Reviewed in memory of Australian director Paul Cox, who died last month.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Paul Cox: 16 April 1940 – 18 June 2016
Bernard repairs and collects clocks and watches. He is having an affair with Terese (Gosia Dobrowolska), a married woman. One day, he finds inside an old watch a braid of a woman’s hair, and soon becomes obsessed by it…
There are plenty of examples of filmmakers whose reputation depends on the availability of their work, and they go in and out of fashion according to how visible that work is. If you look at cinema listings for the arthouse and independent sector in Britain in the 1980s (the decade when I first started in earnest watching films that didn’t turn up at my local cinema) you’ll find names turning up again and again which don’t have currency any more, as their films are no longer distributed here in the UK. In many cases that’s a pity as their work certainly deserves reappraisal. One of those is Paul Cox. His first feature to gain a British release was his fifth, Man of Flowers. That was soon followed by its predecessor, the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Best Film Award-winner Lonely Hearts and then for the rest of the decade, the feature documentary Vincent and every dramatic feature except 1989’s Island saw the light of British projector lamps. Then, after Golden Braid, this stopped. Cox continued to make films, shorts and documentaries as well as features. They could be relied upon to play film festivals, such as in London (where I saw Island and 1992’s The Nun and the Bandit), but none of them were picked up for commercial distribution. His 2000 feature Innocence had a cinema release and 1999’s Molokai: The Story of Father Damien came out on DVD, but as for the other eight dramatic features Cox made in the twenty-five years after Golden Braid, nothing. For a while, streaming services had several Cox films available: I said a few words about his third feature Kostas here, based on a viewing from Lovefilm Instants, which no longer exists. Curzon Home Cinema also had several available but as I write this there’s just Man of Flowers, possibly because it’s the only one with a BBFC homeviewing certificate, due to its earlier VHS release. (Artsfilms have a wide, though not complete, selection of Cox’s films available either singly or as a collection, but these are intended primarily for educational use and are expensive for individual purchasers. I cannot comment on the disc quality of any of these, as I have not seen them.) Other directors have been rediscovered by means of Blu-ray releases or boxsets, and I still live in hope that an enterprising company will take up the challenge – though I have no idea of rights, nor of the availability of HD masters. And sadly Cox will no longer be able to contribute to any future release.
Paulus Henrique Benedictus Cox was born in Venlo, The Netherlands. He began as a stills photographer and had established a reputation in this field by the time he emigrated to Australia in 1965. He began making short films in the later 1960s, and his first feature (if you don’t count the 52-minute The Journey from 1972) was the 16mm-shot Illuminations from 1976, followed in 1978 by Inside Looking Out. Neither are currently available to see, as I write this, without a trip to Australia and a visit to the archive.
Cox’s major films do centre on human relationships, often featuring obsessive and sometimes lonely characters, and Golden Braid, inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s short story “La chevelure” (suggested to Cox by his sister) is no exception. It does hark bark to Man of Flowers in its somewhat fetishistic sense of eroticism and the all-but hermetic world its protagonist lives in, even though the film takes place in a recognisable contemporary real-world setting. (Golden Braid was filmed in the Albert Park suburb of Melbourne, with Cox’s own house standing in for Bernard’s.) As with Charles in Man of Flowers, one of Bernard’s closest relationships is with his psychiatrist, played here by longstanding Cox collaborator Norman Kaye. (Kaye played the lead in Man of Flowers and his piano-playing can be heard on the soundtrack of Golden Braid. Cox made a documentary about him, 2005’s The Remarkable Mr Kaye.) Cox appears, uncredited, as a priest hearing Bernard’s confession. The film was cowritten by Barry Dickins, who had played the philosophical postman in Man of Flowers and appears here as a barber.
Yet Bernard does have a love life. Whether you take at face value Bernard’s claim to have slept with about a hundred women, twenty of them in one year, he does undoubtedly have a close relationship with his mistress, Terese (Gosia Dobrowolska), one unknown to her husband Joseph (Paul Chubb). Polish-born Dobrowolska had made her debut in her native country in Shivers but came to prominence in Australia playing a Polish immigrant in Silver City. She gives a character which in other hands might well have been a cipher a warmth that does sell the love that Terese has for the, frankly strange, Bernard. Golden Braid was her first collaboration with Cox, who wrote his next film, A Woman’s Tale for her. They made five features together, plus the 1993 short Touch Me and the 1997 IMAX film The Hidden Dimension (available on DVD in the USA). Chris Haywood and Cox collaborated sixteen times (including that short Touch Me), a working relationship which began with Kostas and continued to Cox’s final film, Force of Destiny, released in 2015.
Bernard shares with Charles an obsessive interest (here, making and repairing watches and clocks) and a fetishistic love object (the braid of the title, to which he even makes love in one scene. As with the earlier film, Cox lets us into his dreams and fantasies, by means of sequences shot in 16mm when then rest of the film is 35mm. The use of Johann Georg Albrechstberger’s Concerto for Jew’s Harp, Mandora and Orchestra is surprising and effective. While I wouldn’t quite put it on the same level as the earlier film, it shows what a considerable director Cox was, one which we were soon to become lose touch with in the UK. Golden Braid was shortlisted for five AFI Awards, none of which were Best Film and none of which it won. Cox lost to Ray Argall for Return Home and that year’s Best Film was Flirting.
Beyond’s all-regions, single-layered DVD was released in 2002 and is still in print. That should be borne in mind as, while it may have just about passed muster when it was released, it’s a long way short of what we would expect nowadays. The Australian release has the advisory M rating. In the UK, the BBFC gave the film a 15 certificate, which it would most likely do again if it were resubmitted now.
The transfer is not anamorphically-enhanced and is in 4:3, which fortunately is open-matte from an intended ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is quite dark and murky in the more low-lit scenes. It looks better in the more brightly-lit scenes and grain is certainly present but the results are never better than adequate. Owners of widescreen devices should zoom the picture into something approaching the correct ratio.
The film has a mono soundtrack, which was becoming increasingly unusual in 1990. The track on this DVD is clear and well-balanced between the dialogue, sound effects and music. Unfortunately there are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing available.
There are only basic extras. The trailer (2:30) is clearly aiming at selling the film on its sexual content, with several nude shots of Dobrowolska but none of Haywood. Otherwise, there are single-page text biographies of Haywood and Dobrowolska and a ten-image, non-self-navigating stills gallery.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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