nanny for the children. Mary Poppins is a new role for Collette. She has never looked more coarse, more vulgar or more sinister. She has a dog called Ripper and carries a hunting knife in her boot. And Hogan does everything to make her look as creepy as possible, shooting from odd angles with much facial shadow.
Of course she’s as nutty as the rest. Shaz has a theory — it’s a nice touch — that modern Australia began not as a penal colony but as a vast loony bin with unlimited space to which the British dispatched their nutters and crazies (and I’ll be forgiven, I hope, if I use language in keeping with the spirit of the film).
Shaz nurtures a theory that our shared looniness is being covered up by the authorities, who label people mad as a way of controlling them. She carries around a bulky manual of mental disorders, which she regularly consults to verify some point or other. The idea that in a mad world everyone looks normal, and by definition is normal, is an oddly reassuring one. (I wondered if Shaz, or Hogan, had thought of the gravedigger’s words in Hamlet — that Hamlet’s madness would not be noticed in England because ‘‘ there the men are as mad as he’’.)
Following its own bizarre logic, the film finds room for a dark subplot involving Shaz and her past association with a character called Trevor Blundell (played by American actor Liev Schreiber with a convincing accent). Trevor runs a local shark show, the main tourist attraction at Dolphin Heads. The prime exhibit is the shark that ate Harold Holt, allowing some scary close-ups of gaping jaws.
There are moments when Mental seems more like a horror film than a comedy — even a comedy as black as this one, peopled with freaky extras and a script in which menstruation jokes sit comfortably with scenes of domestic mayhem and extracts from The Sound of Music. LaPaglia’s rendition of Edelweiss may be worth the price of admission.
Somehow, miraculously, Hogan keeps the whole frenzied package under control and makes sense of its grossest exaggerations. There are oddly poignant moments when Dad tries to patch things up with his neglected family, and I give full credit to newcomer Lily Sullivan for her lovely turn as Coral, the eldest of the Moochmore girls.
Of course some bits work better than others. There’s some funny business when Deborah Mailman’s character (who is having an affair with Nancy’s lesbian daughter) gives us a scathing deconstruction of the blackfella novelty song My Boomerang Won’t Come Back (remember that one?). And listen carefully for a reference to another 1960s hit — when Shaz takes the girls on a mountaineering excursion and one of them gives a helping hand to her obese (and schizophrenic) sibling: ‘‘ She ain’t heavy, she’s my sister.’’
Hogan has plenty of irreverent fun with Mental and brings it off. Audiences are likely to watch in a state of appalled fascination. Which is not to say (unfortunately) that they’ll enjoy themselves. DANGEROUS Liaisons is a Chinese version of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s classic tale of sexual manipulation, set in Shanghai in the 1930s and directed by Korean Hur Jin-ho. Laclos’s 1782 novel was filmed (most notably) by British director Stephen Frears — it was his first American film — and starred Glenn Close as the debauched Marquise de Merteuil, who delighted in plotting schemes of cruel seduction and vengeance.
Jin-ho and his screenwriter Yan Geling, in moving the story to Shanghai, have brilliantly re-created what I like to think of as the look and mood of the ‘‘ Paris of the East’’, a setting famously exploited by Steven Spielberg in Empire of the Sun. The sense of a doomed community of rich and idle libertines, overshadowed by the threat of war with Japan, makes an ideal background for this somewhat unreal story of illicit passion and intrigue.
You may remember that in Frears’s film Close makes a wager with the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich): if he can deflower Uma Thurman, the 16-year-old future wife of one of Merteuil’s former lovers, she will reward Valmont with her favours. One problem with Frears’s film was that Close, lacking any kind of sex appeal (for me, at least, in those days), was never a convincing prize.
There is no such problem in Jin-ho’s version. Each of the many young women in the cast looks glamorous enough to be one of the flight attendants seen in television commercials for Singapore Airlines, and the hedonistic playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun) must be everyone’s idea of the classic matinee idol: sleek, dark, tiny moustache.
Complications arise when Xie falls in love with Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), one of the targets of his lust, who looks even more beautiful than Michelle Pfeiffer. All is sumptuous, erotic, beautifully photographed and a constant feast for the eyes. If only we could take it seriously.