DESPERATE REMEDIES

 (Stewart Main,Peter Wells, New Zealand, 1993) 92 minutes

DESPERATE REMEDIES

Directors: Stewart Main, Peter Wells
Producer: James Wallace
Screenplay: Peter Wells, Stewart Main
Photography: Leon Narbey
Editor: David Coulson
Music: Peter Scholes
Jenifer Ward-Lealand (Dorothea Brook)
Kevin Smith (Lawrence Hayes)
Lisa Chappell (Anne Cooper)
Cliff Curtis (Fraser)
Michael Hurst (William Poyser)

Reviews and notes

Cannes, Un Certain Regard, 1993.

Sitges, 1994: Best Actress (Jennifer Ward-Leland).




"This film is about transgression," DESPERATE REMEDIES' co-director Peter Wells pronounced almost seriously just before his lavish-looking ?700,000 first feature unwound at the London Film Festival. After a decade as collaborators on documentaries and shorts, writer-directors Wells and Stewart Main have loosened their corsets with a sexy, queer spoof costume melodrama that's better off without such stale self-justifications. At once luxuriantly overdressed and disconcertingly deshabille, DESPERATE REMEDIES heaves with costumes and art direction that Gainsborough Studios would either have died for or died at the sight of - from Dorothea's startling arrival at the docks in a swirling scarlet chiffon, to the closing homage to Queen Christina in which she and Anne sail away dressed in a 'Scope-width of primary-coloured taffeta.

The film's frenzied pace owes less to its deliberately disjointed plotting than to manic editing, frenetic frock changes - tartan, striped, puritanical, risque - and, most hilariously, a frantic orchestral accompaniment from the Auckland Philharmonia which, at moments of high emotion, cuts from one famous movie score to another (often, bizarrely, the theme from Jean de Florette). Its thin claim to subversiveness is that it heaves with the erotic excesses which costume drama traditionally both promises and denies.

Standard-issue debauched dago Fraser has pierced nipples, a penchant for lace-edged French knickers and a habit of pleasuring the insatiable Rose under Dorothea's nose while issuing dark threats about what the former might do if deprived of his "affections". In Dorothea's haughty encounters with the pouting, bare-chested Lawrence, the pair's curt, class-ridden exchanges ("I believe the tradesman's entrance is at the back!" she snaps) clash with languorous eye contact, while intercut shots of writhing flesh reveal their true desires. Even the sets ooze sensuality, from Dorothea's red velvet drawing room to the orgiastic decadence of the 'Chinese House' opium den.

That DESPERATE REMEDIES succeeds as something more than overblown camp spectacle is due to its exact understanding not just of genre conventions but of the ideology they represent. lts stock characters are at once pastiched to perfection by the excellent cast and thoroughly subverted. The wealthy, haughty, morally indignant heroine Dorothea has a past abortion to hide; the cool, Jane Austenish with whom she's rescued from the grind of governessing is her lesbian lover; and the lustful opium fiend Frasier functions ambiguously as both arch-villain and exposer of the sexual hypocrisy of others. Kevin Smith is less successfully cast: the joke of a piece of Querelle-ish jailbait who acts more like a super-vacuous male model soon wears thin.

The S/M thrill inscribed in cross-class and inter-racial desire in the film's models is hilariously foregrounded in Dorothea's feverish whip-cracking during her carriage ride to the eroticised squalor of the docks to check out the disembarking male convict flesh. Her ostensibly high-minded motives - moral probity and the desire to 'save' her addicted sister - are undermined from the start by Fraser's taunts about her hypocritical denial of her past ("You once regarded me in a less gothic light," he sneers), the overt sexuality of her costumes and numerous double entendres. "I need a man," she explains to Lawrence when elaborating her enigmatic work offer - whereupon sounds of female orgasm can be heard in the background.

The cumulative effect is to make costume melodrama's classic preoccupations with strict social hierarchy and sexual propriety seem hilariously gratuitous, irrational and redundant. But DESPERATE REMEDIES' self-conscious reinvention of the genre's pleasures is also its shortcoming: for all its verve and visual excess, it's ultimately a one-joke parody which never makes the imaginistic transgression into, say, the deep cod-historical weirdness of Canada's Guy Maddin. Its ironic achievement is to end up looking more authentic than the real thing: Hope's sweaty, dirty docks with their slaves and rough sex make Hitchcock's recreation of Sydney Harbour in the recently restored Under Capricorn look like the tacky toy-town model it probably was.
-Clair Monk, Sight and Sound, February 1994.

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