Bad Boy Bubby Review

Bubby (Nicholas Hope) has lived in a bug-ridden slum all his life, with his mother (Claire Benito) and a cat. It is the only world he knows as he is forbidden from going “outside”. His mother shares his bed. Then one day, Bubby’s long-lost father (Ralph Cotterill), an alcoholic priest, returns to the home and mother’s bed. Inflamed with jealousy, Bubby escapes into the outside world…

Rolf de Heer was born in the Netherlands in 1951, emigrating to Australia with his family at the age of eight. He made his first feature, the children’s film Tale of a Tiger, in 1984. Bad Boy Bubby was his fourth film. He’s little known outside Australia, for a couple of reasons. First, is his considerable versatility: he seems honour-bound not to make the same film twice. His work ranges from black comedy (Bubby), science fiction (Encounter at Raven’s Gate and Epsilon), an Outback western (The Tracker), magic realism (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories), to varying kinds of domestic drama (The Quiet Room, Dance Me to My Song, Alexandra’s Project). Another reason is that, with the exception of Encounter at Raven’s Gate (aka Incident at Raven’s Gate), Bad Boy Bubby is the only one of his films to have been distributed in the UK.

Bad Boy Bubby premiered at the 1993 Venice Film Festival, winning the Special Jury Prize. It won four Australian Film Institute Awards, for its direction, original screenplay (De Heer), editing (Suresh Ayyar) and Nicholas Hope’s extraordinary lead performance. This was Hope’s first feature film: De Heer had seen him in a short, Confessor Caressor, which is included on this DVD, and which is discussed further below. Bubby is a film that takes considerable risks, many of which come off to exhilarating effect. On the other hand, it is a film that will certainly polarise audiences and will certainly offend many. If you don’t like this film, it’s likely you’ll despise it. Although my view of this film is a favourable one, there are scenes which make me uneasy. Proceed at your own risk.

De Heer wrote the script for Bad Boy Bubby nearly ten years before it was made. It was envisaged as a low-budget feature to be shot guerrilla-style at weekends, with whatever crews were available at the time. When he came to shoot Bubby, financial support from Fandango, an Italian company (Domenico Procacci coming on board as co-producer), doubled the budget. However, de Heer intended to keep as much of the intended filmmaking style intact. The film was shot in sequence, which aided Hope’s performance as much of his dialogue repeats what other characters have previously said to him. There are thirty-two cinematographers on this film (which must surely be a record for a non-episodic work). Ian Jones was the supervising DP and gets his name in the opening credits. He shot the opening scenes in Bubby’s home, and also the last part of the film from the scene where Bubby returns home onwards. Jones also operated the camera throughout. However, for the section in between, a different DP was used for each location, including some well-known names like Geoffrey Simpson and Roger Lanser. None of the DPs were shown anyone else’s work and de Heer gave them considerable input to the filming of their scene. Surprisingly the film hangs together, as most of the DPs went for a naturalistic look. One scene might be filmed at a Dutch angle; the Scientist’s (Norman Kaye) monologue might be filmed in a single long crane shot, but none of them seems to belong to a different film. One precedent for this is Kieslowski’s Dekalog, whose ten films were shot by nine cinematographers: with the notable exception of Slawomir Idziak’s bile-and-vomit colour scheme (using filters) in the fifth film, it’s hard to tell the cinematographers’ work apart at first sight. Bad Boy Bubby was shot in Scope with anamorphic lenses. De Heer’s original intention was to mask the image to 1.66:1 for the opening scenes in Bubby’s house, only expanding to the full width when he escapes. However, that made the beginning of the film, which is tough enough already, unbearably claustrophobic, so de Heer removed the masking and the film has always been shown in Scope throughout.

The other major innovation was in sound recording. Binaural radio microphones were sewn into Hope’s wig, and much of the soundtrack was recorded live, resulting in some odd panning effects when Hope/Bubby moves his head.

The opening sequence is a model of precision: due to de Heer’s direction and Ayyar’s editing, no shot is on screen a moment too long. The middle section is at times wildly funny and often flamboyant, though to my mind the final half hour, in which Bubby becomes a cult performance artist/singer, tends to lose momentum. Anyone with strong religious convictions is likely to find two scenes in particular (the Scientist’s monologue on how we have to deny and defy God and take responsibility for our own actions; the later scene where Bubby meets Angel’s (Carmel Johnson) parents) highly offensive. Once a Catholic, always one…even though I’m more than twenty years lapsed, I do admit I find these sequences uncomfortable viewing. (Hope, himself of Catholic background, found these scenes the most difficult in the entire film.) Other people have had problems with the film’s use of cats (mostly feral ones, official pests in Melbourne) and the use of real disabled people. One of the latter is the late Heather Rose, uncredited here, who had cerebral palsy. She went on to play a leading role in and co-write de Heer’s 1998 film Dance Me to My Song. Some may also dislike the film’s treatment of women (and Angel is rather too well-endowed to go around bra-less). For such a black comedy, and such a defiantly un-PC one, the ending is not without sentimentality. However, it’s ultimately positive: there’s something childlike and innocent about Bubby, and the ending implies that the scars of what amounts to severe child abuse can be healed. In fact, de Heer returned to this theme in a completely different manner in his next film, The Quiet Room, which examined a marital breakdown from the point of view of a genuine child (played by Rebecca Smart).

Bad Boy Bubby is certainly not your usual film. It’s hard to forget – but if it is to your taste, you’ll like much of it a lot.

This is the uncut version of Bad Boy Bubby, given a R 18+ certificate by the OFLC, and which I first saw at the 1993 London Film Festival. For British film and video release with an 18 certificate, the BBFC cut one shot, nine minutes in: Bubby is sitting in a chair, tugging at a string which is around his cat’s neck. The cat seems to be resisting, which is presumably why the BBFC considered that it was distressed, making the shot fall foul of the Animals Act. This cut unfortunately removes the following dialogue:
BUBBY: Where cat from?
MOTHER: Outside.
This blurs a plot point, as this is the first indication that there is an “outside”.


Umbrella Entertainment’s edition of Bad Boy Bubby is a two-disc collector’s edition, encoded for all regions. The DVD transfer is anamorphic, in a ratio of 2.40:1 and it’s an excellent one, sharp and free of artefacting. It copes well with the subdued lighting of the opening section and the much brighter colours later on. Blacks are solid, though some of the darker-lit scenes are a little too soft.

There are three soundtrack options. The main one is Dolby Digital 5.1. Given the unusual method of sound recording, this is a very immersive track, with a lot of use of the surround channels, especially in the exterior scenes. The track has quite some dynamic range, from moments of quietness to considerable loudness (the bagpipes in the prison scene, the punk band). The subwoofer is called into action now and again, especially in the concert sequences – though the main menu features a 4.0 track with a considerable amount of redirected bass. There’s a Dolby Surround option, and also a binaural track, intended for listening on headphones. I sampled this latter track, and it is certainly effective. There are eighteen chapter stops. Regrettably there are no subtitles at all. This seems to be Umbrella’s policy, and I wish they’d change it.

The film has an audio commentary given by Rolf de Heer and Nicholas Hope. It’s an excellent commentary, informative and with several interesting anecdotes. The only other extra on the first disc is the theatrical trailer (running 1:51). This is in anamorphic 1.66:1 and looks like it’s been mastered from a video source.

The bulk of the extras are on the second disc which is, like the first, dual-layered. “Christ Kid You’re a Weirdo” (23:57) is an interview with de Heer. Although much of this will be familiar from the commentary, there is some new information here. “Being Bubby” (14:18) is an interview with Nicholas Hope, who talks about his early career and how he came to be cast as Bubby, though again some of this you will have heard before in the commentary on the first disc.

“Confessor Caressor” (19:37) is the 1989 short film that earned Hope the role of Bubby. It was made by Tim Nicholls, a bandmate of Hope. Credited as “Nick Hope”, he plays a serial killer who confesses to camera. At first we seem to be in Man Bites Dog territory, being a blackly comic account of a documentary crew following a murderer about – but there’s a twist to this tale. Shot in 16mm, this short is presented on DVD in anamorphic 4:3, though oddly there’s a black bar at the bottom of the frame as well.

Popcorn Taxi is a series of films with Q&A’s with their makers, held in Sydney and Melbourne. This DVD includes one such session (25:27) with Hope at Melbourne, introducing a screening of Bad Boy Bubby. This isn’t dated, but appears to be a few years after the film’s initial release, following the publication of Hope’s book of memoirs. This is presented in non-anamorphic 16:9. The final extra is a self-navigating stills gallery (2:15) and a set of trailers for other Australian films released on DVD by Umbrella: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Don’s Party, Money Movers, Attack Force Z, Dingo (an earlier de Heer film, featuring Miles Davis’s only acting role), the combined DVD of The Cars That Ate Paris and The Plumber, Long Weekend and Ghosts…of the Civil Dead.

Bad Boy Bubby has not been very widely shown outside Australia since its original release, so this DVD set is very welcome. Love it or hate it, you can’t say there’s very much like it.

8 out of 10
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