By Chloe Lizotte
It’s not immediately clear who the protagonist of James Vaughan’s debut feature is. Following the credits, which play over a montage of 18th-century artist William Bradley’s watercolours of English ships docking in Sydney (the settlement’s first representation in Western art), we are shown a sunny park on the edge of Sydney’s harbour, where stray figures gaze out at the glittering water as if they’re in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. It’s a scene in which it would be difficult to recognize the lanky Ray (Fergus Wilson), his features indistinct in the middle distance, as the anchor of any forthcoming narrative, and that subtle sense of rootlessnesscontinues as Vaughan proceeds to cut to the skyscrapers and eerily underpopulated streets of Brisbane.
That initial sensation of displacement does turn out to be central to the film’s plot, though, as Friends and Strangers goes on to trace the uncertain flirtation (if one could even call it that) between Ray and Alice (Emma Diaz), acquaintances from Sydney who unexpectedly bump into each other in Brisbane. But the film’s understated opening sequence, bringing us from watercolour to harbour to cityscape, establishes a crucial national subtext. As these characters go about their lives, they move through spaces that are indelibly marked by the lineage of colonial violence: in the statues of soldiers throughout Sydney, in throwaway shots of images of the British royal family on cheesy souvenir mugs, and especially in the pavement underfoot, which covers the ground on which tens of thousands of Aboriginal Australians lost their lives at the hands of European settlers. (The history of the country’s indigenous peoples is only mentioned once in the film, by a tourist.)
As a dry comedy about romance among the young, white, privileged, and directionless (a milieu Vaughan became familiar with during his time working in an art gallery), Friends and Strangers could easily invite comparisons to Rohmer or Whit Stillman, but the tone here is stranger, more unsettling. Comparisons only hit on parts of the whole: there are traces of Hong Sangsoo in the way that mundane interactions veer unexpectedly off-track, and even wisps of Heinz Emigholz in the interplay of architecture, conversation, and character. In a Q&A following the film’s screening in New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center, Vaughan himself invoked the Rivettian trope of a guiding “mystery that has no centre or origin”—a unique tonality that first emerges when Ray and Alice go camping in the first of the film’s three “chapters.”
The set-up seems like it could be romantic, but each successive scene makes the possibility of intimacy more elusive. The two drive tothe campsite in different cars; upon arriving, Alice avoids a chat by slinking off to the public restroom; later, she pretends to nap when Ray leaves their tent for a stroll, only to depart by herself 30 seconds afterwards. The pair’s conversations are a series of half-starts and half-jokes, as if they are always self-protectively skirting the edges of a real interaction. Their mannerisms are far from the precocious verbosity of Stillman or Noah Baumbach’s yuppies, and also much lower-key than those of the acerbic anti-heroes of mumblecore. There’s a greater tension here than the kind that might be diffused by sex (which never comes to pass between Ray and Alice, anyway): at a moment when it seems as if things might come to a head, Alice suddenly looks directly into the lens of the camera and dares Ray to look up from his book, while also challenging the audience to return her gaze.
In the film’s middle third, Vaughan expands his canvas to the duo’s social circle back in Sydney, and reveals that both Ray and Alice are fresh from disastrous breakups and still too rattled for their trip to serve as a proper rebound. Returned from his abortive getaway, Ray is driving with his friend Miles (David Gannon) to an interview for a prospective wedding videography gig in a wealthy neighbourhood when his car breaks down in the middle of an alley. Panicked, Ray calls his mom to pick them up; after she scolds him for simply abandoning his old car, he pathetically trudges back to leave a perfunctory note on the dashboard. In the middle of this episode, he passes a salon and recognizes a friend inside (Victoria Maxwell). As the two make small talk, she says, “I’ve been pretty good…kind of just working at the shop…I kind of want to move overseas, like, maybe this year…at some point.” This sudden shift—from mundane catch-up to the casual expression of a longing to overhaul one’s entire life—neatly captures the way in which these characters have become unmoored, finding, after coming of age in the structures of liberal arts education, that their dream jobs are not materializing on cue. Yet the privilege from which they hail nonetheless frees them to flounder without facing serious repercussions: after all, a parent can always give you a lift if you have car troubles.
These droll interpersonal dramas take on a greater significance within the film’s colonial subtext. If these twentysomethings lack the life skills to respond to an amorphous world, it’s difficult to imagine other members of their social class—members of the government, for instance—engaging with, let alone working for, significant societal reform. Rather than castigating his subjects for their urge to retreat within themselves, Vaughan instead illustrates the more pervasive, longer-term effects of ruling-class disengagement through the introduction of characters from previous generations. First, during the camping trip, Ray chats with a wiry, white-haired intellectual (Ion Pearce) who is living off the grid in an RV while grieving his wife’s passing. Later, after Ray’s mother drops Ray and Miles off for the job interview and Miles falls suddenly ill, the pair is taken in by a bathrobe-clad man (Mal Kennard) who played ambient electronic music in the ’80s (Miles exclaims in recognition when the man mentions he was in “Hot Porpoise”), and who now slings back liquor while housesitting for his banker brother. Though both men exude a greater sense of certainty (and, in the latter’s case, swagger) than Vaughan’s central characters, they’re also more profoundly and knowingly adrift, without even the cold comfort of anomie.
A straightforward inventory of the film’s themes may overshadow how laugh-out-loud funny it can be, especially in its final third. Tipsy after his and Miles’ afternoon spent with the boozing ex-musician, Ray literally stumbles next door for his job interview with Miles’ filthy-rich relative, David (Greg Zimbulis). In a riotous comedy of contrasts, the intense David engages the eye-contact-avoiding Ray in a Russian roulette game of impossible questions about the metaphysics of filmmaking; meanwhile, one of David’s neighbours is improbably blasting dissonant orchestral string music, which moans menacingly throughout the circuitous conversation. Located right on the water, David’s house is an over-the-top spectacle of affluence, packed with paintings from a sprawling art collection that include works by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, as well as an imposing portrait of Queen Elizabeth—which, Ray correctly identifies, changes colour in the middle of the sequence. This light surrealism injects an overt sense of the absurd into the scene’s whiplash pacing, and alters the tenor of the film one final, essential time. Once Friends and Strangers ultimately reveals itself as an absurdist comedy, it retrospectively becomes clear that the film’s momentum has stemmed from its accumulation of seeming non-sequiturs. An eccentric camper approaching Ray and Alice to tell them that they’re not supposed to be on the land where they’ve pitched their tent; Alice snapping a selfie in the woods, standing in a clearing that William Bradley could have painted; Ray weakly attempting to insulate a barbed cactus in a flimsy paper towel while in David’s house—it is the masterful unease of these off-kilter moments that ultimately structure the film, all of them atmospherically but never didactically underscored by the repressed ghosts of the country’s colonial past. “If you don’t deal with fucked-up things properly, that’s when things become haunted,” Miles says to Ray. By dealing with his nation’s fucked-up history obliquely, Vaughan gives it proper weight within a milieu where a demand that one person return another’s stare seems like a bridge that cannot be crossed.