More than most Australian directors of his generation, John Duigan deserves revisiting and reassessment; certainly, there's rather more to him than you'd gather from his biggest critical success, the effective but outwardly familiar coming-of-age drama The Year My Voice Broke (1987). Duigan hasn't directed a film in Australia for almost two decades – to be precise, since his “bawdy” period comedy Sirens in 1993. But he's back in full force with this terrific new study of a favorite theme, the price which society exacts for sexual freedom.
At the centre of the film's puzzle is Linh (Nammi Le), a bright, well-adjusted young woman in her early twenties. By day, she studies social anthropology at Sydney University, where her main lecturer, played with dry humour by Duigan himself, seems to specialise in dismantling the authority of religion. By night, as “Mai,” she's employed by the Orient Express escort agency, covering her tracks to her housemate (Penny McNamee) by pretending to be off to the library yet again.
Gradually, Duigan makes plain that Linh has adopted this lifestyle for specific, practical reasons (“It's not a career choice”). He steers clear of anything that would tilt the film towards porn: sex is rarely shown on screen, and the few exceptions are far from erotic. Still, we're allowed to witness Linh's pleasure in her work – in encountering new situations, in the three-way cameraderie she shares with her seemingly ditzy colleague Mint (Ivy Mak) and their crusty driver Dion (David Field), and in her vision of herself as someone capable of negotiating dangerous territory without harm.
Le's slim physique could belong to a dancer; as “Mai”, she's professionally required to adjust her demeanour to the occasion, but often does so with a hint of a raised eyebrow, implying an amused scepticism beneath the submissive stance. Off-duty, her body language suggests a defensive reserve; there's an occasionally stilted, self-conscious quality to her speech and movements, as if both actress and character were hyper-conscious of being “on show”.
All this is part of the film's subject-matter, as both a fascinated portrait of its star and a broader examination of the shifting frameworks we use to pass judgement. Each scene poses a version of the same question: what do these people make of one another, and what do we make of them in turn? Sex work potentially entails becoming an “object” in one sense (the premise of Julia Leigh's uncanny Sleeping Beauty, a film which Careless Love seems to converse with). But it's also a kind of improvised performance requiring constant snap appraisals of others, who have to make choices of their own about what roles they want to fill.
Linh is often drafted into pre-existing scenarios, but she just as frequently functions as part of an audience, whether at a university theatre production, a dance in an empty nightclub, a coerced outdoor sex act, or a family picnic on the beach. In one inspired scene, she's hired as a “birthday present” for a rich boy, whose friends of both genders sit in the front room sniggering at their own daring; alone with her in the bedroom, the client hovers between options, unsure whether to play the sensitive dag or simply take advantage of what's on offer.
If Linh's secret profession carries a lot of baggage, this is also true of every other role she assumes: student, girlfriend, obedient daughter. It's hinted that her Vietnamese background, which boosts her popularity as an escort, has also given her some practice in moving between different aspects of her identity. When she's with her family some of her poise falls away, and a more relaxed, youthful persona emerges – but it would be meaningless to ask which side of her character is closest to her “authentic” self.
Though the style of Careless Love is dictated by its low budget, Duigan's framing and editing is always dedicated to exploring and clarifying character relationship, emphasising the sometimes cagey ways people respond to one another from moment to moment. Realism is not a primary concern: an element of unlikely melodrama is planted early on but not detonated till the last minute, boldly allowing the narrative to jump onto a different track.
This is another coming-of-age story, but deliberately not a cautionary tale: Duigan takes the right to self-determination for granted, while insisting that its consequences are never simple. Towards the end, Le's voiceover supplies the film's thesis statement: “Everybody thinks their own version of the world into being.” Whatever mess she gets into, someone as clever as Linh ought to be able to think her way out.