In Paul Cox’s Vincent (1987), he makes a cameo in the final moments as a mourner laying sunflowers on Van Gogh’s coffin. The film itself is his extended eulogy, an experimental docufiction that sets scenes from rural Holland and artworks from the prolific painter’s canon against an increasingly agonised narration of Vincent’s letters to his younger brother, Theo. Cox has long expressed his affinity with the tortured artist par excellence, a kindred spirit. Cox sees himself as the unsung outsider, prepared to sacrifice everything to the Gods of artistic creation.
That arch-critic David Stratton heralds Cox as “perhaps Australia’s only auteur”—a sentiment echoed by his many admirers, who’ve also called him our answer to Ingmar Bergman—doesn’t quite fit with this self-image.
What Van Gogh encapsulates is the Romantic ideal to which the director aspires. He is the “true artist”, as Cox describes him in his 1998 memoir Reflections: tormented genius, visionary outsider, slave to amour fou. Is it really love if you’re not prepared to relinquish your ear in the pursuit? Van Gogh also represents the ideal of a capitalisation-worthy Art, yet in Australia such an artist is at odds with a philistine culture. These figures appear in different incarnations across Cox’s cinema; lonely men (and they are always men) who are driven to isolation by their great passions.
Cox is a definite outlier in the history of Australian film. Now seventy-five years old, the elder statesman has produced one of the largest bodies of work of any director working here: nineteen feature films and twelve documentaries, as well as shorts and television projects, which together amount to a remarkably coherent oeuvre. The ordination of ‘auteur’ is well earned. Cox is obsessive about his recurring concerns—art, love, exile, loneliness, spirituality and obsession itself—and the way in which he figures them. It’s a particular feat in a local industry renowned for one-hit wonders and pushing its talents overseas. The Dutch-born director made the journey in reverse, visiting Australia in his twenties on a temporary immigration program designed to promote the country internationally and, eventually, making Australia his home.
The latest of Cox’s lonely men appears this year in Force of Destiny, a swansong made by the filmmaker after his miraculous recovery from liver cancer. David Wenham (who also starred as the missionary priest of Cox’s 1999 film Molokai: The Story of Father Damien) plays Cox’s stand-in Robert, a sculptor living just outside Melbourne who’s more than happy spending his days with his kinetic, anthropomorphic sculptures rather than flesh-and-blood people. Robert, like his creator, has cancer but puts off getting a diagnosis. When he’s ambushed and taken to the doctor by beloved daughter Poppy (Hannah Fredericksen), at the behest of recent ex-wife Hannah (Jacqueline McKenzie), he discovers it’s terminal. Without a transplant, he’s not long for this world.
Robert has many antecedents. Perhaps the most memorable is the neurotic aesthete of Man of Flowers (1983), played by Cox’s muse Norman Kaye, who fetishes flowers. His bloom-filled and baroque house is somewhere between a funeral parlour and a gallery, where he gets a young female artist to strip for him while opera blares; he’s pitted against her boyfriend, a brutish, volatile and coke-addicted conceptual artist. (Drugs don’t figure into Cox’s Romantic ideal, unlike fellow Romantics penchant for opium as a sliding door to the sublime. In Cox’s memoir he includes a news article about the one occasion he took acid, detailing his arrest after running down a Geelong highway naked, convinced he was God. He decided to never indulge in anything as “silly and irresponsible” again.)
The two artists in the Human Touch (2004) mirror this Oedipal dynamic, a sullen young painter and an older spiritualist photographer (who’s bald, named Pablo and wears Picasso-inspired stripes), fighting over the attentions of a choir singer. Then there’s the classical radio DJ of My First Wife (1984), a European in a hostile land, whose small-minded wife leaves him on account of his workaholism. In a particularly funny scene he rails against the bartender (played by a young Renee Geyer) in a local pub for the Aussie rock they have on the radio, requesting Beethoven instead. Or the retired artist and geriatric Romeo of Innocence (2000). Or the dancer Vaslav Nikinski—Cox’s other kindred spirit—who he made a biopic about in 2001. Sometimes obsession is artistry enough: the blind botanist in 1986’s Cactus (starring a young Isabelle Huppert and stage actor Robert Menzies) or the anachronistic clock repairman in Golden Braid (1990).
There’s also a division made between the “true artist” and the art world, filled with highfalutin moneymen who feign friendship but really want to suck the artist’s blood. The protagonist of Kostas (1979), a newly arrived Greek immigrant, begins dating a curator (Wendy Hughes) whose snobbish milieu is set against the authenticity of the taverna where Greek bands play passionate music. In Force of Destiny, Robert’s agent pretends to care about his condition but is more concerned with his work’s progress; of course if Robert carks it, the price will go up. Cox retains some awareness of his self-seriousness though: art world farce Lust and Revenge (1996) takes aim at everyone.
Despite his protagonists’ melancholy, Cox always offers some sense of redemption. In Force of Destiny it takes the form of his blossoming romance with Maya (Shahana Goswami), an Indian marine biologist who’s taken a temporary posting at the local aquarium. Not only is she a fan of his obscure work, but she trades in exactly the kind of mysticism he needs at this juncture. Her authentic spirituality is set against his nagging ex-wife, who wants to return to him after he gets sick; no matter that she’s the one waiting on him and delivering him to hospital appointments. It’s the mysterious other who can restore strength to the dying man (as well as the kitschy shell portrait of Van Gogh that she gifts him at Christmas). Like in most of Cox’s films, it’s love that offers salvation.
The self-taught director privileges the artist’s inner world, often rupturing his narratives with enlarged Super 8 footage whose imagery repeats across his cinema (oft taken from preceding films): the sky shot through tree branches, train windows whooshing past, flowers, birds, bodies of water. In Force of Destiny Robert’s x-rays become swirling galaxies and erupting volcanoes—signs of disaster and the unknown—as well as scenes in India with Maya that could be fantastical or prophetic. While these are figured as his characters’ unconscious visions, most of them have personal significance for Cox in childhood memories both traumatic and transient. “Injuries of our childhood last a lifetime,” he notes in Reflections. “Age becomes an accumulation of scars.”
The transition to digital filmmaking has not been kind to Cox. His filmic projects (that critics like Adrian Martin have noted are resolutely naïve) appear amateurish when shot on DMV. Moreover, the obsessions that marked Cox as an auteur (his loose trilogy Lonely Hearts , Man of Flowers and My First Wife are hallmarks in the history of Australian cinema) have been left in the wash cycle decades too long. His concept of the artist is one of Modernism’s lost grand narratives. His previous film Salvation (2009), his last film with regular Wendy Hughes before she passed away (Force of Destiny is dedicated to her), may be about televangelists rather than artists, but the shortcomings are similar.
What Cox has always stood for is the possibility of an art cinema in Australia – a designation that perhaps requires him to remain an outsider. His urbanity is at odds with the iconic vistas favoured by the other filmmakers who came to maturity in the Australian Film Revival, who took to the open planes to depict the colonial homeland. And while Cox may have often shot in suburbs like Williamstown and Albert Park where he resided—sometimes even within his own home—there’s nothing particularly Australian about these scenes. They could take place anywhere.
It’s often noted the ‘Europeanness’ of Cox’s films, suggesting his art cinema credentials belie the Antipodean sensibility. Those who ventured into more artistic terrains—Albie Thoms of Ubu Films (in 1973’s Sunshine City and 1979’s Palm Beach), Helen Grace’s feminist enquiry Serious Undertakings (1983), pioneering Italian–Australian filmmaker Giorgio Mangiamele, or experimental filmmakers the Cantrills—did so at the cost of mainstream exhibition. At the time experimentalism spelt marginality, though these figures been duly recognised now. Even intimate relationship dramas like Monkey Grip (1982) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) were accused by some critics of simply aping European conventions.
In some ways Cox has fostered this exile’s gaze, whose marginality allows him that extra sagacity of vision. Now decades since he’s emigrated, he maintains that he’s never felt entirely at peace here. In a 1993 interview he said “I live in a country that is not my own. I can’t go back to my own country, so I don’t know where I am. I have no home” – a sentiment he has echoed throughout his life. Must the true artist, like his hero Van Gogh, remain on the peripheries, a lonely heart for the ages?
Where Cox’s protagonists find comfort is in their art. The artist is only ever truly at home in his work, his great legacy. Dying has been a recurring concern too, in what are his best films Innocence and the superb A Woman’s Tale (1991). Perhaps the latter, a tribute to his dying friend as a way of capturing her élan vital before she passed away, is so potent because it bypasses this particularly masculine vision of the tortured artist. Instead, in her final moments, Florence’s character privileges the legacy of love. “It is beautiful, life is so beautiful,” she whispers to her friend, Anna (Gosia Dobrowolska). “Remember, keep love alive.”
This piece appears in The Lifted Brow 28: The Art Issue. Get your copy now.
Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a Melbourne-based writer and critic. She is the film editor at The Big Issue and a PhD candidate.