Once in awhile, a film comes along that completely confounds whatever expectations you had of it going in — and once in awhile you have to go pretty far afield to find said film. Both things are undoubtedly true of writer/director Ann Turner’s 1989 effort Celia, a genuinely surrealistic depiction of a young girl’s struggle to come to grips with the world as it really is (or really was, at any rate, this story taking place in 1950s Australia) by superimposing her vivid, often inexplicable interior mental landscape upon it.
Turner’s flick unfolds at a languid,dreamlike pace, and is often thoroughly confusing in terms of its use of symbolism — but then, why wouldn’t it be? The way nine-year-old kids interpret events around them, and their refusal or inability to clearly demarcate the “real” from the “unreal,” is a state of mind us reality-burdened adults should probably be envious of rather than perplexed by, given that those things which make life — whether real or imagined — interesting often don’t make a tremendous amount of “sense,” anyway.
The point here being that even though a lot of things in this movie don’t “work” in the traditional sense, it definitely feels right, on the whole, at the very least, and that’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment in and of itself when presenting material this challenging and unorthodox.
Still, if you’re one of those people that absolutely must have some sort of plot recap in order to judge whether or not you want to even watch, let alone purchase, a movie, here are the particulars : Nine-year-old (as, I believe, we already mentioned) Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart, in a terrific performance) lives with her dad, Ray (Nicholas Eadie) and “mum,” as they say Down Under, Pat (Mary-Anne Fahey) in a typically conservative and uptight semi-rural Victoria community that she definitely feels stifled by even if she can’t quite express why or how yet at her tender age. She has a habit of conflating her waking world with her dream world (an often nightmarish one at that , peppered with Goblin-esque creatures, creeping, skeletal hands, and masked children) in order to compensate for the lack of stimulation her environs provide on their own, but hey — there’s hope. Some interesting new neighbors, the Tanner family, have moved in next door. Mr. Tanner works alongside Celia’s old man as an electrical engineer for the government, and the three Tanner kids are fun playmates for our impetuous young heroine, but wouldn’t ya know it? Problems soon arise.
The Tanners, you see, are communists, and to complicate matters even further, Celia’s dear old dad has the hots for Mrs. Tanner (Victoria Longley) and isn’t averse to trying to blackmail her into accepting his “affections” by threatening to expose her and her husband’s political leaning to their government employers. Mrs. Tanner (her name’s Alice, by the way) refuses to play along, woman of principal that she is, and even goes so far as to drop less-than-subtle hints to Mrs. Carmichael in regards to her husband’s proclivities (not that she’s an idiot by any means herself, but she generally follows the old “see no evil, hear no evil” axiom until a situation becomes so obvious that she absolutely can’t ignore it — hence, suffering in silence is pretty much her fallback position in life), but by then it’s too late — Mr. Tanner’s out of a job and Celia’s only “real” friends in the world are forced to move out of town.
Oh, and in the midst of all this psychodrama, one of Australia’s infamous rabbit plagues is decimating the countryside. People are killing off the pesky little thumpers in droves, but Celia loves rabbits, and even keeps one as a pet.
If all of this sounds like it really shouldn’t mesh together terribly well — especially when you throw in all the vivid and hallucinatory dream sequences — rest assured, it doesn’t. But then, our youthful perceptions of the world itself don’t always “mesh together” very well, do they? And that’s where the quiet genius of Turner’s sensitive script and capable, sympathetic direction lies — she weaves a thoroughly inexplicable web and leaves you, as a viewer, feeling glad that it doesn’t make sense and somewhat saddened at those moments when it does. She captures the inherent scariness and confusion of childhood, but never lets us forget that the banality of the adult world is where the real, often quiet, terror lies.
I’ll tell you what makes absolutely no sense, though — the way this film was marketed to foreign (in this case “foreign” meaning non-Australian) territories : it was affixed with the subtitle Child Of Terror and pawned off on unsuspecting audiences as either a horror movie or, at the very least, an “Oz-ploitation” picture. Quite clearly it’s neither, and by 1989 there was at least something of a market for independent international cinema, but for whatever reason this movie’s distributors declined to go down that route and instead what few people did manage to see this (mostly on home video) outside its native country were no doubt thoroughly perplexed when they didn’t end up getting the standard “evil kid” flick they were expecting. Don;t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against “evil kid” flicks personally (no shock there, I’m sure), but a psychologically and thematically complex work such as this deserved a more honest, and frankly respectful, international ad campaign.
As a result of this self-inflicted confusion, Celia is a film that’s had a tough time finding much of an audience over the years, even though by all rights it should have “cult favorite” written all over it (yeah, the “cult” would be a small one, but whatever). Fortunately, Scorpion Releasing has recently seen fit to try to rectify that situation a bit by finally giving it a proper Region 1 DVD release — even if their decision to retain the Child Of Terror tag-line, and include it as part of their “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” series, hosted by former WWE “diva” (and, if I’m not mistaken, Aussie herself) Katarina Leigh Watters, largely ensures that, once again, it’s mainly horror and exploitation fans (you know, like you and me) who are going to end up giving this frankly un-classifiable little gem a look. I choose to look at the bright side, though — some sort of a larger audience for a work this singular and interesting is better than none at all, and most of the people I know who are fans of genre, obscure, and “cult” cinema are bright folks who will be pleasantly surprised by what they find here — even if it’s nothing like what they were expecting. And hey — at least Scorpion’s done a pretty decent job on the technical front : the widescreen transfer looks sensational, the two-channel mono sound does the job just fine, and as far as extras go, apart from the usual trailers for other titles in the same line and Watters’ semi-informative (but also, let’s be honest, semi-annoying) intro and outro bits, there’s a vintage “making of” featurette and an audio-only interview with Turner that’s quite a compelling little listen.
All that being said, it’s still an open question as to how many readers of this blog are going to be as intrigued and captivated by Celia as I was, given that you really do have to be on, as they say, a ” certain wavelength” to really dig it, but I think most of you good people would do well to give it a gamble, provided the brief summation I’ve scribbled (okay, typed) out makes it sound like the kind of thing that would be up your alley. It’s quite unlike anything else currently occupying space on your DVD shelf, that’s a guarantee, and while it may be one of those films that’s easier to appreciate than it actually is to like, there’s a pretty fair chance you’ll end up doing both.