Veteran scribe Laura Jones on being dazzled by Helen Garner, screenwriter
On June 27, Text Classics is publishing two of Helen Garner’s screenplays, for 1986's Two Friends and 1992's The Last Days of Chez Nous, with an afterword by screenwriter Laura Jones (High Tide, The Potrait of a Lady, Brick Lane).
Jones is the recipient of the 2016 Australian Writers' Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and will be appearing in conversation with Holding the Man's Tommy Murphy at an AWG event in Sydney next week.
Two Friends was directed by Jane Campion and released as a made for television feature in 1986, while The Last Days of Chez Nous was directed by Gillian Armstrong and starred Lisa Harrow, Bruno Ganz and Kerry Fox.
Courtesty of Text, Jones' afterword is reproduced below.
All Those Tears, by Laura Jones
Most of us watch films but don’t read screenplays. They are odd pieces of writing because they only exist in order to become something else. They necessarily ‘vanish’, as the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière has written. The process of production takes over, and the screenplay disappears, no longer needed, into the film.
I haven’t seen these two films since they were released: Two Friends on my television screen in 1986, and The Last Days of Chez Nous in the cinema in 1992. Helen Garner was sitting behind me at a screening of Chez Nous for cast, crew and friends, and my consciousness of her was high – my sympathy for what it is like for a screenwriter to see the filmmade from their screenplay for the first time, with an audience. You are watching the radical transformation of your work. After seeing the first film I wrote as part of an audience, I felt as if I had done a hard workout; my muscles ached.
After some shilly-shallying I decided not to re-watch Two Friends or Chez Nous but only to read the screenplays, as the first pieces of work in the film-making process yet to come. To imagine these films haven’t been made is an almost impossible sleight of mind, but here they are, in front of me: the screenplays, on the page, Helen Garner’s imagined films.
The story of Two Friends is daringly told in reverse chronology, backwards, although each of the five parts is told in the present tense, forwards. We hold these two storytelling modes in our minds at once, the forward momentum and the backwards knowledge. In a linear narrative, we expect to discover what happens next. Here, we discover what has just happened. This asks a lot of the viewer, and maybe even more of the reader, who has to become a detective within the screenplay. Such deft playing with time—elegant, formal and musical—offers great storytelling pleasure, as we move from dark to light, from the painful separation of two adolescent girls to the rapturous closeness of ten months earlier.
Although more screen time is given to the two fourteenyear-olds, Louise and Kelly, it’s Louise’s mother, Jenny, who is our guide—our compass—in their friendship. This mother–daughter relationship stays steady at the centre, and helps us chart the break-up of the friendship. It’s they—the twosome of mother and daughter—who are left in the wake of the whirlwind that Kelly creates as she is forced to take off from home, from school, from Louise. It’s a complex portrait of a mother and daughter: funny, painful, intimate, anxious, fearful, hopeful, with complicity and small betrayals, power shifts and passionate attachment. It reflects, although it is very different in nature, the passionate attachment between the girls.
Two Friends—unlike The Last Days of Chez Nous, where all the trouble is cooked up from within—has a villain. Malcolm, Kelly’s stepfather, is a classic bully. The threat of violence hangs around him; he generates fear, obedience and appeasement in the women who live with him. Kelly’s mother is ‘like a prisoner’. Although Malcolm is a secondary character, it’s his decision that turns the key of the drama. His lordly ruling creates the definitive split between the two girls: they now have two distinct paths. The injustice is like a cleaver within the narrative.
Malcolm is in the dark circle of other bullies in Australian fiction, along with Felix Shaw from Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower and Sam Pollit from Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. He enjoys his power, enjoys the pleading of Kelly and her mother, bides his time in doling out punishments. The incremental exertion of his powers makes us shudder.
As Two Friends ends on its vivid note of ‘excitement and joy’—Helen Garner asks us to imagine a freeze frame on this image—we know instantly that the joy will be (has been!) destroyed. In that second we know it doesn’t last; it has unspooled. Were the screenplay to hit a wrong note in its reverse chronology, the whole thing would fall apart. But these delicate notes, these scenes and larger movements, play out within a robust, sure-footed structure.
An unanswered question hangs in the narrative of Two Friends: would Louise and Kelly, in the course of time and without Malcolm’s intrusion, break up? Kelly is already on the path to sexual adventures, while for Louise sex is still a mystery. We see Kelly out of her depth when she visits her father for the night and encounters his friend Kevin. When things go too far, too fast, she flees and takes refuge with Jenny and Louise. Kelly has entered into knowledge that Louise can’t share, and it’s Kelly and Jenny who—with their ‘perfect, wordless understanding’—are complicit in keeping it from Louise, who is more ‘innocent than either of them’.
The next scene moves swiftly to the two girls in bed, and ends on Kelly’s touching ‘Shh. Go to sleep.’ The juxtaposing of the two beds—Kelly in bed with Kevin at her father’s flat, and Kelly in bed with Louise, snuggling up for sleep—gives us the affecting, subtle balancing of scenes that creates a double portrait of one girl stepping out into the world of experience and the other remaining, just, in childhood.
The friendship between Louise and Kelly has some of the intensity, the constantly shifting laws of strength and weakness, of the friendship between Lila and Elena in Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend. A passionate friendship is the same in Naples in the 1950s as it is in Sydney in the 1980s, although in vastly different social worlds. I had a friendship like this; my daughter also had one. Perhaps the nature of these friendships never changes, and that is one of the reasons Two Friends seems so real and alive to a reader in 2016.
All the weeping, all the tears, all the crying, in both screenplays: I’ve never read so many tears. Hot tears of adolescence; tears of betrayal; tears of humiliation; tears of anger; tears of fear; tears of loss; tears of grief; tears of lost friendship—a lost sister, husband, best friend. But these screenplays are also very funny. There are few screenwriters who can so easily—so artfully—imbue ambiguous, painful moments with humour. These scenes never falter in their twin purpose.
Both The Last Days of Chez Nous and Two Friends are about last days. Chez Nous opens with the return of Vicki, the prodigal sister. Vicki, the beloved, is the catalyst for the household breaking up. As Malcolm does in Two Friends, Vicki turns the key of the drama; but the fault lines are already laid in the marriage between Vicki’s older sister, Beth, and her French husband, JP. Unlike Malcolm, Vicki is not a villain: there are no villains, no heroes, in this world. Beth’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Annie, and Tim, a student who comes to rent a room in the house, are the innocents—a little steady flame in the dramas of the adults.
Beth—or Bef, as JP’s accent makes her—is a gift of a character for an actor: she lurches, she runs, she hurries, she darts; she is brisk, bossy, vigorous. Every time she is described, her activity is full-on. Beth lists her failings to JP: ‘Do you think I need to be told I’m not lovable? I know that! I know what I’m like! I’m bossy, impatient, too motherly, ill-mannered, unfaithful, greedy, a spend-thrift.’ She is one of the most subtle and devastating woman characters written for Australian film.
Beth rules the roost because she’s the bossy, capable one. The others cede this territory to her; that’s her way, and they accept it. Small rebellions. Bigger stoushes. Until they come into their own while Beth is away with her father on a road trip into the desert. When Beth returns she understands she has lost control of the house; a power shift has taken place; things are now up for grabs. We have read the scenes in the house intercut with the scenes in the desert, so we know her sister and her husband have become lovers—but Beth doesn’t, and we watch her intuition get to work when she returns.
Chez Nous has its own laws of strength and weakness; it is in a distinctly different key from Two Friends. Close to the end of Chez Nous, Beth says of Vicki, ‘I used to love her so much it hurt me to look at her.’ Beth’s closeness to her sister mirrors the closeness of Louise and Kelly in Two Friends. With both, there is a crucial third figure: JP in Chez Nous, and Jenny in Two Friends. It’s these constantly shifting power dynamics—there’s often someone on the outer in a threesome—that the screenplays take the measure of.
There are hijinks and games all the way through Chez Nous, at least until the break-up of the house is underway and the tone shifts to a more discordant key—of recognition, grief, loss, pain, anger and separation. There is no melodrama; all these emotions are tempered with a sharp lack of sentimentality in the writing. But the games! Cards; colouring-in; a joke with plastic dog shit; JP’s beret, thrown like a frisbee: these show us the daily domestic pleasures of the household. They are a light refrain to its deeper rumblings and fissures.
There is a game that Beth, Vicki and Annie play: the Butterworths. It is a different order of game to the jokes and hijinks. The last time we see the Butterworths is in a crucial scene—a lunch intended to celebrate JP’s Australian citizenship—where the three women are judged by their friend Angelo: ‘You lot are sick.’ It is a game others can’t join in, or get the hang of. JP calls it ‘anti working-class’, without understanding the exhilarating, compulsive way the three women fall into the Butterworth characters. It is during this last playing of the Butterworths that Beth ‘drops her bundle’, and says to the table: ‘It’s not anti-anything. I wish I was like Cheryl [Butterworth]. Cheryl’s better than me. She’s rough as bags, but she’s got more heart.’
Chez Nous takes place in one main location: thehouse. Although we leave it for some scenes—JP’s citizenship ceremony; a local café, a couple of times; an abortion clinic—the house, and the life of the street immediately outside, forms the world of the narrative. This creates a narrow storytelling focus, so when we go with Beth and her father on their unprecedented road trip it is a marked shift in tone: there is a big breathing space. The desert and its mysteries—the outback, where Beth hopes to ‘find something’, and to see if she and her father can talk without squabbling—is profoundly different: ‘They walk, arm in arm. The sky is absolutely swimming with stars. The silence is tremendous.’
This moment in the desert, with Beth and her father’s talk about God, is twinned in the screenplay with the cypress trees seen in the distance from the house. Both hold a mystery, a meaning beyond the quotidian. The cypress trees are the other, Proust’s lost paradise in inner-city Melbourne, theapprehended but not yet found. Beth tells her friend Sally: ‘I’ve been up and down those lanes, and I can never find them.’ The screenplay ends with Vicki and JP having left to live together; Annie and Tim at the piano, practising ‘Donna Lee’; and Beth walking away from the house, towards the cypress trees. She can see the dark shapes of their tops, ‘like a hand held up’, in the distance.
It’s an open ending: we don’t know if Beth finds the trees, or if she is again diverted. As I read the ending, I feel—just outside the circle of the story—that Beth finds the trees; she arrives there. But another ending outside the circle seems entirely possible: she is diverted, or can’t quite find the spot, and the cypress trees continue to be the other for which she searches.
Helen Garner’s novels and short stories hovered in the back of my mind as I re-read these screenplays. The angel in Cosmo Cosmolino (1992) is a boldly direct take on the other, the cypress trees, in Chez Nous—and I remember the novel was published at around the same time that the film was released. Once I started to think of the screenplays as part of the larger landscape of Garner’s writing, I was dazzled: I saw a world where every piece is satisfyingly complete and distinctive, but all hang together as a whole.
Across the novels, stories and screenplays the characters age; their concerns change. The children grow up, leave home; there are deaths; the big shared households shrink; and in Garner’s most recent novel, The Spare Room (2008), a woman in her sixties, living alone, looks after a dying friend. There is—very affectingly, for me—the sense of living with these characters over time. Not in the intricately patterned manner of long novel cycles such as Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time; it’s not the purpose, I imagine, of any one of Garner’s fictions to be part of a sequence, but they do have this deeply pleasing cumulative effect.
The screenplays inhabit the same fictional world as the novels: the cobbled-together, shifting households; music running through everything, so natural as to be like breathing; children, always so astonishingly written. The houses, all the houses: order made out of chaos, or a few orderly rooms holding chaos at bay. Keynotes of resilience, hope, humour, countering broken spirits, resignation, grief. Betrayals bringing grief, and also relief; the splitting-up of twosomes, the combustible spikiness of threesomes. The effect on characters of light, air, storms, clouds; vivid tableaux; barely there thresholds between house and street.
With some exceptions, such as Monkey Grip (1977), Part 1 of Cosmo Cosmolino and some of the stories in Postcards from Surfers (1985), Garner’s fiction allows us access to each character in intimate third person: points of view bounce with ease, sometimes with audacious speed, as in The Children’s Bach (1984)—just as the screenplays do. The screenplays have a tighter focus than Garner’s other fictions. They have a different purpose: they are written for performance and visual storytelling. They are to be seen differently, absorbed differently. But, like the novels, they are a joy to read.