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OZ CINEMA
Your guide to Australian film.
By Joshua Smith

Hearts are Breaking everywhere - The Heartbreak Kid (1993)

Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: March 31, 1998

Leading Players: Claudia Karvan (Christina), Alex Dimitriades (Nick), Nico Lathouris (George), Steve Bastoni (Dimitri), Doris Youane (Evdokia), George Vidalis (Vasili), Louise Mandylor (Eleni), William McInnes (Southgate), Jasper Bagg (Graham), Fonda Goniades (Con), Vikash Prasad (Vikash), Kathy Halliday (Maria).

Main Crew: prod, Ben Gannon; dir, Michael Jenkins; writ, Richard Barrett, Michael Jenkins (based on the play by Richard Barrett); dop, Nino Martinetti; ed, Peter Carrodus; mus, John Clifford White; prod d, Paddy Reardon; cos, Lisa Meagher.

At first glance, Michael Jenkins' The Heartbreak Kid appears to be a traditional, conventional coming-of-age drama in which an older, more experienced, woman awakens a younger man's sexuality. Instead of falling into the trap of predictability, though, Jenkins and Richard Barrett (whose play the film is based upon) reversed the stereotypical roles and, in doing so, catalysed the development of a poignant sub-plot relating to the restrictiveness of Greek traditions regarding the place of women.

Jenkins' film centres around the developing relationship between Christina (Claudia Karvan), a 22-year-old teacher whose life has been mapped out for her, and Nick (Alex Dimitriades), a free-spirited 17-year-old student of Christina's. According to the conventions of the genre established in Homework, Blue Velvet (1986) and, locally, in The Year My Voice Broke (1987) the worldly woman is expected to broaden the angst-ridden boy's horizons by initiating and fostering his sexual awakening. Nick, however, is the worldlier of the two in The Heartbreak Kid; his working-class Greek-Australian upbringing teaching him the bare truth about life on the streets. Christina, on the other hand, has, by her own admission, locked herself into a marriage that promises children, housework and a home across the street from her parents.

In setting up an epic clash of sub-cultures, Jenkins has created a modest interpretation of the oft-imitated Romeo and Juliet-type plot progression. His thematic concerns coincide with Shakespeare's, the most obvious being the bridging of a social rift by a pair of na´ve, ill-fated lovers. Similarly, Jenkins and Barrett began their film with the staging of a high-class party, which signifies Christina's (Juliet's) stable future with the wealthy Dimitri (Paris). This pretentious affair is interrupted and thrown into chaos by Nick (Romeo) whose rebellious nature, freedom of spirit and disdain for the middle-class is revealed in his desire to set off their car alarms. Like in Romeo and Juliet, the families of the lovers are disgusted and dishonored by the consummation of their love, the only support coming from Christina's girlfriend (Nurse), who encourages Christina's free expression of her sexuality.

Nick's romantic, anti-authoritarian, unconventional outlook on life and love attract Christina's fascination. She has, during her first 22 years, presumably been living life with blinkers on, willing to take her "rightful" place in society by the side of her working husband. Nick's vagrant nature, his happiness (despite the constant persecution he endures at school from staff and students) and his love for Christina fills a gap in her life. This relationship, while extreme, is made all the more believable by the tour-de-force performances exhibited by both Dimitriades and Karvan. Electricity flows through each frame in which they appear together, especially in the moments prior to the consummation of their shared love.

Their relationship is unique in that Christina becomes both a lover and a mother to Nick, who lives only with his father. In contrast, Nick becomes both a teacher and a lover to Christina, while two controlling, sexist males, Christina's father and her fiance, act as fathers to her. The couple is placed in a precarious situation in which conformists, such as Christina's parents and the school staff, look at her with disgust. The students, similarly, act as voyeurs, prying out Nick's every gesture. This sensation of looking is enhanced through the employment of well-trained extras and clever production design. In Christina's girlfriend's flat, the place of the couple's first love making session, for example, a selection of masks line the walls like some perverse audience whose sole purpose is to judge the couple. Yet, each having abolished their guilt, Christina and Nick defy their onlookers with carpe-diem-esque confidence.

In order to reinforce the film's romantic core, Jenkins, an experienced television director, employed a number of techniques that emphasised the powerful, heart-wrenching performances above filmic form. In both the pre-production and production stages of The Heartbreak Kid, Jenkins, keen to escape the theatrical feel of the drama, encouraged a great deal of improvisation on behalf of the actors and the director of photography. This resulted in a very naturalistic, social-realist mise-en-scene in which multi-camera set ups and the usage of hand-held camera operation capture a certain immediacy and vitality of performance that may have been expended in place of precision of form if single, static cameras were employed throughout.

This style contrasts with moments of slick, stylised direction; most notable in Nick's night-time training sequence. Similarly, the film's soundtrack consists of a seemingly haphazard blend of popular music and a traditional composition. When viewed in context, this apparent ad-hoc mixture of styles reflects the film's dominant theme - that being the pursuit of independence and personal freedom.

Christina's final decision to leave her husband-to-be, in order to pursue a romantic longing to travel and learn creates an ambiguous ending that lends the film a tense, unresolved edge that is commonplace in teen movies such as The Year My Voice Broke and Before Sunrise (1995). The fact that her decision is greeted so positively by Nick leads the audience to feel that even if she fails to return as promised, Nick will remain satisfied in the knowledge that he freed Christina from a conventional life of drudgery and service.

 
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