Man of Flowers Review
Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye) lives on his own and writes daily letters to his mother, who died a few years previously. He collects flowers and goes to life-drawing classes. Lisa (Alyson Best) is living with David (Chris Haywood), an action painter who sponges off her. She goes to life classes as well, and strikes up a friendship with Charles, who pays her to undress for him while a duet from Lucia di Lammermoor (sung by Montserrat Caballé and José Carreras) plays and he watches...
Paul Cox was born in the Netherlands in 1940 and emigrated to Australia at the age of twenty-five, making his first short films at the same time. Man of Flowers was his fifth feature, but the first to have a UK cinema release – no doubt the promise of 18-certificate arthouse eroticism helped. (I talk about his third feature, Kostas from 1979, here.) Man of Flowers despite its premise manages to avoid being too exploitative, getting Best's disrobing out of the way in the opening minutes. (Given the fact that three of the characters are artists or art students with life models, there is nudity on display, mainly female, but Cox gives Norman Kaye a full-frontal in one scene too.) Many of Cox's films are love stories - My First Wife is a falling-out-of-love story – often between characters mismatched by age or background and this is no exception. However, it's a platonic love story. Charles is celibate, his sexual impulses mostly voyeuristic, with a deep attachment to his now-late mother, who at times both smothered him and rejected him, as we see in flashbacks. Lisa's live-in relationship with the sometimes violent David – who we see producing his sub-Jackson Pollock artworks in one scene – is distintegrating and she moves into a lesbian relationship with Jane (Sarah Walker), one that is mostly exploratory of her own sexuality on Lisa's part. The film negotiates very tricky subject matter quite ably and without prurience: you do wonder why women like Lisa and Jane don't run a mile at what Charles suggests, but are able to accept that they don't, and while Charles is certainly eccentric you do end up sympathising with him. In flashbacks – shot in very grainy handheld Super 8mm – we see the roots of his obsessions in his relationships with his mother (Hilary Kelly) and his strict father (Werner Herzog). The graininess of these scenes counterpoints the lushness of Yuri Sokol's camerawork in the present-day scenes, shot in 35mm.
Cox came into contact with Bob Ellis (writer of Newsfront) when he was offered Ellis's script The Nostradamus Kid - which was finally made in 1993, with Ellis directing. Frustrated with films coming to nothing, Cox started writing Man of Flowers on a plane trip. The script was co-written with Ellis – Cox is credited for the scenario, Ellis for the dialogue. Chris Haywood was a friend of Cox's and through him Cox met Alyson Best, who was Haywood's girlfriend at the time. Norman Kaye had worked with Cox regularly, having been in Cox's debut feature Illuminations (1976) and had played one of the leads in Cox's previous film, the late-love story Lonely Hearts.(1982, winner of the Australian Film Institute award for Best Film). The film is populated by memorable supporting characters, such as Charles's postman given to philosophical chats (Barry Dickins), Charles's psychiatrist (played by Ellis himself). Julia Blake turns up with a German accent as Charles's and Lisa's martinet art teacher. Charles calls her at one point “Miss Neidhart”: you have to wonder if this is an in-joke referring to the German-Australian actor Elke Neidhart, who had appeared in Illuminations and Cox's next feature Inside Looking Out (1977, her last screen credit before moving into theatre/opera directing) but who was better known for her role in Libido and as Dr Steiner in Skippy. She was known for her bluntness and was for thirty-five years partner to Norman Kaye, until his death in 2007. Following the Herzog connection, Ellis had written the script for the German's Australian-made film Where the Green Ants Dream.
Man of Flowers is one of Cox's best films, though its focus on obsession and particularly erotic obsession may be alienating to some. It won the AFI Award for Kaye as Best Actor and was also nominated for Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
Cox is a prime example of a director who enjoyed a brief fashion in the UK but soon left it. Man of Flowers was followed into British cinemas by Lonely Hearts and their successors Cactus (1986), the documentary on Van Gogh, Vincent (1987) and Golden Braid< (1990). Only the disappointing Greek-set Island (1989) failed to see a UK release. (I saw it at the London Film Festival.) However, Cox's films must not have sustained a British audience, because after Golden Braid they played festivals but did not have a commercial release in the UK. Since then, only his 2000 film Innocence (which I reviewed here from its Australian DVD) saw the light of a British projector lamp, and Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999) was released on DVD. While they received VHS releases, none of Cox's earlier work is available on DVD in the UK. There is no Australian DVD of Man of Flowers and a US one from Image Entertainment from 2001 now changes hands for rather more than it cost to buy when it was in print.
However, if you have a sufficiently strong broadband connection and a device to play the film on (a computer monitor or a smart TV, for example) then there is another way to see some of Cox's major work. Streaming is an increasing method of watching films. Lovefilm (who offer streaming – Lovefilm Instants – as part of their subscription) had several Cox films, including several never previously released in the UK, including Kostas referred to above, but at the time of writing these films are no longer available here. However, Curzon Home Cinema (who make films available to stream for a week for a one-off charge) have Man of Flowers available, as well as (at the time of writing) My First Wife, Cactus, Vincent, Golden Braid, Innocence and The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. Curzon Home Cinema's copy of Man of Flowers (licensed from HanWay Films) is a good standard-def PAL transfer, presented in 4:3 open-matte (intended ratio, 1.85:1) with mono sound. Given the film's distribution history, I would be surprised if a high-def master actually exists.