MED231 Australian Cinema - Critical Review and Bibliography - Dr Garry Gillard - April 2007
Johanna Floeter

Perfect Strangers (Gaylene Preston, 2003)

       

 

Principal Cast
Sam Neill                                Man
Rachael Blake                          Melanie
Joel Tobeck                             Bill
Robyn Malcolm                      Aileen
Madeleine Sami                       Andrea
Paul Glover                             Jim

 

Principal Credits
Gaylene Preston                      Director/ Producer/ Writer
Robin Laing                            Producer
Jay Cassells                             Associate Producer
Alun Bollinger                        Cinematographer
Joe Bleakley                            Production Designer
John Gilbert ace                      Editor
Ken Saville                              Location Sound Recordist
Trishia Downie                       Line Producer
Terri Kilmartin                        First Assistant Director
Helen Bollinger                       Costume Designer
Majory Hamlin                        Make Up Supervisor
Jane O'Kane                            Make Up Artist/ Hair Stylist
Bindy Crayford                       Gaffer
Hamish McIntyre                    Key Grip
Pat Robins                               Continuity
Tim Prebble                             Sound Designer
Mike Hedges                           Re-recording Mixer
Plan 9                                      Music
Shara Comer Hudson              Post Production Supervisor
Anne Chamberlain                  Unit Publicist
Geoff Short, Guy Robinson    Stills Photography

 

Release Dates
Australia          October 9, 2003
UK                  November 3, 2003
New Zealand   February 26, 2004
France             March 12, 2004
USA                June 17, 2004
Germany         August 14, 2004
Italy                 October 5, 2005

 

Budget
I was unable to find any exact numbers. I could just find that it was a “low-budget” film.

 

Production Company
Gaylene Preston Productions
Huntaway Films

 

Running Time           96 min
Genre                          thriller/ drama
Rating                                    M–low level violence
Setting                        West Coast, New Zealand

 

Box Office
A$ 100,604

 

Details of Interviews

1) Gaylene Preston confirms the female victim as a motif throughout her career.            “Perfect Strangers explores how ‘ordinary every woman’ might go if she had autonomy but didn’t know what to do with it.” (http://www.lumiere.net.nz/reader/item/697)

2) Gaylene Preston talks with Andrew L. Urban about Perfect Strangers, her first self-written feature, describing it as “the dangerous deception of desire”. (http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=7968&s=Interviews)

3) SPADA Conference newsletter, October 2003:                                                              The idea of Perfect Strangers was already developed by Gaylene Preston in 1982. “I was thinking about power in relationships and how stories often follow a very regularized formula. And I asked the question - what if you took a predator and a victim and they fell in love - how would that affect the relationship? Would the victim become the predator? Would the predator become the victim? Who would get who?”

Gaylene Preston described filming Perfect Strangers as a pleasure.
 “Going down the Coast, which is where I come from, shooting this film that came out of my head, essentially with a bunch of old friends was just a wonderful experience.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/news_three.html)

4) Insidefilm, October 03, IF 59, Editor David Michod (Feature Film Profile Perfect Strangers pp12-14, Australia 2003).                                                                                   Ruth Hessey interviewed Director Gaylene Preston and actress Rachael Blake.
 
5) Interview with Rachael Blake and Sam Neill (by Andrew L. Urban)
(http://www.urbancinefile.com.au)

 

Details of Reviews and Critical Essays
1) Helen Francis:
“The film [Perfect Strangers] is distinctively New Zealand in its setting and characters while drawing on universally recognizable motifs and themes of fairy tale, horror, fantasy, and insights about human psychology.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_22.htm)

2) The Daily Post – Rotorua (February 5, 2005):
“As close to a New Zealand David Lynch movie as you would ever want to get, Perfect Strangers is a near perfect weird little drama, with more than a few nasty surprises.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_19.htm)

3) Helen Martin (WIFT Newsletter, June 2004):
“…Perfect Strangers is a delicious thriller/ horror/ love story/ comedy, exploring further the psychological terrain…”
Perfect Strangers keeps you dangling till the last frame.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_17.htm)
4) James Robinson (Salient: issue one 2004):                                                                        “Perfect Strangers is far from a horror movie, it is a daring and brilliantly intense psychological love story – which will linger in your mind for many days and screams out for repeated viewing.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_15.htm)
5) Nick Paris (Christchurch Star, February 8, 2004):
“Bristling with confidence this carefully engineered psychodrama delivers all the necessary ingredients to keep the audience attentive from first frame till last.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_13.htm)

6) Ruth Hessey (INSIDEFILM, October 2003):
Perfect Strangers is the sort of audacious, brilliantly visualised, and slightly unnerving film we expect from New Zealand filmmakers.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_20.htm)
7) Australian Financial Review (October 4, 2003):
“Set largely on an island off the romantic West Coast of the South island of New Zealand, Perfect Strangers starts out as formulaic as Fatal Attraction – then turns into a psychological study of survival before leaving you at the end thinking you’ve been watching a fable.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_eleven.html)
8) Paul Le Petit (The Sunday Telegraph, October 2, 2003)
“…this is just the start of a story that leaves the viewer guessing to the end that realises a lot of fears and fantasies along the way, and uses everything – the skill of the performers and the startling settings which range from battering beautiful to menacingly malevolent.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_nine.html)
9) Ron Banks (West Australian Arts & Entertainment Page, September 11, 2003)
“…Preston’s Perfect Strangers plays out the idea of desire, deception and the imperfection of relationships in chilling fashion, sometimes in ways that are far too icy for anyone’s own good...”                                                                                                                              (http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_two.html)
10) David Stratton (Variety, 2003):
"Perfect Strangers is aces in all technical departments, handsomely photographed in Scope by Alun Bollinger and with a soundtrack that effectively conveys tension and shifts in mood.”
(http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_seven.html)

Details of Online Presence
Perfect Strangers has a very well arranged homepage (www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com) on which I could find lots of useful newspaper articles, reviews, etc. This was my main source of reference. Besides this homepage, there do just a few other useful sites on the internet exist.
Among these are:
The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com)
The Lumière Reader (http://www.lumiere.net.nz/reader/item/697)
New Zealand Film Archive (http://events.filmarchive.org.nz/event.php?eventID=665)
http://www.urbancinefile.com.au

Searching Techniques
At first, I started my research at the official homepage of Perfect Strangers. It consists of a lot of information about the cast and crew, newspaper articles (national and international ones) or critical reviews that were published in mostly film magazines. This way, it was easier to find all the needed information because it was at one place. I extended my research on the internet and gathered some other useful articles and reviews about the film. At the end, I had a look at the library catalogues, but was unable to find anything about the film.

Plot Synopsis
Melanie (Rachael Blake) works in a fish ‘n’ chips restaurant in a town on New Zealand’s West Coast. One night, she is out with her friends. A perfect stranger, the Man (Sam Neill), who remains unnamed, crosses her way. From the beginning, Melanie is fascinated by him because he differs from the blokes who live on the West Coast that normally go hunting and fishing. The inevitable question 'your place or mine?' arises and Melanie chooses his, not knowing it is a fishing boat. In the morning they are at sea destined for the Man’s home on a remote island. It started as a romance with a charming and attractive stranger, but Melanie realises that she has been kidnapped. From this point, the romance turns into a nightmare. Full of fear, Melanie stabs him with a knife. Trying to get the wounded Man with the boat back to the mainland, they got into a storm and found themselves stranded at the beach of the remote island again. Melanie realises that the Man is dead, but she develops a kind of paranoia and obsession resulting in talking to the Man’s dead body, dancing with him and even sleeping with him. In the meantime, Bill (Joel Tobeck), a friend of Melanie, has arrived at the island and discovers that Melanie keeps the Man’s dead body in the freezer. In order to convince Bill not to say a word to anyone and to help her get rid of the dead body, she promises to love him forever. At their marriage a few months later, Melanie still suffers from her paranoia and dances with her kidnapper she is now obsessed with.     

 

Personal Commentary/ Review:
Perfect Strangers begins like a sentimental romance and develops into a haunting, nightmarish thriller until in the end it shows a mysterious and profound insight into the human psyche. All those who were expecting a romantic love-story a la Hollywood will be disappointed. The film has more to offer than the simple and predictable problems in a relationship of a man and a woman. From my point of view, it is a clever, tightly developed plot that consists of a lot of surprising twists and thus remains suspenseful till the last frame. It is true that at first sight a story that plays around with just two main characters sounds boring and far from being a real entertainment, but Perfect Strangers proves that black is white. The characters, Melanie and the Man, are developed clearly. They keep the story together and make it become interesting on a level that is far from being visible. It is the human psyche that plays an important role. On the one hand, the Man seems to be a cruel and obsessive, but somehow romantic and charming perpetrator. On the other hand, there is Melanie who at the beginning seems to be strong-minded, dominant and in some ways cold-hearted person, but in the end turns out to be a helpless, dependent and mad woman caught by her own psyche. To my mind, the turn into a mad woman who talks to the dead body of the Man, dances with him, kisses the freezer and even imagines sleeping with him develops too fast so that it almost seems incomprehensible and unrealistic. It is true that Melanie was impressed and fascinated by the Man, but she does not know him at all. At this stage, I could not imagine why a woman could fall easily in such a paranoia and obsession. Perhaps she just wanted to salve her conscience. Seeing the film as a whole, you have to say that this change fits well into the pace of the plot. Perfect Strangers is not at all a slow-moving film. The story is arranged densely and thus holds up tension throughout the film. Preston could have also shoot a 2-hour film with this plot, but I would predict that this would not have worked out so well because lots of its suspense would have get lost.
Another significant aspect that supports the story in a more than just decorative way is the setting on the West Coast of New Zealand. I would not go as far to say that the film would not work if it had been shot somewhere else, but the landscape contributes a big extent to the dangerous, mysterious and haunting atmosphere. According to Preston, the location is very much like a fourth character (http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/news_three.html).
The film is not as dependent of the New Zealand landscape as Lord of the Rings is, but Preston cleverly makes use of it. She integrates it in some scenes. For example, when Melanie is desperately looking at the shack after she escaped or when she wanders around freezing at the beach and realizes that the Man is really dead. These are just two examples of the use of the New Zealand landscape in the film. To summarize, the setting gives Perfect Strangers a touch of mystery and thus results in an eerie mood. It can be referred to the same mood that Melanie feels when meeting the perfect stranger for the first time and when she gets to know the contrary facets of his character. Moreover, the setting is very meaningful for Preston as she spent much time of her life at the West Coast. She so to say can tell a story for all of the places they were filming. That’s why the plot works so well, because she had the right idea for the location.
To have a closer look at the actors, I have to say that they performed their roles brilliantly. Sam Neill as the Man has been really charming and attractive as he has got that slight smile on his face. The change of his character into the role of the kidnapper was convincing. Rachael Blake was really impressive as she played the role of Melanie in such an intensive way. Her change in character, after the Man’s death, was totally credible. Not only do Neill’s and Blake’s talents as actors have to be taken into account, but also their ability to improvise. According to Preston’s audio commentary to the film, the dialogue was not developed to every scene. That is why she sometimes wanted Blake and Neill to improvise it. Finally, I may not forget Joel Tobeck who has got a supporting role and performed the character of Bill, depicting a typically New Zealand bloke.
Taking all these aspects into consideration, I would call Perfect Strangers a romance that contains some aspects of a thriller. To my mind, the term “chilling romance” that is used as a kind of slogan for the film hits the mark. This is also supported by the slow, sad and sentimental soundtrack. From my point of view, Perfect Strangers is round and dense in its plot, has awesome actors and a setting that emphasizes the haunting atmosphere of the film. 

 

Critics’ opinion:
Internationally, Preston’s Perfect Strangers was seen as a great success which proved that not every New Zealand film like Lord of the Rings has to deal with the landscape as one of the main characters. As I have already mentioned, Helen Martin describes the film as “a delicious thriller/ horror/ love story/ comedy” (http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_17.htm), James Robinson states the film as “a daring and brilliantly intense psychological love story” (http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_15.htm) and Ruth Hessey is of the opinion that this is “the sort of audacious, brilliantly visualised, and slightly unnerving film we expect from New Zealand filmmakers” (http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_20.htm).
Perfect Strangers has won many international film awards including a Silver Clio in Cannes and a Mobius Award in Chicago. It was also selected for major film festivals in Europe, America and Australia (http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/news_eight.htm). Despite this outstanding international success and the fact that Preston’s work has won eleven New Zealand film awards (including best film), New Zealand reviewers were partly criticizing the film. The reviewers for Metro, the Sunday Star Times, the Auckland Herald and the Listener perceived Perfect Strangers as weak, incoherent, and weird in its plot that fails “to conform to the rules of naturalistic narrative” (http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com/review_16.htm). Another reviewer criticized the non-naturalistic details and fault in continuity.

 

Problems of New Zealand Film Industry
Trying to get funds to finance a film in New Zealand is a big problem. Productions like the Lord of the Rings trilogy are an exception. Preston harshly criticizes the government who does not support the film industry enough. Everything is excused with the Peter Jackson film. That is a rather poor attitude of the government. They should confront themselves with the true facts and even change the bureaucracy of funding films.
Preston about the condition of New Zealand film industry:
“The Lord of the Rings has done a disservice in a way, because it’s provided a smoke screen. It’s made the government feel that we’ve got this incredible film industry. It’s given the Film Commission something to hide behind, so their inadequacies are sort of masked to some degree. I think you take away Lord of the Rings and you’ve got a very unhealthy, sick little industry.” (http://www.lumiere.net.nz/reader/item/697)
Furthermore, Preston describes the problem of local filmmakers of putting an idea into practice. National filmmakers have very limited access to their own investment community. For her, it is important to show the rest of the world the stories about New Zealand values, people and their characteristics. She complains that New Zealand films “are made at a real human cost.” Nevertheless, these films, from Preston’s point of view, should brand the Nation and should “impress offshore in all kinds of ways that are of unquantifiable value to the country.” (http://www.lumiere.net.nz/reader/item/697)
New Zealanders really began to appreciate value of their national films. According to the New Zealand Film Commission, more than 1.3 million of them saw local movies in 2005 – 2006, compared with just 185,000 in 2004 – 2005 (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/content_display/international/features/e3iaf4b3145ad2a38c5a806e8b9641f833e).
However, in light of new tax legislation in the U.K., shooting in New Zealand will become less cost-effective than it was just one year ago. Richard Fletcher, who worked for the Film Commission stated that “domestic production in 2007 is going to be really tough”. Furthermore, he explains that the “U.K. money is now effectively predicated on filming in the U.K. It’s going to be really hard to find that money elsewhere”. In the end, Fletcher describes the market for New Zealand films as difficult and conservative. (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/content_display/international/features/e3iaf4b3145ad2a38c5a806e8b9641f833e)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:
http://www.perfectstrangersthemovie.com
http://www.urbancinefile.com.au
The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com)
The Lumière Reader (http://www.lumiere.net.nz/reader/item/697)
New Zealand Film Archive (http://events.filmarchive.org.nz/event.php?eventID=665)
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/content_display/international/features/e3iaf4b3145ad2a38c5a806e8b9641f833e