I have written about Paul Cox’s Innocence (2000) three years ago but I have wanted to consider this great director’s A Woman’s Tale ( 1991) for a very long time.
In June this year Paul Cox died at the age of 76 after a failed liver transplant. I searched for a DVD of the film without success but retrieved the notes I wrote when a few years ago I viewed it on a cassette copied from a late night TV showing.
I wrote that the film had the feel of a documentary but also that it expressed the inner life of an old woman facing death.
In the absence of a DVD that would permit me to appreciate again the greatness of Cox as director I discovered some the interviews and obituaries that may explain the naturalistic feel of this film .
In an interview * in 2001 Cox is quoted :
I had a terrific friendship with Sheila Florance. In fact she acted in my very first film, and we always used to joke that I would make her a star. When I heard suddenly that she was dying of cancer I visited her immediately. There was no sentimentality or anything on her part — she was an incredible woman — but she said jokingly, “There is still time to turn me into a star, but let’s be quick.”
She was given eight weeks to live and so we made A Woman’s Tale with this hanging over us. This motivated us, of course, but Sheila had a degree of greatness about her. She was a very powerful woman.
It was an amazing challenge to make a film about life, in the face of death.
If you try to treat the human condition in any depth then, like it or not, you get involved in a political process and you have to be prepared for all the usual battles.
Karl Quinn in Cox’s obituary: **
In 1999, he wrote an essay for a collection called “My True Love”. The chosen object of his devotion was death.
“The first five years of my life during the Second World War, I witnessed nothing but death and destruction,” he wrote. “Half the population of the small town we lived in perished.”
“In the face of Death, everything becomes more humane, more alive.”
“In the face of Death, only true love makes sense: harmony, peace, warmth, gentleness, kindness – words that have almost disappeared from our vocabulary. All the ambitions, all the career moves become meaningless. In the face of Death, we can find our true spirit.”
Like Cox, Sheila Florance experienced war in Europe, and is reported as telling the story of her first child’s death blown out of her arms during an air raid on Bristol in 1941. She lost her first husband in the war and later in Australia she declared :“ I have seen a lot of my friends die. My second husband, Jan, had cancer. He died in my arms.” Her 18 years old daughter fell from a high building in what Florence thought was a suicide.
She is quoted as saying: “Death is beautiful … it is a release. I have tremendous faith in an Almighty but I don’t look for consolation in religion, no. I’m a complete fatalist who looks death straight in the eye “
Florance died in 1991 from lung cancer, a week after receiving the AACTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her last film.
A Woman’s Tale is infused with the life experiences of both the director and the actor and their attitudes to life and death. But the way Cox transforms this reality into a powerful fiction film shows his greatness as a director. I am not able without a good copy of the film to examine the mise-en-scene in details but I will mention some of its features
In the same way as the later film “Innocence” the contrast between the dialogue and the images is striking. Nearly all of Martha’s lines are emphatically positive in their declarations of the value of life that should be lived to the full even while facing death. As in Innocence the simplistic even banal nature of the words contrast with the complex discourse of the mise-en- scene. With her worrying son, and her carer she is outspoken and makes them understand her love of life and wish to be independent. With people who patronise her she is acerbic and even aggressive. She spends sleepless nights listening to talk-radio while she strokes her cat for comfort. In one instance – quite distressed – she phones the station and tries to persuade a suicidal young woman that life is beautiful and worth living. She is plagued by war nightmares with chaotic images of destruction, fire and noise, forests of denuded trees. When relaxing in her bath she relives these times.
The metaphors abound. A detailed analysis is needed but to give some examples: the black cat, the singing bird that the carer holds against her heart, the waterfall with its violent descent into a quiet pool, the stairs to the flat easily climbed at the beginning of the film but painfully negotiated with the help of her son before her death and many other instances.
For me the most significant aspect of this film is what I must qualify as its political aspect.”My films deal with the human condition and to do that is a great political act”. Also long before the 2016 crisis : “Loneliness,” he told The New York Times in 1985, “is the world’s fastest-growing industry.“
Martha and Billy personify these two aspects. Martha looks death in the eye surrounded by a group of people with whom she has more or less close relationships. Billy, passive has no external stimuli except for the daily visit of Anna his carer. He dies alone.
The relationship of Martha and Anna her carer, is explored with enormous sensitivity. Martha and Anna have become friends. Anna understands and supports the old woman in her wishes and displays gestures of friendly love as well as nursing care. For Martha there is no boundary between the two roles and she lets Anna use her flat to meet her married lover. The complex relationship between mother and son is also treated with deep understanding and worth studying also.
This is a general view of the film and it misses the details of both the narrative and the mise-en-scene that make the film exceptional in its treatment of old age and end of life. It is a must for anybody interested in the representation of ageing and death in feature films.