Mortality is traditionally a favourite theme of artists. In the realm of film, diverse directors have embraced it, in both documentary and fictional formats. Among European auteurs (think filmmakers whose individual style and control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp), Werner Herzog is noted for his series of portraits of US death row inmates, to say nothing of his features and documentaries about individuals who diced with danger and death as a matter of course in their daily existences. His German counterpart Wim Wenders’ 1980 production Lightning Over Water shines the spotlight on the ailing American director Nicholas Ray.
The Dutch – Australian auteur Paul Cox touched on the theme in documentaries – 1975’s We Are All Alone My Dear and 2005’s The Remarkable Mr. Kaye, about his ill actor friend Norman Kaye, for example – before treating it otherwise in Force of Destiny (2015), the final film the director made before his death in mid-2016 at the age of 76.
The hero of the piece is Robert (David Wenham), a sculptor of renown who lives alone in the countryside of Victoria, Australia. A maverick in life and art, as his unusual creations attest, he is on close terms with his daughter Poppy (Hannah Fredericksen) but much less sure footing with his ex-wife Hannah (Jacqueline McKenzie). Around the same time that Robert is diagnosed with cancer of the liver and given months to live he meets Maya (Shahana Gosswami), an Indian marine biologist temporarily working and studying in Victoria.
Robert’s work fascinates Maya, whose uncle in Kerala, India is in the final stages of a protracted battle with stomach cancer. Uncle is a brave individual determined not to leave the world without gracefully imparting to those who will outlive him the wisdom he has accrued on his journey. Robert, who meets the old man on a trip he undertakes to Kerala with Maya, is accepting too, much more than some of his near and dear. The possibility of going on a transplant list, thereby gaining a prolongation of life beyond the time frame initially given cannot, however, completely erase his pique that a wonderful woman like Maya, with whom he becomes besotted, has stepped on to the stage of his life when he may not have much of that life left.
It is impossible not to view Force of Destiny without bearing in mind the director’s own cancer diagnosis in 2009. Broadly speaking, an auteur’s individual films cannot help but mirror their makers’ states of mind at the time those films were shot. The dream-like images of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) would not have come to be had it not been for the long illness and convalescence the director underwent around the time of the film’s conception. Alter-ego characters – frequently they are artists or individuals possessed of keen poetic or artistic sensibilities – permeate the films of Mr. Cox. Sculptor Robert is perhaps as close as he came to a direct representation of himself. When we hear Robert describe himself to Maya as an agnostic humanist we sense it is the director, who built his reputation upon his deeply humanist perspective, speaking.
The long held close-up shots that abound in Force of Destiny enhance the intimacy of the portrait, the laid baring of souls, not only of Robert but also fellow cancer sufferers and those in their inner circles. For the artist, Maya represents both new love and a new cultural outlook on the business of death and dying. There is estrangement in his natural family. He has never been close to his father and his ex-wife, though well-meaning, grates on his nerves, especially when she reacts with Pavlovian-like predictability to Maya’s easy commandeering of the role of leading lady in his life. Even after receiving the ominous prognosis he would much rather be left alone until the radiant Maya appears on the scene. Her own brand of worldly wisdom does much to alleviate his apprehension about the ‘end’. While a great deal of what he witnesses on his hospital visits confuses and scares him, in Maya’s presence he is relaxed, at times even carefree.
Many segments in the film are classic examples of ‘mindscreen’ or first-person film, as Bruce Kawin termed it. The director never shied away from liberal usage of the cinema’s potential to portray subconscious states, including distant memories. We witness not only Robert’s fears and dire imaginings but also lilting, uplifting fragments, both visual and aural. Mr. Cox also employs mindscreen of a different sort in scenes where Robert’s compassionate interest in and observance of the patients with whom he is sharing ward space briefly ‘take over’ the narrative. It is an arresting technique and gives rise to some of the film’s most poignant moments. They are a potent reminder that as ‘all alone’ as we may well be, there is and remains a unifying thread of humanity death will be powerless to sunder when she comes calling.