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Lantana:
An Understory of Death & Renewal in Mid-life
by  Bill Burmester, M.A., MFT

Director: Ray Lawrence
Producer: Jan Chapman
Screenwriter: Anthony Bovell
Stars: Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong, Rachael Blake, Vince Colosimo
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2001

Lantana opens with the camera panning in on the shrub for which it is named.  This film title is a far cry from the name of its original incarnation as a stage play, Speaking in Tongues, and aptly evokes a rich ecological metaphor at the heart of the visual language of the film.  What we see at first, even before the opening credits, is lush vegetation punctuated with clumps of bright, warm-colored flowers.  As the camera moves closer — like an insect homing in for a feed — and then penetrates this seductive exterior, we suddenly enter a very different environment of entangled thorny undergrowth. 

Within seconds our gaze follows from barren, snaking stalks to the stockinged toes of an inert foot, then down a leg angled like the lantana limbs that support it to the corpse of a woman clothed in black.  This opening implies that the film will be a murder mystery by genre, but the metaphor of its titular plant lingers throughout as a visual reminder of the contrast between surfaces and what lies behind and beneath them.  This deceptively attractive plant contrasts the outer enticements of marriage with the dire, sometimes deadly consequences of the collapse of trust from unmet emotion in committed relationships.

The lantana we are familiar with in the Western US is a modest garden groundcover.  In Australia (where this film was made), New Zealand, and parts of the South Pacific it is an invasive, opportunistic, even destructive plant species: "Widely cultivated as an ornamental, from which it escapes as a weed, this thorny shrub forms a dense understory vegetation which crowds out and inhibits establishment of other species."  It is even banned in New Zealand.  The first line of the film's website pays tribute to it as follows:

Lan-ta-na camera (lan-táyna, -téana) n. a noxious and troublesome weed with dense and spiky undergrowth, sometimes cultivated for its colourful, aromatic flowers. 

It would be simplistic to say that the film uses this plant as a metaphor for love, but not so far off to see it's contrast between enticing flowers and consuming thorny undergrowth as a symbol for the larger web of emotional experience in intimate relationships.

Interestingly enough, the victim first seen in lantana’s undergrowth is the very person one might assume most capable of navigating and surviving its psychological equivalent.  Valerie, a psychotherapist, has just published a very personal book.  In the course of the film she gradually loses her grip on reality, becoming anxious, fearful, and ultimately outright paranoid.  Fortunately for the film and for those of us who happen to be therapists, this is not just one more cinematic plot to humble those who presume to understand the human heart and psyche.  One thinks of the spectrum of such films from the comedic absurdities of What About Bob to the portrayal of psychiatrist as cannibal in Silence of the Lambs. Lantana, by contras, portrays its female protagonist as a victim of traumatic loss, at first literally, in  the loss to abduction and murder of her only daughter, then emotionally, in the loss of her husband’s empathy and support.  But as is so often the case with a good film, it makes just as much sense to think of the literal loss of her daughter symbolically: as representing the loss (or abduction and murder by loss of emotional attachment) of her own younger, more innocent girlhood self.

"A woman driving, her car breaks down, she makes a series of phone calls and basically ends up talking to an answering machine," is how writer Andrew Bovell describes the initial idea from which he developed the stage play, Speaking In Tongues. "And I was looking for a contemporary story that would lead me into the whole terrain of marriage and relationships."

Aristotle defined tragedy for us in the Western Tradition as the downfall of a hero resulting from the very strengths that make him great.  Lantana suggests a more ‘feminine’ form of tragedy, based on the risks of vulnerability or penetrability as well as the lack of it, in relationship, instead of relying on the more conventional tragedy that results from acts of hubris.  Valerie after all does her heroic best to survive the fateful loss of her only daughter by going public with it in her book.  It is not her lack of courage in the face of loss and vulnerability but ultimately her failure to evoke the life-line of emotional support she needs from her own husband that precipitates her fatal fall.  Being forced into heroic solo-ness is what kills her, and allegorically,  what does in the feminine capacity for strength-in-connection that she  represents in the film.  Even viewing her as a tragic hero in the more classical mold --as one defeated by her own courage, by the strength of her desire for connection-- emphasizes the irony of her death: she dies fleeing the human connection and trust  she most desires and that she has made a career of facilitating for others,  and does so just at the moment when it would be available to her.  Nick is silent  but has no evil intentions toward her.  There is a level at which the film does question Valerie's capacity for intimate mutuality, (as do a number of contemporary films of their therapist characters, from Mumford   to Good Will Hunting ) insofar as she is shown rebuffing her 'difficult' gay client's attempts to protect his own sanity in the face of her increasing paranoia.  It is as if this film is insisting that some losses are beyond repair and, like much severe trauma, can only lead to traumatic repetition.  Valerie’s death repeats her daughter’s, or as I have suggested is the death of childhood itself.  Others in the film are more fortunate: even if they lose an 'inner' child, they do not lose their only child.

Valerie and her lawyer husband’s modes of mourning are so different  that they lead me to consider the film a tragedy of gender.   Their professions underscore this divide: while she is a therapist, he is the dean of a law school.  Their dinner just after she makes a public and political appearance on behalf of her book shows them operating from different planets (one need not specify which).  She leaves without eating, in disgust at his response to her distress over her gay client,  whose orientation the film subtly weaves into the widening gap between her and her husband.  The husband’s solution, which is to refer him on to someone else if she’s having trouble with him, while ostensibly protective, is in fact hostile to the very nature of her profession as a  healer through sustained relationship.  It has the ironic effect of leading her to suspect that her husband and this client who he would have her disown are actually lovers, an extreme symptomatic act of opposition to her husband’s relational disengagement but much in keeping with erotomanic paranoia.  Everything the one does in the relationship alienates the other.  He has already shown his disdain for her “neediness” on various mundane occasions.  She wants desperately to be with him; he wants to be alone; she imagines him wanting another with whom she could not compete.

This most educated and affluent couple fares the worst in the gender zone.  Valerie loses her life and [he] loses both her and his daughter.  By contrast, the least educated and poorest of the four couples featured in this film, though directly implicated in Valerie’s death, ultimately fare the best.  They are the least psychologically divided by gender.  Nick is an apparently unemployed worker who tends to the couple’s three children while his wife Paula works to support them all.  She wears the pants and, he, without  emasculation, is a sensitive man.  It is the drama of Valerie and John’s gender divide that most victimizes this couple at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, not their lack of wealth or social standing.

The couple we are most likely to identify with, however, lies in the middle, their marriage hanging precariously in the dense shrubbery of  mid-life.  Sonya, the wife, is unhappy in her marriage for reasons similar to Valerie’s, while her husband Leon, a homicide investigator, has become incapable of feeling at all, except for his proverbial male anger.  In the course of investigating Valerie’s literal death he is forced to explore his own inner deadness.  He, in turn, is flanked by two single women who represent the two contrasting options he faces, renewal or divorce.  His female partner in law enforcement, looks on as he has an affair with the other woman, Jane, recently separated from her husband because she realizes she no longer loves him.  Leon’s police partner admonishes him for throwing away the kind of relationship she herself longs for. 

In my favorite subplot,  Leon literally collides with his temperamental opposite while jogging.  Both men are apparently preoccupied as they round a corner, run smack into each other, head to head, and react in fatefully gender-polarized ways.  This time the gender divide is between men. Leon reacts with rage and verbally attacks the other man, whose nose was just broken by the impact.  The other man, in his shock, clings to the one who has just hurt him and cries, much like Valerie clings to John across the void of the telephone line when her car breaks down.  This moment of collapse (both men are knocked to the ground) is a turning point in the film because it marks the penetration of Leon’s emotional armor and the gradual (re)appearance of his capacity for empathy and feeling.  As soon as he is finished with his hyper-masculine, verbally violent,  knee-jerk reaction to being physically violated by another man, Leon experiences a moment of remorse, as he watches the other man stagger away rather than retaliate.  He follows him with the grocery bags that the impact has caused the other man to drop, and attempts repair if not nurture. 

Much could be made of this reparative sequence which links the stranger's spontaneous surrender to suffering with Leon's eventual emotional renewal. The return of the groceries, along with Leon’s apology, is a nourishing moment to which the other man responds with open regression by clinging to him and crying.  This response in turn further disarms Leon and forces itself upon him as a option of masculinity, though none to quickly at first.  By the end of the film, however, he too breaks down sobbing, at the purloined discovery of his wife’s love for him in spite of his infidelity.  In the closing scene he puts himself at his wife’s mercy, as he has learned that men can from this other male victim, and is tentatively re-embraced by her. 

In a curious example of the film’s flagrant use of coincidence, the man Leon ran into on the street is the same man that his police partner has eyed eating alone, like herself, in a Chinese restaurant.  She hopes to meet him, and finally does in the film’s epilogue, grinning with seasoned longing and optimism.  Jane, on the other hand, who Leon has a brief affair with, remains separated from her husband in spite of the opportunity for reconciliation that another coincidental crisis provides.  Her cavalier rejection of commitment when the blush of romance wears off is rewarded with solitude.

The numerous coincidences among these four couples are too obvious to just be coincidental and have the distinct effect of moving the film beyond it’s pseudo-realistic genre as a murder mystery, in which, as it turns out, there has been no murder after all, at least not at a literal level.  The way in which this plot twist  transforms the genre's typical closing surprise regarding 'who done it', raises Lantana a figurative notch to the level of a complex and open ended allegory about intimacy and its discontents.