BURNING MAN. Starring Matthew Goode, Bojana Novakovic, Essie Davis, Kerry Fox Rachel Griffiths, Jack Heanly. Written and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. MA15+ (Strong coarse language, sex scenes and themes). 109 minutes.
This year has been a bountiful year for Australian films, but the most exciting and original is Jonathan Teplitzsky’sBurning Man, a searing film about a grieving man being incinerated by grief before rising like a phoenix from the ashes.
Burning Man plunges without preamble into the erratic, dysfunctional world of Tom (Matthew Goode), a talented Bondi chef whose life is unravelling. He is irascible at work and play, erupting into violent rages almost at whim, as if there are no limits on his behaviour. Smart and wryly funny, he is attractive to women. But no matter how hard he tries, he finds sexual satisfaction or close friendships with them impossible.
Why this is so, isn’t immediately clear. There are hints, seen as kaleidoscopic fragments of Tom’s fracturing life: his chasing of a blind man into a park; his decamping to a motel with his young son Oscar (Jack Heanly) afterputting his home on the market; his run in with police. But the most disturbing and dramatic is a hallucinatory car crash early in the film, which haunts the story and becomes its central metaphor.
Burning Man is based on Teplitzky’s own reaction to the devastating loss of his life partner, costume designer Amanda Lovejoy, andTeplitzky’s success is due to his capacity to mine the depths of personal tragedy, and fashion a cinematic structure thatconvincingly depicts this state, while creating utterly believable characters.
Teplitzky plays havoc with conventional narrative, and zooms from present to past and back again as if taunting the audience to make sense of the tale. In this way, the viewer is ineluctably drawn ever more deeply into thestory, all the while asking the question: how did such an industrious, successfulman and loving father to Oscar, fall into this state?
Born in Sydney, Teplitzky studied film and television in London, and after a decade making commercials and music videos overseas, won critical acclaim with his first feature Better Than Sexin 2000. Gettin’ Squarein 2003 was similarly well-received. ButBurning Man is altogether more masterly and confronting.
Teplitzky’s Tom, played with depth and panache by British actor Matthew Goode (Match Point, A Single Man), is an English chef with the volatility of a Gordon Ramsay, who wouldn’t seem out of place in a MasterChef kitchen. This conversancy with the restaurant trade also comesfrom the filmmaker’s own experience(his mother Gretta Anna Teplitszky was a doyen of the Australian cookery scene), bringing added colour and authenticity to the tale.
Essie Davis (ABC TV’s The Slap),Rachel Griffiths( Muriel’s Wedding, Six Feet Under), Kerry Fox (Bright Star), and Kate Beahan (Chopper, Flightplan)are all impressive as the women in Tom’s life, as is newcomer Jack Heanly as Oscar. But alongside Goode, the star of the film is undoubtedly BojanaNovakovic (TV’s Marking Time, Edge of Darkness), whose time on screen as Tom’s wife Sarah gives Burning Man its power and poignancy.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.