Writer/director Jonathan Teplitzky (Gettin’ Square, Better Than Sex) offsets the grimness of making a film about overcoming grief by modelling what could have been a morbidly despairing downer into a pot of revved-up and risqué drama with a soulful core simmering beneath the bombast.

Sex, swearing, car crashes, flames and fast-paced kitchen scenes that make episodes of Master Chef feel like gruelling single shot Russian realism flow thick and fast in the first act of Burning Man, a ballsy must-see Australian drama centred around an emotionally haunted English chef living in Bondi Beach. The heart of the film arrives later.

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Burning Man kicks off as a disorientating portrait of the whirlwind life of Tom (Matthew Goode), a hedonistic anger-prone pratt who swears, drinks, abuses strangers and picks up pissed floozies and prostitutes. Then, in the second act, Teplitzky plays his emotional hand, beginning the task of humanizing and endearing us to Tom and forging an understanding between the audience and his wild and wicked ways.

Tom is psychologically stained by memories of a cancer battle fought by the love of his life, Sarah (Bojana Novakovic). Summoning a change of tone, the unfolding dramas between them — pitched at just the right emotional weight, bereft of overt sentimentality — slows the pace and tempo of Martin Connor’s top-shelf editing.

Told with a swirly nonlinear structure, the story jumps woozily backwards and forwards and around and around in chronological circles, like a Merry-Go-Round from the Twilight Zone that eventually dumps the viewer somewhere comprehensible. Pieces of the puzzle are picked up, thrown about, tossed and scrambled in a wok of fractured vignettes. Connor’s visual momentum has a dreamy, sometimes nightmarish fluidity.

Aesthetically Burning Man is a shining example of a great looking Australian film. Creative use of reflections and spatial manipulations by cinematographer Gary Phillips (who also shot Candy and Gettin’ Square) create consistently interesting compositions. If his compositions tinker on the precipice of looking a little too good, reaching that point at which images are so nicely arranged they temporarily remove the viewer from the world of the film, it’s worth it. Given the subject matter, they are also effective as momentary reprieve.

The intimate nature of Teplitzky’s direction — intimate in both an aesthetic and dramatic sense — may have benefited from stronger supporting characters, with Anthony Hayes and Rachel Griffiths under-used in bit parts. However it’s difficult to gauge how that dynamic might have affected the sweaty closeness the audience feel with Tom’s character, which is crucial to the experience.

In the pivotal role Matthew Goode throws everything he has into the pan and pulls the job off admirably well, albeit with a slight whiff — when things get particularly heavy and the emotional decibels rise — of an actor looking for the bridge to take them from a good performance to a great one.

But the strikingly brilliant aspect of Burning Man, and the thing that separates it from any other film you’ll see this year, is Teplitzky’s use of items of food as metaphors for memory — some to devour and savour, others to throw away and forget.

In a well-staged car crash presented at the beginning of the film, the camera rests on a close-up as we watch Tom and the inside of his vehicle roll over and over while ingredients he recently bought — vegetables and meat — rain down on him. We later understand, through a series of powerful but subtle images, that these are the unavoidable bits and pieces of his life falling back down on him, the blotched stains on his psyche he spends the film attempting to wipe clean. Burning Man is a compassionate drama told with verve, innovation and fearlessness.

It’s no coincidence that Tom is a chef. Observe the way he interacts with fire and the vegetable patch in his garden. Note the striking manner with which smoke is presented in one crucial scene (you’ll know it when you see it). Watch his interaction with a lobster, a visual motif used to evoke images of happier times. And note how — in one perfectly judged scene — the protagonist is confronted with the cruelly compelling situation of literally slicing into his own memories.

Burning Man’s Australian theatrical release date: November 17, 2011.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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