The four Australian films in competition have more than nationality in common.
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27 Feb 2012 - 4:36 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 9:30 PM

When individuals travel outside their home country, they represent not only themselves but all their countrymen, like it or not.

Are Americans really loud? Are the French really rude? Are Germans really efficient? Received wisdom and national stereotypes die hard.

With that in mind, the four short films in competition this year at the 34th Clermont-Ferrand festival have something in common: Not one of them would make a non-Australian viewer want to live in Australia.

That's quite an artistic accomplishment for a nation with great natural beauty and a relatively high standard of living!

One has to assume that this is a coincidence. Or is it actually a frightfully clever plot by Australian filmmakers to keep a secretly glorious territory all to themselves?

Writer/director Andrew Kavanagh's At the Formal (pictured) taps into the same atavistic energy Mel Gibson celebrated in his Apocalypto – only that was set in the 16th century and this is evidently the present. Slow motion captures the celebratory antics at what appears to be a school graduation for teenagers and their parents. What's barbaric and what's simply traditional?

What's thrilling about the film's carefully choreographed long takes is that characters float in and out of the frame. We feel like omnipotent observers, our heads swivelling on polite ball bearings as teens in formal attire drink too much, get sick, relieve themselves in public, pose for souvenir photos and generally have a raucous good time at the outdoor prom.

Only one classmate is not enjoying himself. He's been hoisted overhead by other young lads, as if he were the hero of a sporting event. But he's not basking in the attention – he's struggling.

We know this isn't a prank gone wrong or about to go wrong because there are adults in plain sight. If they thought matters had gotten out of hand, they'd say or do something.

The film's action is accompanied by deep, rhythmic drum beats. There is no dialogue. And the denouement will leave you speechless (or, at the very least, happy that this isn't your high school).

Joining At the Formal in the Lab competition for unconventional and not easily classified films was Attach Boat to Motor by writer/director Nathan Lewis. Set out in the Australian countryside, the film celebrates ambient sounds – birds, footfalls, guitar plinking
– and discarded debris. Two young men and a young woman spend unhurried time together as the camera eavesdrops over the course of a day.

It is possible to live on very little, weather permitting. We don't know whether the protagonists are bored or perfectly content.

Had it not been selected from hundreds of entries to the world's most celebrated festival devoted to short films, you might mistake it for somebody's leisurely home movie. But when the credits start to roll, you are made aware that quite a few crew members and a great deal of hard work went into creating such an off-handed look and feel.

An official selection at the Melbourne and Dungog film festivals, Attach Boat to Motor taps into the director's own experiences delivering milk as a teenager. While the imagery is lovingly composed, it won't make the average viewer want to visit Hill End, a historic gold mining town north of Bathurst, NSW, anytime soon.

Two Australian short films also made the cut for the International Competition.

At 27 minutes long, Tethered by writer/director Craig Irvin, takes the time needed to follow a pleasant young man's two formative weeks on the job after he reports for work as a trainee at a slaughterhouse. The film is so visceral in its depiction of the work that the viewer feels as if he or she is on the killing floor or at the trailer park or the gas station around which the protagonist's new life revolves.

Most meat eaters would probably prefer not to think about where their meat comes from. Tethered does a fine job of showing the insidious process via which the work we do changes us. The result is haunting.

Writer/director/producer Robert Stephenson's darkly comical animated film Paris Lakes is an advertisement designed to sell the lifestyle in a new suburb that appears to have all the verve of an embalming parlour.

A male narrator whose voice drips with understated arrogance starts with an endangered peewee frog – a really small tidbit of nature that has somehow survived urban sprawl – and makes the 'leap' to trying to sell us on living in the planned community of Paris Lakes.

The animation is jaunty but the residents depicted are anything but. Having every convenience – "You can gorge on five floors of food court," says the narrator – has reduced the residents to near catatonia. The "slobway" is a moving sidewalk that mocks French elegance.

One way to sound enticing to English-speakers is to toss in terms in French, something the film does with, well, mangled panache. There is, for example, the "Arc de B.B.Q."

It seems unlikely that a French real estate promoter would lure clients with 'Melbourne' or 'Sydney' in the name. Yet terms like 'Paris' and 'Versailles' have a way of cropping up the world over to add a touch of perceived class to everything from motels to laundromats.

That tiny frog is hardly the only thing that's "endangered" – truth in advertising is also close to extinct.

The bottomlessly unctuous narrator urges us to buy a Paris Lakes housing unit using their handy website; you can put your purchase in your online cart. We buy everything else online – why not a home?

This has to be one of the most unnerving pitches ever for a supposedly posh housing development that turns out to be less lavish than promised.