Love it or hate it, the mumblecore movement of filmmaking in America has certainly spawned an impressive array of brilliant artists such as Greta Gerwig and the Duplass brothers. The ‘genre’ also aims to explore many modern day issues that seem to plague thirty-somethings as they progress in society. One such issue is explored in the Australian film Zelos – namely, what do you do when your partner cheats on you and suggests you should sleep with someone else to even the score?
Written by Claire J. Harris and directed by Jo-Anne Brechin, Zelos is an exploration into modern relationships and the pitfalls that come from not being open with each other. Sarah (Shannon Ashlyn) has returned from an extended trip to India with her partner, Bernard (Ben Mortley), having kept the fire burning at home. In the middle of a ‘welcome home’ dinner party with friends, Sarah quietly tells Bernard that while in India she slept with someone else. It meant nothing, but that doesn’t stop the fact that the action occurred. After an argument, the idea of whether Bernard should sleep with someone other than Sarah is raised.
An immediate comparison to Sarah Polley’s great Take This Waltz arises when thinking about Zelos – after all, both films have women directors and writers taking a look at what it means to be unfaithful in a relationship. Yet, even though Polley’s film was released in 2011, the conversations that people have about their relationships has changed substantially since then. Discussions about sexuality and open relationships have become a lot more common, with couples being encouraged to be open with each other about what they want from their relationship. Gender fluidity and varied relationships have become part of the wider discussion, with many who identify as polyamorous feeling freer to discuss their sexuality with friends or partners. A recent season of the essential HBO show Insecure explored the theme of open relationships and the various difficulties and benefits that arise from that.
While Zelos isn’t a film about what it means to be in a polyamorous relationship, it does touch on the concept of what does the modern relationship look like. Is cheating that big a deal anymore? And if it is, then what do those within a fractured relationship need to do to mend those broken bonds? Bernard and Sarah clearly have once cared deeply for one another, but are now at a point in their relationship where the baby names and cute, character defining actions have lost their charm. The final question appears to be whether we deserve the partners we end up with if we don’t work on what we have?
Claire J. Harris’ writing is a refreshing, much needed presence in Australian cinema. Jo-Anne Brechin’s direction works to effortlessly brings these characters to life. Bernard’s actions within the third act display a burst of energy that feels as if both Claire and Jo-Anne are kicking down the door saying, you want more women voices in film? Well, how about this? Romantic relationships are so rarely explored in depth in Australian film, however Harris & Brechin deliver an aptitude for the ‘real’ that is appreciated. There’s a dedication to both the mumblecore movement and the themes within the film that help push Bernard and Sarah’s story.
Shannon Ashlyn and Ben Mortley are both superb as Sarah and Bernard, imbuing them with a lived in history that helps inform who they are as people. A throwaway line about the messiness of Bernard’s hair and how he looks better when he’s looking a little ruffled suggests that Bernard’s dedication to his partner is taking away who he is as a person. In one scene, Sarah stands in a yoga pose preparing a meal on the stove, breaking in the umpteenth new pot after having continually burnt previous ones due to an absent mindedness that she struggles to grow past. Her attempt at a tree yoga pose, balancing on one leg, shows that she’s always focused on herself in some regard, rarely thinking about those who are affected her actions. After all, if she were really concerned about Bernard, then is her suggestion that he sleeps with someone else just to make him feel better, or really about just making her feel better about having cheated?
It’s worthwhile noting that Ainslie McGlynn is also great as the possibly third wheel, Rebecca. Her work at an NGO that helps asylum seekers continually brings the extraneous world into the conversation. Why spend so much time worrying about a fractured relationship when there are millions of starving people in the world who need help? There is a suggestion that you can’t start tackling the world at large until your own house is in order.
What Jo-Anne Brechin and Claire J. Harris have done is create a fascinating ‘what if’ or ‘would you’ discussion piece. No doubt after watching this, many couples will go home and ask if they side with Sarah’s point of view or with Bernard’s? What would you do if I cheated on you? or What if the love went out of the relationship?
Part of the fundamental aspects of the mumblecore movement is that it explores themes and concepts within a low budget, minimalist environment. Given the cost and difficulty of making films in Australia, it’s a wonder why the mumblecore movement has not taken off in the same way as it has in America. There have been a few efforts here and there, with films like Pretty Good Friends staking the claim as being Australia’s first step into the genre. With low budgets, and on the basis of Zelos, high quality, the mumblecore movement should thrive in Australia.
While there are some first film stumbles within Zelos – it does take a good twenty minutes or so to find its footing, and you can’t help but wish you had some time with Bernard and Sarah pre-affair – this is still a solid effort from two great new voices in Australian cinema. Mark down the names of Jo-Anne Brechin and Claire J. Harris, we’ll see more from them in the future.
Director: Jo-Anne Brechin
Cast: Ben Mortley, Shannon Ashlyn, Ainslie McGlynn
Writer: Claire J. Harris