell. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Miranda Otto as Dimity Hurley. Rebecca Frith as Vicki-Ann Hurley. George Shevtsov as Ken Sherry. John Alansu as Albert Lee.