love and other catastrophes


Directed: Emma-Kate Croghan
Written: Yael Bergman, Emma-Kate Croghan & Helen Bandis

One could almost call this film "the little film that could". Made in a matter of weeks with just a Woody Allen-inspired clever script, no money and a lot of passion, Love and Other Catastrophes was the Australian cinema success story of 1996. Lesbians and all.

After a dream run in Australian cinemas (I know I saw it five times in one week, still a personal record) the film was chosen for general competition at Cannes. Not bad for a little film whose biggest names were Matt Day and Radha Mitchell, who used to star in Australian soaps A Country Practice and Neighbours respectively. Now Radha Mitchell (High Art, Finding Neverland) and Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park, A.I) have both gone on to make big budget Hollywood features, and it's all because of this movie.

The story revolves around two housemates, Mia (Frances O'Connor) and Alice (Alice Garner) who are attempting to find a new housemate, change Uni departments, get to work, finish an honours thesis, organise a housewarming party and juggle their respective love lives, all in the space of one hectic day.

Mia is a spoiled-rotten drama queen used to getting her own way. She has commitment issues which have prevented her inviting her girlfriend Danni (Radha Mitchell) from moving in, a move which would solve all their financial woes. Alice is faring little better. She's struggling to finish a thesis entitled "Doris Day as a Feminist Warrior" and spends most of the day ducking her academic supervisor, wailing to the campus counsellor, trying to do her barista job and working her way through a crush on Ari, the "Warren Beatty of the campus".

Meanwhile, smalltown medical student Michael ditches his disgusting, pothead housemates and attempts to find a new place to live. (Are we seeing a theme?) He runs into Ari in the men's room who tells him that Mia and Alice are searching for a housemate. Problem is, he's shy, introverted and has a huge crush on the scatterbrained Alice. Alice hits on Ari, unaware that not only is he the campus lothario but he also rents himself out as a gigolo in his spare time. All she wants is someone honest, left-handed and who likes the same movies as she does. She's willing to compromise for a shot with Ari, but of course it's Michael who is her perfect match.

Confused yet? It gets better. Mia is trying to change University departments to follow a favourite lecturer and has, in her usual style, left all her arrangements to the last minute. She's thwarted at every turn by unpaid library fines, a self-absorbed, doughnut-scoffing, heart-attack prone, head of department (comedian Kym Gyngell) and her own deteriorating love-life. Danni, finally having had enough of Mia's commitment issues, decides to break it off, forcing Mia to re-examine her priorities, not just for the day but for her life in general.

The events of the film culminate in the evening during Mia and Alice's housewarming party where the two girls finally work through their respective romantic issues with the hilarious help of Michael, Ari, Danni and a houseful of beer-drinking, philosophising, pot-smoking partygoers.

Comical to the point of farce and redefining "no-budget" filmmaking, this movie is an irresistible charmer with a killer Aussie soundtrack (which is pretty hard to find these days). O'Connor and Mitchell showed what stars they were in the making and the chemistry between them unexpectedly sizzles. All we get is a couple of kisses (one of them incredibly hot) but then again that's all we really see from the hetero couples as well. The film balances its intertwining stories with ease and we never once feel cheated by any of the various story outcomes.

Perhaps a little contrived and distracting are the super-8 sequences that are tacked at the front and rear of the film, but they are also quite fun, and a little experimentation has to be forgiven when you consider the kind of restraints these filmmakers were under. It also has to be said that the supporting cast is just awful. Apart from the five main actors and some clever cameos, the rest of the cast are obviously ring-ins, with film critic Adrian Martin even providing a brief turn as himself, the object of Mia's odd academic obsession. Alice's supervisor was played by a random academic from Melbourne University who volunteered for a couple of hours on camera. To be honest though, for once I don't actually mind. It all just adds to the hilarity.

Love and Other Catastrophes is a testament to the power of the idea. Just a few good scenes, some charming actors and voila! A decent, quirky, urban film. If only they made more of these instead of constantly trying to sell the Australian people as a bunch of outback or brainless hicks the Australian film industry might not be in such dire straits today.

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Radha Mitchell as danni
Danni and Mia kiss and make up
Frances O'Connor as Mia

Last updated: 24 August 2010