The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977)

by Douglas Buck November 19, 2019 4 minutes (864 words) HD Cinémathèque québécoise, Festival of Nouveau Cinema/‘Films for the Planet’ section

Sydney corporate tax lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) finds himself representing a group of secretive Australian Aborigines accused of murder… leading to the good white family man’s life unravelling as not only a troubling mystical connection reveals itself with one of the accused (David Gulpili) but the plague of bizarre dreams and premonitions suppressed for most of his life indicate that the unusually adverse weather may be signalling the end of the world…

I’m the perfectly realized introductory scene of the sudden violent hailstorm on a rural school in the outback (with one of the children’s neck cut badly by broken glass and a poor sheep pounded mercilessly), to the images of a city beset by inexplicable weather events and relentless rain (with it turning at one point to biblical black), all occurring as the Aboriginals, standing mysteriously on the outskirts of a tale told through the Western perspective, seem to have some innate understanding of what is occurring, Weir creates a profound, almost palpable doom-laden landscape that, on one level resonates more than ever (the notion of Western civilization destroying the world), but on another perhaps hues a bit too close to the construct of the ‘noble savage’, that primitive imbued less with civilized ‘humanity’ and closer to supernatural unknowability, as the North American white man likes to do with his own indigenous people. The opening image of the film, showing the profile of an Aboriginal leader painting arcane images on a rock seem to give the impression that perhaps not only are the Aborigines closer to the changing weather (and the end of the world), but in fact perhaps they partly control it.

Even with all that, from the level of creating a cinematic sense of the enigmatic and the profoundly unknown that we can only catch glimpses of through vaguely familiar images and objects and strange visions, Weir’s film is fascinating.

With its hypnotizing score modulating perfectly back and forth between electronic mood pieces and then to the deep otherworldly sound vibrations of the digeridoo, the strange rain-swept hallucinations, the fascinating close-up of those deeply-lined, character filled (though inexpressive) Aboriginal faces (including Gulpili, who had already began to carve his cinematic legacy starting at sixteen with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and would continue to move back and forth, apparently uneasily, between the insular, deeply untrusting world of his tribe and that of the imperialist Westerners) and stunningly constructed and lit underground tribal cave, the lulling experience of watching The Last Wave feels like the very merging of dream, reality and fantasy that the film itself culminates into (only the last wave fortunately didn’t crash across the theater at the end – well, not yet, anyway, but be sure… the apocalypse is coming, kiddos).

Shame on me, I have not seen Weir’s more celebrated previous Australian effort, Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is also spoken of as a fascinating enigma (though I’m guessing more ethereal, and romantic than “Wave”), but he clearly was taking an inspired path of cinematically heady ambitions (and, hey, while also putting out a genre film at the same period called The Cars that Ate Paris… you know the guy’s gotta be admirably whacko)… something he pretty much abandoned when he embarked on his long successful Hollywood mainstream career (still managing, mind you, some good adult entertainment along the way out from a studio system usually specializing in relatively infantile product).

As I watched Burton’s married life unraveling, thrown into turmoil after coming into contact with these lean, strapping male figures (ones coded as primitively sexual, if you go by traditional white western man terms) bringing troubling truths about himself he learns he’s supressed since childhood (his mother being the only one who noticed them in him when he was very young… hmm), with the young lawyer now afflicted by terrible premonitions of waking in his home office, his wife and children nowhere to be found, and only the dripping wet, chest heaving Gulpili standing in his doorway holding a strange totem seemingly trying to tell him something, it was hard not to notice (and be amused by) the barely disguised ‘coming out’ metaphorical tale going on here (especially with the fact that Chamberlain himself would come clean 20 plus years later); I mean, not exactly something rare to a horror film (bless they’re oft-reactionary hearts!) but this one is, once you see it, as glaringly obvious with it as Damien: Omen II was (I promise you… just take a look at that Antichrist sequel in the all-boys military cadet school again from this perspective and it’ll be as clear as day – unless you’re really dense or determined to remain in the closet, that is)…. of course, there’s the second Nightmare on Elm Street example, but that one could only have been more obvious if it had been subtitled “Cruising comes to Elm Street”.

The Last Wave is a hypnotizing, mood- and rain-drenched dreamscape, portending of apocalyptic horror. It’s a deeply satisfying conclusion to the FNC’s “Films for the Planet” section. Fingers crossed the festival brings it back next year.

The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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