Why It’s Important
Proof is the prodigal child of the Australian cinematic family. Overshadowed by flashier siblings – older arthouse (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and blockbuster (Crocodile Dundee) brothers and its flamboyant younger sisters – Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – since its release, the film has recently seen a resurgence in public interest. That’s in large part thanks to the efforts of critic and everyone’s-favourite-aunt Margaret Pomeranz, who spearheaded a crowdfunding campaign to restore the film.
The resultant restoration screened at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival mere weeks before the anniversary of the film’s domestic release in 1991. The film feels as vital today as it did 25 years ago. Its story builds from a simple premise – a blind man, Martin (Hugo Weaving), who takes photographs – into a complex reflection on trust and identity. It’s distinctive, idiosyncratic. Unique. And its blend of Aussie ocker culture and high art presaged the wave of Aussie cinema that followed – in what other movie would you go to a drive-in horror flick with Russell Crowe and a Symphony Orchestra performance with Geneviève Picot?
Proof’s path was a familiar one for Aussie art cinema: through the Cannes Film Festival. It opened the famous festival’s Director’s Fortnight and won the Camera d’Or, attracting the attention of distributors and critics alike. While its subsequent box office performance was perhaps disappointing (barely cracking half a million in Australia), critics were united in praise. “If there is a kind of movie I like better than any other,” mused Roger Ebert in his review, “it is this kind, the close observation of particular lives.” Pomeranz’s critical companion David Stratton, meanwhile, described it as a “beautifully-acted, highly original drama with moments of great good humour.”
The film launched the career of writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse, who stepped into the director’s chair after being unable to find someone who could capture her screenplay. It also gave a leg-up to the emerging careers of its male stars, Weaving and Crowe. Those two actors were recognised with awards at the 1991 AFI (now AACTA) Awards, along with gongs for Best Director for Moorhouse and Best Film for the feature.
Watch Jocelyn Moorhouse's interview at the Cannes Film Festival:
What’s It Really About?
Proof’s most memorable image is a makeshift portrait of Crowe’s character, Andy, cobbled together from Martin’s ill-framed photographs. These pieces of Andy – an ear out-of-focus, the silhouette of his torso – have been pieced together by Celia, Martin’s obsessive assistant. They represent her first introduction to Andy, the man who becomes both her lover and her pawn in her play to establish superiority over Martin, for whom she nurses an intense infatuation. This mosaic also represents Proof’s multifaceted exploration of identity. The film reflects upon the way we form judgements and an understanding of others based on our own incomplete perspective.
The picture we form of the people in our lives is inevitably constructed from small moments, much like the photographs Celia collates. A gesture of goodwill, an expression of concern, a harsh word: these fragments accumulate into a person. Moorhouse and her cast recognise the importance of such gestures right from the film’s opening. Our first image of Martin – Weaving barrelling brusquely down Melbourne’s alleyways with his white cane thrust before him – suggests his brash, prickly nature long before we are given a proper introduction. Andy’s introduction, on the other hand, emphasises his fundamental goodness as he feeds an abandoned alley cat.
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The portraits of these two men – one rough, one gentle – aren’t entirely inaccurate. But as the film progresses, we come to understand that they are incomplete. Martin’s anger at the world stems from an inherent vulnerability. He possesses a firmly-held belief that he is consistently being deceived, even to the point of convincing himself that his mother faked her own death to trick him. He is neither a hero nor a villain, but a sympathetic, flawed character who hurts others as much as others hurt him.
Nor is Andy simply the jovial layabout we might expect. While he becomes good friends with Martin after being entrusted with the task of describing Martin’s photographs, that friendship is tested by his attraction to Celia, who ruthlessly manipulates the kitchenhand into betrayal. Andy’s good nature is tested when he learns that Celia has been subtly tormenting Martin by temporarily abducting his dog, and - torn between his libido and his loyalty – he fails the test.
With its limited cast – the screenplay is a three-hander, give or take a brief appearance from Frankie J. Holden – Proof resists the archetypal conceptions of identity common across films that rely upon shortcuts in favour of characterisation. By the end of the film, we’ve collected enough moments to come to some kind of understanding of Celia, Martin and Andy. But we’ve also seen enough to understand that our understanding is by necessity imperfect. Proof presents personality as a jigsaw puzzle that’s forever missing a few pieces… depending on your perspective.
That ambiguity cuts to the heart of Proof’s biggest question: how can we trust what we perceive? This is primarily examined through the conceit of Martin photographing his day-to-day life, a practice he began as a way of interrogating his mother’s descriptions of his surroundings as a child. Denied access to a sense of sight, Martin relies on others – in the film, Andy specifically – to describe his photographic record, his physical approximation of a visual memory.
While this premise offers the potential to examine notions of Lacan’s “The Real” or how art is a portal to truth, Proof predominantly uses Martin’s photography to consider questions of interpersonal trust. As a recent FilmInk article noted, why would Martin ask Andy to interpret his photos “when logically all he needed to do was separately ask two unconnected people to describe the pictures’ contents?” The author acknowledges that the film nonetheless “makes perfect emotional sense.”
Indeed, Proof is more about emotional truth than empirical fact. It’s not merely a question of who Martin trusts to accurately describe the contents of his photographs, but who he trusts to share these private pieces of his life with. The faith he places in Andy after a brief meeting is instant and intuitive; the kind of inexplicable connection that anyone who’s had a close friend can relate to. As with any relationship predicated on trust, Andy and Martin’s bond is vulnerable to betrayal – a vulnerability Moorhouse exploits in the film’s twisty third act. But the screenplay suggests that trust and betrayal are inevitable bedfellows, as per Andy’s words: “Everybody lies. But not all the time, and that’s the point.”
The most interesting relationship in the film is undeniable the tenuous bond between Celia and Martin. Right from their first scene together their exchanges are brittle and combative. Celia smirks and sneaks around Martin like a stalker; it comes as little surprise when we learn that her house is filled with photos taken – surreptitiously – of her boss. Martin, meanwhile, treats her with disdain and outright disrespect.
Nonetheless, there’s a tentative trust between the two. While Martin refuses to allow her to see his pictures – and, in fact, becomes enraged when he learns she’s collected his photos for him late in the film – he’s unconcerned about allowing her unfettered access to his house even while he’s away. Their unconventional relationship suggests the mutability of trust; in this case, trust born of their unique power dynamics. Martin is aware of Celia’s attraction to him and exploits it in an almost sadistic fashion; meanwhile, Celia exploits Martin’s blindness to deceive and manipulate him. They trust one another insofar as it allows them to play the other, to try and gain the upper hand in an intricate power play.
The most fundamental question of trust comes down to Martin and his mother (Heather Mitchell), whose scenes are seen in brief flashbacks across the course of the film. (“Why would I lie to you?” she asks. “Because you can.”) Martin’s reluctance – or inability – to trust his mother, whether she’s describing the view of their backyard or telling him about her terminal illness, is at the core of his character.
That mistrust is finally tested when Martin asks Andy to describe the first photograph he took, of his backyard. What follows appears to present an optimistic counter to Martin’s worldview, as Andy’s description matches Martin’s mother’s to a tee. Yet the film’s message cannot be so easily reduced (particularly given an earlier draft of the screenplay reportedly had Martin’s misgivings confirmed). As in Andy’s fractured portrait, the trust between two people is multifaceted; a combination of truths and half-truths and inconsistent memories and straight up lies. The trust we have in somebody can never be truly proved – or disproved.
Watch The Movie Show's original ★★★★ ½ review:
What to Watch Next
There are plenty of excellent Australian films that followed in the wake of Proof’s critical success – and, often, included the same people who made Proof so great. There’s the aforementioned Priscilla, starring Weaving as a drag queen; Romper Stomper, starring Crowe as a racist thug; and The Sum of Us with Crowe as Jack Thompson’s gay son. Moorhouse’s contributions to Australian cinema continued with a producer credit on Muriel’s Wedding – written and directed by her husband, PJ Hogan – but those looking for an Australian follow-up to Proof from the director would have to wait over two decades.
Said Aussie film – last year’s The Dressmaker – was both a critical and commercial success, and is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in Moorhouse’s subsequent career. The two films that came before, American features How to Make an American Quilt and A Thousand Acre, are less essential; while far from bad films, they lack the vitality of either Proof or The Dressmaker and, given Moorhouse’s recent interview comments about wanting to burn L.A. to the ground, weren’t made in the most welcoming of environments. Thankfully, The Dressmaker is a legitimate masterpiece – and hopefully not the last film we’ll see from this talented director.
Watch Proof now on SBS On Demand: