|Rebecca Smart in Ann Turner's film Celia (1989)|
I was a film critic in the eighties, or rather, I wanted to be one. In 1989, I went to the Gothenburg Film Festival, representing a small leftish weekly paper called Arbetaren. I saw a film called Celia, by Ann Turner. She was just a few years older than me, a film director living in Australia, and this was her first major feature film.
I was totally awe struck by Celia. I came home to Stockholm and told everyone I knew about it. I wrote two articles, and I waited impatiently for its Swedish release. I harrassed the buyer at the Swedish distributor Folkets Bio so much that he gave me a video copy of the film, which I cherished until it disappeared. I probably lent to someone.
Then, in 1993, Celia opened in Sweden, quietly and with not much success. At best it was seen as just one of those Indie films, made by one of those remarkable women directors from down under. I was very much surprised that the film did not rock anybody's world, at least not as much as it had mine. I also saw Ann Turner's second feature, a much bigger film with movie stars like Charlotte Rampling and a very young Russell Crowe. It was called Hammer over the Anvil, and I was a little disappointed. That film didn't leave me with any strong memories.
But Celia did.
Why did I love this film so much? The strange thing is that now, in these days, I could get it on dvd, or see it on Netflix or Youtube. I could probably see it whenever I want, just like all those other favorites that I keep close at hand. But Celia became a movie memory from the past. It was a film I loved very much - and forgot.
Then, suddenly, there is a new opportunity. Tomorrow I will see Celia again, at the Swedish Filminstitute where the Cinemathèque is reviving a series of films on the theme of childhood. I will go of course, happily sit back in the beautiful big cinema named after lengendary film director Victor Sjöström, and let myself be sunk into the film. But will I still love Celia? Will I see it with the same eyes that saw the film over 25 years ago, or have they changed, making me discover just another fraud, or simply, a case of changing taste?
So today - before I meet Celia again - I have to ask the question again: Why did I love this film so much?
The story is simple enough: Celia is a young girl with a very vivid imagination, living in south Australia in the late fifties. She is mourning her granny, who has recently died, and has nightmares about a monster called Hobiyah, that comes crawling out of a children's book to haunt her. Her parents give her a white rabbit which she names Murgatroyd. At the same time, a new family moves in next door to Celia's family. Then three things happen: the neighbours turn out to be communists - like Celias grandma, Celia's father has an affair with the neighbour's wife, and rabbits are declared vermine. Celia is forced to turn in Murgatroyd, who will be killed. Everything falls apart in Celia's world, and she turns on the local police man, killing him with her father's shot gun.
At imdb I read, quite astonished, that Celia was marketed as a horror film in the States. The writer comments on the absurdity of this choice too, and proposes another way to show Ann Turner's Celia off: in a double bill together with Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson's equally marvellous film about girls using fantasy to escape from an intolerant and narrowminded society - and ending up in violence.
Both these films could serve as ways to understand children becoming violent offenders. They could also be used as criticism of the weirdly British ways of people living on the other side of the planet - and the violence such attitudes and the denial of the real world around them entail. But why do I love this film Celia, having no experience at all of living in Australia in the fifties, being a child who has committed a crime, or even being denied a rabbit?
I guess what struck me was a string of themes that are at the chore of this film: It's about the fakery of civilization, about parents who pretend to be "normal" while they are scared stiff to be exposed - in this case as communists. It's about betrayal and escape, Celia's escape into fantasy and getting caught in her worst nightmares. It's about being a child in a hostile world and being deprived of the only being with a promise of unconditional love: the rabbit.
Those themes are envisioned in the story of the girl who loses her friend, and they grow strong and unforgettable in the magical scenery of the hot Australian summer, the dark nights when the Hobyahs come, and the fascinating face of a very small actress Rebecca Smart.
Of course, what really happened was that I saw myself. I saw my own struggle to survive as a child surrounded by strange grown ups and mysterious, threatening mechanisms that I could only hope to grasp once I myself became a grown up. And to experience that, the film as mirror and dark alley back to my own memories, left a mark strong enough to stand out through the years. Not many films, books, songs or pictures have that kind of impact.
What I also remembered were places, sounds and perfumes, the blue sky and strong sunlight over white, dusty buildings, balconies and open windows, the taste of tomatoes and garlic on fresh bread, cold orange juice and the taste of salt water on my body and my hair, the cold stone floors and houses painted in pastel flowers, the madonnas looking at me from their places above the doors, the mimosas in bloom, the sound of traffic outside our bedroom windows, the magic of these places and the fear of being left behind, of not finding my way, of being lost in paradise...
Celia became a memory. someone I knew and loved, and someone who had also left me. I remember her fondly as I think of her from time to time. I am still a bit shaken about meeting her. I hope we will still be friends.