It’s Paul Cox’s Greatest Film
Dutch born Paul Cox emigrated to Australia at the age of 25. Already an established photographer, Cox was the son of a documentary film producer and his eye for composition coupled with his parental influence of non-fiction infused his work right up until his death from liver cancer in June of this year. Having already worked in strong partnership with actor Norman Kaye on his first three feature films, the pair combined once again for Man of Flowers. A lonely and reclusive middle-aged man named Charles Bremer finds erotic satisfaction in flowers, art, opera - and the young woman who he hires to undress for him. Co-written by Bob Ellis, who also passed away recently, Man of Flowers is punctuated by the heartfelt narration of letters from Charles to his late mother and hypnotic 8mm home movies of Charles’ mother and father, the latter of which is portrayed by German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
These elements add dimension to a character who in other films would be treated as a source of comedy. A twist on the crazy cat lady idea that anybody who predominantly seeks solitude must be worthy of ridicule. Charles is a lonely man who nonetheless finds beauty in the world, and Cox finds beauty in him. A beauty that is only reinforced by Yuri Sokol’s sumptuous cinematography including a sunrise at film’s end that could be confused with a painting by Turner.
Much has been made over Paul Cox’s career of his very European sensibilities. Sure, many local filmmakers have taken influence from Europe, especially in the 1980s as Euro exoticism was a surefire path to indie arthouse success, but Cox’s films never felt imitative in the way many others did. He treated subjects of sex, relationships, passion and eroticism, as well as death, art, and nature with a maturity that was never better exemplified than with Man of Flowers, which even played the Cannes Film Festival, a rarity for an Australian film then and now.
This put him at odds with a local film culture, despite many of the things that critics and audiences would covet in films from Europe being available in Man of Flowers. Perhaps it was because as Australia continued to carve out its own cinematic identity, Cox’s work routinely butted heads against that. Thankfully, these traits that made him unique but ostracised then are finally recognised today as what made him so valuable to Australian film history.
To See Melbourne in 1983
For whatever reason, Australian filmmakers often avoid making films in – or directly about – Australia’s major cities. Looking at a list of the 100 highest grossing Australian films ever and it becomes obvious that the outback, the bush, and outer-suburbia are more alluring to filmmakers. This is just another reason that Cox, and Man of Flowers particularly, is even more of an anomaly. Nestled within the confines of inner-city suburbs, this lends his films a more cosmopolitan allure that recalls Woody Allen’s use of New York as a narrative anchor. While the specific locations are never mentioned, Cox uses the divide between an affluent upper-class suburb like Toorak with the then scrappy artists den of Fitzroy and Brunswick to great effect. The distinct look of pre-gentrified inner-city suburbs to the soundtrack of rollicking trams in the background lends Man of Flowers a distinct sense of time and place that Melbornians will get a special delight out of.
Watch 'Man of Flowers' at SBS on Demand
Genre: Drama, Romance, Foreign
Director: Paul Cox
Starring: Norman Kaye, Alyson Best, Chris Haywood, Werner Herzog
What's it about?
An eccentric elderly man tries to enjoy the three things in life that he considers real beauty: collecting art, collecting flowers, and watching pretty women undress.
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