Entering Thriller Country: Rolf De Heer's 'Alexandra's Project'

By Hoskin, Dave | Metro Magazine, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Entering Thriller Country: Rolf De Heer's 'Alexandra's Project'


Hoskin, Dave, Metro Magazine


Alexandra's Project (2002) has been described as a psychosexual thriller and, at least initially, it certainly appears that the territory we are entering is 'thriller country'. The camera prowls smoothly through the blandness of suburbia, evoking memories of such works as Blue Velvet (David Lynch. 1986) and Shallow Grave. (Danny Boyle. 1994) but the underlying flavour tastes subtly different. Possibly it's because of the familiarity of the Australian setting, but the suburbs seem more real, the 'eugenics patrol' that usually license the visibility of beautiful people only (particularly in psychosexual thrillers) seem to have taken the day off. Of course this is a Rolf de Heer film: one expects the director of Bad Boy Bubby (1993) to have a more sophisticated viewpoint on the beauties and grotesquerie of sexuality. However in Alexandra's Project this early skewing of the generic conventions remains disquieting, signaling that there is something more serrated lurking beneath the familiar-looking surface.

It is interesting that such a lauded director as de Heer should choose to work with this sort of material. the erotic thriller being more frequented by the hacks and exploiters than the so-called serious film-makers. Perhaps he recognizes (like Paul Thomas Anderson or comics author Alan Moore) the untapped potential of working in the disreputable genres as they are frequently, pardon the pun, virgin territory. Certainly, while the Greeks might have invented the erotic thriller genre in their tales of Zeus' philandering and Hera's vengeance, in these post-Victorian times sexuality has been largely left to pornographers. With a few notable exceptions, depictions of sexuality have become either sleazy ends in themselves or, even worse, a pretentiously flatulent 'erotica' perpetrated by 'artists' who are just as distanced from sexual reality as the 50DD-cup porn stars. The result is that few are brave enough to tackle the subject matter because of the toxic reputation of the genre as a whole. Certainly, Alexandra's Project feels like a welcome Trojan Horse into this stronghold--a thriller that saves its sharpest knives for the dissection of its medium.

It is no accident that the plot of de Heer's film hinges on a video tape that Steve's wife, Alexandra, leaves him for his birthday present. A huge portion of the film is spent exploring what is on the tape and, to this reviewer's mind, this is a scathing critique of not only the protagonists' marriage, but also of the ways in which we watch so-called erotic entertainment. Alexandra, like most porno performers, initially has no apparent agenda, and it seems that her performance will be a Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee variant for Steve's eyes only. He is hooked and delighted, reacting in much the same way as many viewers do while watching one-handed media. As the early sections of Alexandra's striptease are performed he replays his favorite moments, fast forwards over the 'talky bits' that break up the eroticism, freeze frames the woman on the screen in idealized fetishistic poses, and is disappointed when the initial mood is punctured as she interrupts her striptease.

At this point, de Heer's subversion becomes overt, and Steve is dragged into identifying more deeply with the woman on the screen than he would like. Alexandra has a lot on her mind, and has ensured that Steve is unable to escape the coruscating critique she unleashes. Although we do see Alexandra in all her physical and emotional nakedness the eroticism almost entirely evaporates. What appeared to be a playful amateur porn actress suddenly turns on the viewer, using her body as a weapon to challenge the male audience to rethink the ways in which they look at a woman on a screen or, indeed, in reality. In a particularly grueling moment, breasts are held out to the viewer as objects of traditional sexual delectation before being brutally desexualized. With actions such as this Alexandra successfully seizes control of the way that we look at her and reclaims the identity she believes she has lost; she is even willing to torture and degrade her body in order to demonstrate her physical and psychical sovereignty. …

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