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KYD is proud to present a selection of film writing from the 2022 Melbourne Women in Film Festival’s Critics Lab. This program enables four emerging Australian film critics to interview filmmakers and panellists, network with industry folk, attend special screenings throughout the festival and learn from mentors Aimee Knight and Lesley Chow.

Catch up on last year’s Critics Lab roundup, and for more great film writing from this year’s festival, check out the Critics Lab blog!

Love and Other Catastrophes (1996)
dir. Emma-Kate Croghan

Amongst a commotion of colour and movement are glimpses of people smiling, laughing and ironically flashing peace signs down the barrel. It’s a nineties house party and the room is abuzz with conversation that traverses between analysis of Nietzsche to rumours about someone dying from wanking to Madonna. Love and Other Catastrophes (1996) exists in these vibrant spaces: moving from share house to cafe to stuffy lecture hall with a breezy authenticity and irreverent attitude.

The first feature of then 23-year-old director Emma-Kate Croghan, Love and Other Catastrophes was shot in just seventeen days. This is born out in the film’s frenetic energy and charming sense of chaos. The plot follows housemates Mia (Frances O’Connor) and Alice (Alice Garner) over the course of a day at university. Mia, a vivacious film major with commitment issues, is afraid of living with her girlfriend Danni (Radha Mitchell). Meanwhile, Alice, a perfectionist in her fourth year of a thesis on Doris Day, is frustrated by her inability to find ‘the one’ and uncharacteristically pursues ‘the Warren Beatty of campus’, Ari (Matthew Dyktynski). Michael (Matt Day), a sweet though awkward med student, is on the hunt for a new place and infatuated with Alice.

Despite its purported focus on love, the film’s main draw is its flippant comedy. Its witty send-up of academia—and in particular university bureaucracy—is spot on. In an amusing sequence, Mia marches across campus trying to change departments, only to be sent back and forth between academics who squabble like toddlers: ‘Tell her she has to sign it first!’ For her part, Alice is often seen emerging from the bushes or hidden beneath a table in fear of her thesis supervisor.

Attempts to shoehorn in romance weaken the film, especially toward its conclusion. The final partnership between Alice and Michael is unmotivated and hasty. Besides having the same favourite movies there has been no real connection established between the two. Likewise, though Mia and Danni clearly have a strong bond, their reconciliation at the end of the film feels rushed and brushes swiftly over deep issues in the relationship—such as Mia’s fear of commitment and Danni’s new lover.

Yet the film does an impressive job fleshing out other types of love—namely, friendship. This is largely due to the lively chemistry between O’Connor and Garner, whose rapid-fire dialogue and effervescence light up the screen.

From the film’s very first moments to its last, the viewer is not regarded as a distant observer, but as a friend.

Love and Other Catastrophes is bookended by sequences that mimic home movies. Images are soaked in sepia tones, the camera is handheld, and characters overtly acknowledge its presence. The opening shows Mia pointing toward a door and pans to follow the girls into their new apartment. At the end, the group sit around a park—lighting birthday candles, shovelling down cake, and competing in piggyback races. Viewers are positioned as active participants in these moments of unadulterated joy, with characters laughing at and blowing kisses to the camera. Thus, from the film’s very first moments to its last, the viewer is not regarded as a distant observer, but as a friend.

–Lily Rodgers

*

At a house party in nineties Melbourne, a girl in dark lipstick explains Nietzsche.

‘Like the heavier the burden, the more truthful and real our lives become,’ she says, as her male interlocutor’s mouth hangs open. ‘On the other hand, the absence of burden causes us to be more truthful and real. So, what do you choose? Weight or lightness?’ Emma-Kate Croghan’s sub-screwball comedy clearly chooses the latter.

Coolly shrugging off any potential heaviness underpinning its characters’ navigation of sex, love and library fines, Love and Other Catastrophes opts for a breezy, self-conscious irony stitched together by a slew of meta-references. Even visited from a cultural moment when postmodern cynicism feels less quirky and subversive and more suffocating, the film still offers up some ‘truthful and real’ moments. In the relationship between protagonists and housemates Mia (Frances O’Connor) and Alice (Alice Garner), an awkward warmth endures despite their clear exasperation with each other.

Unravelling frantically across 24 hours—where a restricted frame intensifies the subject’s quickly shifting moods—the film follows Mia as she struggles to transfer departments before the university’s deadline while fighting with her girlfriend Danni (Radha Mitchell). Meanwhile, Alice is getting to know classics student and campus heartbreaker Ari (Matthew Dyktynski) while avoiding the professor chasing an update on her long-overdue thesis (on Doris Day as a feminist warrior).

Though touted as a romantic comedy, romance is not the nexus of the film. It emerges only in the spaces between the absurd web of bureaucracy that typifies university life. When matters of the heart are finally attended to, it is with refreshing candour. Queerness and sex work, rather than presented as ‘themes’ to be grappled with—this was the decade that gave us Chasing Amy (1997) and Pretty Woman (1990), after all—unfold as ordinary, embedded in the story without a moral weight attached.

At times, it feels like an experiment in what it means to tell stories to a generation promised ‘the end of history’, underlined by a sense that catastrophe is probably best taken lightly.

Made over just seventeen days, Love and Other Catastrophes’ occasional amateur acting and not-so-witty one-liners do not neatly bolster its lo-fi charm. However, an interesting, improvisational sensibility extends beyond the film’s budgetary constraints to reflect the political world it emerges from. At times, it feels like an experiment in what it means to tell stories to a generation promised ‘the end of history’, underlined by a sense that catastrophe is probably best taken lightly.

–Taylor Mitchell

*

With flat lighting, film grain and rough audio that screams Kevin Smith-era indie, Love and Other Catastrophes (1996) throws us headlong into the lives of four Uni students over twenty-four hours. Rather than being concerned with major plot points, the film’s casual gaze takes pleasure in seemingly mundane sub-plots and small moments between characters. While that may sound like an interminably slow Rohmer derivative, Emma-Kate Croghan’s fizzy and fun feature is nothing of the sort. Everything’s infused with comic-book energy and slap-bang pacing, turning everyday-life into an adventure full of twists and turns. The film soars when all of its plot strands are blowing in the breeze and we’re just drinking in the vibes.

The opening Super 8 montage of Mia (Francis O’Connor) and Alice (Alice Garner) hanging out on a rooftop in celebratory style, feels like the film saying, ‘If you’re after narrative momentum, leave.’ In a whirlwind of quick cuts, we are introduced to wannabe-philosopher-cum-playboy, Ari (Matthew Dyktinski), and Michael (Matt Day), a nervous medical student trying to flee his bong-infested boys club of a living situation. Cue best friends and roommates, Mia and Alice. Mia is a quick-witted film student, irreverent if insensitive, compulsively taking the piss often to her own detriment. Her relationship with her girlfriend Dannie (Radha Mitchell) is falling apart, but she barely has time to care while juggling bureaucratic hurdles towards switching film courses. Alice is a pensive fellow-film student in a mini life limbo, struggling with a four-year overdue thesis and an interest in finding ‘the one’ who’s not showing up. Mia and Alice are looking for a roommate, so Michael might be in luck. And perhaps Ari could be ‘the one’ for Alice.

Having studied at VCA Film and Television School where the film is shot and set, Croghan clearly understands the ins-and-outs of these characters and their world. Everything feels lived-in, vibrant and real. The grainy cinematography and slightly self-conscious compositions become cosy and raw, like vibing out on a tatty couch to a good friend’s garage band. Croghan’s non-judgemental depiction of the characters’ stumbles and strides through what life throws at them—from matters of the heart to ‘catastrophic’ library fines—is endearingly affectionate, except that Ari and Michael are completely let off the hook for their casual misogyny.

Most charming as a series of cobbled-together moments with shot-on-the-fly energy, this exuberant comedy zips along at a rate that smooths over its wobbles. While scenes have a relaxed and spontaneous life, the story arc travels safely down the standard rom-com route: the characters dazedly collide, meet-up, split-up and reconnect en route to their eventual, seemingly inevitable pairings. That road winds up a little rote, particularly when the pairings are put to rest with a punchline that’s neat in a dad-joke kind of way. But the real pleasures are the film’s shaggy looseness and lightness, with the palpable joy that the actors bring to the shenanigans. It’s a pretty great hangout movie in an okay-ish rom-com.

–Paul Burns

Rhapsody of Love (2021)
dir. Joy Hopwood

From the ‘oh-so incidental’ meet-cute to the satisfyingly tortuous ‘will they, won’t they?’ battle, a romantic comedy, if done right, fulfils cravings for both casual feel-good viewing and hearty cultural conversation. While Rhapsody of Love (2021) tries to provide for such desires—considering its self-proclaimed ‘first Asian Australian rom-com’ title—it sadly misses its mark entirely.

The film opens with Jessica Flowers (Kathy Luu), a cliched carbon-copy of the ‘forever single’ archetype, tasked with best man duties at her best friend’s wedding. Here, a love triangle (and later, love square) forms between Jessica, wedding videographer Justin (Damien Sato), and his girlfriend, Victoria (Lily Stewart). This messy entanglement is set against other troubled love stories, including the rocky relationship between newlyweds Ben (Benjamin Hanly) and Natasha (Jessica Niven).

Almost everything—from Jessica’s obnoxiously bright blue suit to the awkwardly punctuated dialogue—carries an exaggerated, and at times unnatural, chirp. This isn’t a particularly bad quality per se, as it is typically easy to forgive rom-coms for their inherent cheesy qualities. What Rhapsody of Love lacks is a level of craft in its script and character development to balance this overbearing theatricality.

The film bares a few glimpses of what it could have been if greater attention and care for visual and narrative depth were brought to the table. The moment in which Jessica and Justin anchor Ben through his struggle with anxiety shows the film has valuable things to say about mental health and friendship, perhaps more so than it does about love.

Inconsistent editing stunts the film’s flow, forgoing the cohesive dynamism of ensemble rom-coms like Crazy, Stupid, Love and The Holiday. By merely cutting between each of the relationship storylines, little tension is felt when each suffers from the same issue: a lack of compromise and understanding. Both Natasha and Victoria are framed as spoiled partners, blamed after their ambition to forge a career for themselves. Both Ben and Justin are portrayed as ambitious too, but in a way that is threatened by their partner’s own goals. For a moment, the film appears to build Ben and Natasha’s storyline as model answer to the other couples’ issues with conflicting personal ambitions and busy schedules. Even then, the film completely diverges from what could have been meaningful commentary on healthy versus toxic modern relationships, failing to show how any of the leads make promising strides towards becoming ‘better at love’. The film instead resorts to plainly telling audiences how each character miraculously achieves their fairytale ending, presenting a short When Harry Met Sally-esque montage at the film’s closing.

By merely cutting between each of the relationship storylines, little tension is felt when each suffers from the same issue: a lack of compromise and understanding.

The film is commendable in its commitment, from both director Joy Hopwood and the crew, to collaborating and delivering a feature during the pandemic. Undoubtedly, various technicalities hold the film back from living up to its full potential. Its faults should hopefully push for a second, third and subsequent plenitude of new and upcoming Asian Australian rom-coms to truly do the genre justice.

–Victoria Lonergan

*

Cupid’s arrow was spiked with plenty of awkwardness when it struck Jess Flowers (Kathy Luu) and Justin Judd (Damien Sato). A similar cocktail of confusion filters its way through the film itself, as we follow four couples navigating their relationships on shaky ground. While there are some good intentions, such as showcasing strong, career-driven women, the chemistry between all characters is questionable, leaving me with many questions throughout: Why are Justin and his girlfriend even in a relationship when it is blatantly obvious they shouldn’t be? Are the newlyweds really necessary in this story? Where is the comedy? Or the romance, for that matter?

Most conversations between characters are either left at loose ends or forcefully concluded, and the characters are entangled in each other’s lives, but the tension of a ‘will they, won’t they?’ sub-plot is limp at best. At one point, Justin is confronted by his pal, Ben (Benjamin Hanly) for having an interest in Jess despite having a girlfriend. His response is to simply stand up and jog on. Later, Justin cuts Jess short in a vulnerable admission of career struggle, planting a kiss on her lips. Moments like these could have formed deeper emotional connections between the characters, but instead forced the idea that there was some undeniable, romantic urge pulling them together.

Most of the film’s warmth and intrigue comes when a number of character-created films are flicked through—there’s a lovely final montage of a mockumentary, presumably created by Justin and the Flowers sisters. Perhaps the film should have taken on that form instead of the rather predictable rom-com narrative where a number of predictable attempts at cliché-avoidance were made: the diverse cast, the wedding at the start as opposed to the end, the long term best friend duo not ending up together, the slip-in of anxiety/mental health awareness. Ultimately though, these efforts were overshadowed by underwhelming acting, and cringe-worthy lines such as ‘I broke the G-string;’ inviting sexual innuendo, with a guitar in hand. If that stirred a smile, then by all means, hit play!

–Isabel Donohoe