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Proof (1991)

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Current Rating 8.5/10 | 22 Votes

Starring Hugo Weaving, Genevieve Picot and Russell Crowe.
Original music by Not Drowning, Waving.


Martin (Hugo Weaving) is a blind photographer. This seeming contradiction arises from his intrinsic distrust and a belief that people will lie to him because he cannot see for himself what is really there. He takes photographs, later getting them described, as proof that what he senses and what people see, is actually there. Involved in a cruel mind game with his housekeeper, Celia (Genevieve Picot) he lives alone with his dog. Martin is befriended by a young kitchen hand Andy (Russell Crowe) whom he asks to describe the photographs he takes. A complex dance of trust and betrayal ensues in this psychological character study, in which the many brilliant comedic elements flash contrasts between themes of intentional cruelty, love, jealousy and hate, and the projection of fear which superimposes on reality.

Proof is the first feature of Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse, who went on to make How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and A Thousand Acres (1997). Unlike the latter two, Moorhouse wrote this one, coming from what she described in an early interview, non-specifically, as a personal experience, as well as imparting her distinctive directorial touch. Complexly layered, the emotional interplay between the three main characters steadily reveals their inner selves much as photographic paper immersed in developer gradually reveals the image imprinted on it.

As a title, Proof has itself multiple meanings which seem appropriate when applied to the film. Not only does ‘proof’ refer to the evidence of the truth. Photographically, a ‘proof’ is a trial print from the negative, from which one chooses a preferred image. In printing a ‘proof’ is a trial impression from which corrections and alterations can be made. ‘Proof’ is also used in terms of armour – waterproof, bulletproof etc, which also applies to the tightly armoured and self-protective Martin. To ‘proof’ something is to make it impervious to damage and deterioration.

Hugo Weaving does a superlative job as Martin. His closed face is a dignified mask behind his sunglasses, nevertheless conveying a sensitive uncertainty and restraint. His mouth turns down in concentration as he navigates with his white cane a world whose help he largely rejects. He is determinedly independent, holding off a world he is sure is untrustworthy.

When we first meet his housekeeper Celia she is coolly observing him in his living room without his being aware that she is there. In the silence, she deliberately taps her cigarette once on an ashtray. Martin is instantly alert and suspicious, sniffing. We realise how much his world is one of sounds and smells. There is obviously a palpable hostility between them, and as we observe her sardonic, oblique gaze, her wide-eyed stillness and her malice as she blithely places household objects in his path, our sympathy naturally goes to the blind man.

Genevieve Picot plays Celia with great depth, variously displaying the attitude of a snake waiting for the right moment to strike, shifting to tired disappointment, spiteful hate, sexual predation and later, longing and hurt. One manipulative ploy, when she photographs Martin in a vulnerable position to blackmail him into going out with her, demonstrates at once how devious she is prepared to be and also, as the plan unfolds, how creatively generous she can be. She has to trick him into receiving anything from her. Ultimately, however, he thwarts her. Due to his unresolved mother issues and perhaps her own as another ‘motherless child’, she is unlikely to get what she wants from him. Blocked, she sneaks uninvited into his private possessions. We feel her jealousy when she first finds a partial picture of Andy’s face and this scene, where she pieces together a whole, disjointed picture from several packets of photographs of the young man who has come into Martin’s life, is one of the first signs of a deeper motivation in her. This scene also neatly highlights one of the main artistic devices of the film.

Her final act in the film is that of someone whose existence simply needs to be acknowledged, no matter how pettily vicious her attention-seeking behaviour. By then we understand her true motivations a great deal better, and what has locked these two into such a spiteful game.

Andy, played by a young, charismatic Russell Crowe is by contrast, apparently uncomplicatedly honest and unneurotic. We learn a lot about him when Martin inadvertently injures a stray cat Andy has been feeding in the lane behind the restaurant. Seeing Martin is blind, he realises the injury was accidental. Only later, when he is a little more familiar with him, does he tell him what he has done. This precipitates the beginning of their friendship and introduces a long comic segment that is hugely funny, including a spontaneously brilliant tactic when Martin, behind the wheel of Andy’s car, is pulled over by the police for erratic driving.

If Celia represents a deviant extreme in this film, as in fact does Martin on one level, Andy represents many things, most of all a benchmark for healthy normality. He is a normally sighted person who can discern truth from what he sees – unlike the young thugs who violently attack Martin and Andy when the former’s behaviour appears bizarre and provocative. Unlike Celia, he doesn’t need or want anything from Martin, and this, plus Andy’s obvious sincerity, allows Martin to open sufficiently to trust him. Martin has fun in his company, something it appears that Martin has not had much of in his life. Martin’s earliest and closest relationship was with his mother, whom he felt he was unable to trust. By extension for Martin, all women are untrustworthy. As a man Andy poses much less threat in general. Andy also represents a normal, mystified response to the power game between Celia and Martin.

It is perhaps Andy’s innocence and good–heartedness which prevents him from telling Martin when he discovers one of her cruel games. Characteristically, he waits to see what is really going on before he decides how he will act, and this time that hesitation traps him in a lie. Not understanding why someone would be so devious, he is fascinated by Celia and is easily used by her to betray Martin. And because he is someone Martin trusts he is able to offer a viewpoint about reality which Martin has no way of discerning himself.

“Everybody lies. But not all the time and that’s the point... You tell the truth, Martin. Your whole life’s the truth. Have some pity on the rest of us.”

He is also able to offer proof that the central uncertainty in Martin’s life, about whether his mother lied to him or not, can be laid to rest. To Martin, if that one thing proves true, then his mother was true and he can let go of his life-long misconceptions.

Martin’s mother (Heather Mitchell) is only seen in flashback. When a very young Martin (a very solemn Jeffrey Walker) uses his fingers to sense his world, in particular his mother’s body, she rebukes him strongly enough apparently to stop him ever using his tactile sense again in a personal way. Feeling her shame and fear in the way that sensitive children do, he mistakenly feels she is ashamed of his disability and that she is punishing him for being blind. When tragedy takes her away from him he is convinced she simply wants to be rid of him. As a grown man the game with Celia reinforces his bizarre view of the world. It is only the example of Andy’s normality and sincerity which allows him to begin to reconcile the self-defeating beliefs from his childhood with the more balanced, accurate perception of a sane adult. Andy’s comment on being shown a photograph of Martin as a young boy with his mother is aptly ironic on more than one level.

“Wow. You never saw your own mother.”

In the unemphasised way of real life the film also shows how a reactive belief, in this case Martin’s conviction that everyone lies to him and will treat him badly, projects on to the environment. In particular it is unstable individuals who simply behave towards him in accordance with his projection. Celia, for her own complex reasons, wants the impossible and goes to extraordinary lengths to sabotage her own chances thus reinforcing her own negative belief. It’s likely she was attracted to Martin in the first place because he is completely unattainable. The waitress at Andy’s restaurant and the aggressive drive-in cinema patrons with whom Martin interacts reflect his hostile view of the world back to him. Martin’s friendship with Andy is the first sign that he may be ready to change that viewpoint for a more rational one, forgiving people for their imperfections. Whether their friendship will be ‘proof’ enough against betrayal, misunderstanding and deception is something you’ll have to discover by watching the movie.

The soundtrack (original score by Not Drowning Waving) is deceptively unobtrusive. Our attention is subtly drawn to natural environmental sounds such as of trains or birdsong, which are given a slight emphasis.

All this is an extraordinary achievement in a debut feature film which was completed with a tiny budget of A$1.1 million. It deservedly won seven Australian Film Institute awards and showcases three remarkable actors in an historically significant Australian movie which nevertheless could be set anywhere. If you enjoy good psychological drama, uncontrived humour and flawless filmic artistry, you’ll love this film.

© Avril Carruthers             20th July 2002 



 

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