Linh (Nammi Le), a Vietnamese Australian university student in need of money, secretly becomes an escort and develops a close rapport with one of her regular clients, Luke (Peter O'Brien). Linh keeps her two lives separate for a time but finds herself at a crossroad when she falls in love with Jack (Andrew Hazzard), a fellow student.
Careless Love is the first film John Duigan has shot in Australia for nearly 20 years. A filmmaker of uncommon seriousness, Duigan has built a career out of making unapologetically complex and subtle films from difficult material and fashioning them in a highly accessible way.
Sex and relationships, passion and desire, the ties that bind but rarely bond, have been central to his muse. Duigan’s sensibility is sweetly funny, severe and melancholy, all at once, as in Sirens, Winter of Our Dreams and Flirting. But even at his most emotional, like 1987’s classic The Year My Voice Broke, the movies are never sentimental. In some respects, Duigan might be described as a 'political’ filmmaker in the deepest and broadest sense, especially if one accepts the conventional wisdom that our personal choices are indeed political.
Careless Love is a film that takes place, in part, in the world of prostitution. But don’t expect a social realist tract or fictionalised exposé. It’s a drama with a rather hard to define tone; it’s meditative, but heavily plotted, and though it’s about sex (or, perhaps, I should say, sexual identity), there’s little skin, and almost no on-screen lovemaking. Like much of Duigan’s work, it’s a talky film, but that’s no bad thing. The story starts off as a rather slow character piece that’s interesting but not especially involving. But like much of Duigan’s work, he plants tiny grenades of plot throughout that, by its climax, detonate in unexpected ways with considerable dramatic impact in a way that’s satisfying and perfectly logical in equal measure.
The plot is about Linh (Nammi Le), a young Vietnamese Australian woman who uses prostitution as a way to both make ends meet and settle her family’s debts. In what seems a sharp rejoinder to movie convention, Linh is very much a sex 'worker’. Which is to say, she is not desperate, or a junkie. She works as a prostitute by choice, and the film, arranged as a series of episodes, works through the impact of that choice as it makes its way into every facet of her life. Still, Duigan, who wrote the script, does not romanticise Linh or the challenges that her work choice as an 'escort’ makes on her life. She believes (as many of us do) that it’s possible to keep our lives compartmentalised. I don’t think Le or Duigan maintain Linh 'likes’ the job exactly. Scenes of Linh in 'control’ of her professional encounters are juxtaposed with others where she is treated as an unfeeling piece of flesh. And there’s a really ugly bit of sexual violence meted out on one of Linh’s pals that throws into high relief how dangerous this 'game’ actually is. Then there are other moments where Linh is exposed to human frailty that’s sad and pathetic and funny, like the scene where she has to service a client who combines an 'upskirt’ fetish with a taste for school girls. It’s unquestionable sleazy. But it’s also absurd. It’s one of the few scenes Duigan plays for laughs.
Le is fine in the lead; her odd, slightly off-putting lack of emotion becomes, by movie’s end, rather poignant. Duigan has filled out the cast with some familiar faces and they deliver good performances in roles that are tricky to say the least. Peter O’Brien is really superb; he plays a mysterious American, a client of Linh’s who ultimately becomes her confidant. The role might have been dulled by simplistic choices, but O’Brien keeps you off-guard. David Field and Ivy Mak play two of Linh’s work 'colleagues’, both excellent. And hitting just the right notes for naiveté and bewilderment and a likable goofiness is Andrew Hazzard, who plays Jack, Linh’s boyfriend.
A small film made on a low budget in a style reminiscent of similarly scaled Euro and American pictures, Duigan shoots the action straightforwardly; there’s nothing fancy here. The look – a wash of bleached tones – is just right for a film where emotional evasiveness seems to be the unspoken code. Digitally captured and evocatively shot by cinematographer Kathryn Milliss, Careless Love turns its familiar Sydney locations of beach and glass and steel towers into mysterious spaces where moral certainty seems a long way away.
Disclaimer: Peter Galvin is the Head of Screen Studies at the Sydney Film School. Careless Love was shot by SFS colleague Kathryn Milliss and produced by SFS Head of Producing Jenny Day.