John Hughes' first non-documentary feature is an intricate, mature, subversive mystery unlike anything seen before in Australian film. Its subjective, ambiguous nature and the multiple layers of reading make it a film that is challenging to even the most cinematically-literate audience. For this reason, the film has, unfortunately, received a great deal of negative criticism from film reviewers who claimed that the film's overt "artiness" was a sign of its attempt to segregate its audience. More likely, such critics were simply shocked to see an Australian filmmaker producing such an intensely cognitive, European-inspired work.
What makes What I Have Written so visually and narratively compelling is its combination of three disparate styles, representing the viewpoints of each of its three main characters. The first, and most striking, style consists of a series of still photographs (actually achieved by shooting super 16 film at 6-frames-per-second). Each image is tinged with a small degree of colour, creating a surreal, dreamlike sensation that fetishises and deifies the world as constructed in the manuscript which may or may not have been written by Christopher (Martin Jacobs). Sound confusing? It is.
The central thrust of the narrative concerns itself with discovering who actually wrote "the manuscript." As such, the still-frame style is contrasted with a frantic, documentary-realism that stands as Sorel's (Angie Milliken) viewpoint. While the still-frame sequence is slow and poetic, allowing the audience (and the film's characters) to scrutinise the characters who play out their respective parts within the diegesis of the manuscipt's re-telling, the social realist style is shot with hand-held camera and complemented by a bizarre soundtrack and an urgent performance by Angie Milliken. This represents Sorel's frantic piecing together of clues in her attempts to prove the guilt or innocence of her husband, Christopher.
The third style, described by the director in his Cinema Papers (#108) interview as "Surreal Visuality" represents Jeremy's (Jacek Koman) point-of-view. Being an art scholar, Jeremy is an intensely passionate man. This passion, as well as the controlling, forceful aspects of his personality, is revealed through the intense color saturation that identifies such sections.
Without giving too much away, the film's main themes revolve around the deciphering of this apparently haphazard combination of styles and viewpoints. Concepts of authorship (Who wrote the manuscript?) and the piecing together of puzzle pieces (the three styles) predominate a surface reading of the text. The human struggle, alienation within relationships, sexual obsession, deception, memory, knowledge and spectatorship are all investigated through sub-plots and Hughes' self-reflexive construction of the work. Also look out for Jeremy's analysis of the painting "The Virgin, Child and St. Ann." Jeremy's changing analysis reveals a great deal about his own psychological state.
While it is difficult to review such an intricate film without giving too much of the plot, or the unravelling of the mystery, away, this film is definitely worth a look. I would also recommend that people see it twice in order to gain a full appreciation of the intricate construction of the work and to understand the manner in which Hughes and John Scott, the author of the novel on which the film is based, have blinded us.