He Died With a Felafel in His Hand Review

Jean-Paul Sartre said that Hell is other people, and they share a house with Danny (Noah Taylor). This house in Brisbane is his forty-seventh share, and things haven’t improved. There’s gun freak Taylor (Alex Menglet) who likes playing golf with cane toads and druggie Flip (Brett Stewart) who likes to sit outside at night and top up his pale complexion by “moontanning”. Tomboyish Sam (Emily Hamilton) seems the most normal on the surface, but is deeply insecure. Enter Anya (Romane Bohringer), a French vegetarian feminist and Satan worshipper, and self-confessed chaos freak. As Danny goes from here to house 48 in Melbourne and number 49 in Sydney, his housemates follow him with results often disastrous but frequently hilarious.

Based (rather loosely apparently) on a novel by John Birmingham, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand is a black comedy that’s stylishly done and very funny. Richard Lowenstein first two films, the docudrama Strikebound (1984) and the Altmanesque punk-era epic Dogs in Space (1986, and easily the best film the late Michael Hutchence ever made) both had limited releases in the UK, but showed a director of quite some versatility and talent. It comes as a shock to realize that Felafel is only his second feature film since then: I haven’t seen 1992’s Say a Little Prayer. In between features, Lowenstein has been making promo videos and commercials, which may account for the considerable assurance on display here. Felafel is a very stylised film, with each of the three main houses having a distinct look, thanks to Iain Aitkin’s effective production design. Lowenstein’s direction adds to the sense of quirkiness, often using the corners of the frame in his compositions. The stylisation extends to the script, and it’s fair to say that some of the minor characters are caricatures, though entertaining ones. However, Emily Hamilton (an English actress but previously unknown to me) and Romane Bohringer add shadings to roles that could easily have been cartoonish, as to a lesser extent does Sophie Lee as Nina, the neurotic, relentlessly colour-coordinated resting actress who runs the Sydney house. There’s a beautiful moment when Anya tells Danny a story (in fact the plot of (Solaris) at a key moment later on. Lowenstein had to delay shooting for six months so that Noah Taylor could finish shooting Almost Famous. It was worth the wait: Taylor effectively shows us the integrity (and talent) hidden underneath Danny’s macho posturing and bullshitting. Taylor underplays considerably, considering the hysterical events surrounding him, but you do get a sense of impotence and rage boiling inside him. When he does explode, late on, it’s all the more effective.

You could argue that Felafel is a little too episodic for its own good, and that it hits a peak 45 minutes in that it never reaches again. Certainly some scenes don’t come off, notably a short scene of Danny at his cousin’s wedding which plays as if it hasn’t been completely deleted. But if you’ve ever shared a house in your twenties, you’ll recognise a lot that goes on here as not being too far from the truth. Felafel is not for the overly-PC or anyone easily offended, but it’s a movie with definite cult potential. It’s already had two viewings from me. It played at the Barbican’s Australian Film Festival in March 2002, but so far there’s no sign of a British commercial release. If it doesn’t get one, that’s our loss.

Felafel is presented on DVD in an aspect ratio of 16:9. Some shots are so precisely composed that I doubt the intended cinema ratio is much different: probably 1.75:1. In 1.85:1, much of this film would look awkwardly cropped. Roadshow’s DVD has an anamorphic transfer that is everything it should be, considering how recent the film is. Colours are bright, blacks solid, and I didn’t notice any artefacting.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. Lowenstein and his sound crew use the possibilities of multi-channel sound quite imaginatively. A good example is in the early scenes, with most of the characters discussing a possible homoerotic subtext in Reservoir Dogs while Taylor is practicing canetoad-golf outside. Every so often a canetoad will hit an outside wall with a THWACK coming from one or other of your speakers with an assist from the subwoofer. There’s quite a lot of music on the soundtrack, from The Stranglers’s “Golden Brown” to Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” via “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from Cabaret, all of it well chosen and sounding great.

Roadshow have produced some excellent DVDs for both the new (Looking for Alibrandi) and older films ((Newsfront) in their catalogue. It’s disappointing then that they didn’t make more of Felafel: the only extra is the theatrical trailer, which is in non-anamorphic 16:9, 2.0 mono sound and runs 2:05. As is usual with trailers it’s sourced from a cinema print and is hence grainier and contrastier than the main feature. There are sixteen chapter stops. The hard-of-hearing subtitles are generally good, and directionally placed. However there’s at least one error: Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is mistaken for the Star Wars theme.

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand is further confirmation that Lowenstein is a talented, somewhat undervalued director. Roadshow’s DVD has an excellent picture and sound but is disappointingly extras-light.

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