It’s easy to rag on the state of modern Australian cinema. Most government funded films are dull and lifeless, hellbent on representing the “rugged beauty” of Australia, or trudging over drab social issues in a less than genuine manner. Thank fuck it’s not all bad news with people like Stuart Simpson kicking about. My first experience with Simpson’s work was 2006’s The Demonsamongus – an interesting film full of promise. I’ve been lucky enough to see a few of his short films at film festivals, and they’re always a blast. At this point in time, he is best known for El monstro del mar! (2010), but I get the feeling that might change with the appearance of Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla – easily his most accomplished work to date.
CHOCOLATE STRAWBERRY VANILLA
Australia, 2013, Stuart Simpson
Warren is mortified. And the bully of a local drug dealer, Rocko (Aston Elliot), who shares his turf isn’t helping. But Warren finds a new reason for living when Katey George, his beloved soap opera star, appears at his van to buy a honeycomb ice-cream. Warren purchases a secondhand video camera from the local post office and begins a video diary documenting his experiences with Katey, and ultimately his own descent into insanity.
I watched Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla at its Monster Fest premiere, and as Stuart Simpson pointed out before the screening, this is not a horror film. Instead it has been labelled as a black comedy, which I suppose it is, but it is the blackest of black comedies. It is bleak as hell, and, for all its colourful photography, fantasy sequences, stylised titles (the opening titles are awesome), baked beans and jizzy television screens, there is a brutal realism to it.
Simpson and co-scribe Addison Heath smartly chose to make Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla a character study, making the most of their minuscule budget. (Unbelievably, it was made for $10,000 – a large chunk of which went towards the ice cream van apparently. I can safely say it looks like it sports a far bigger budget.) The cast is stripped back to a minimum, and the dramatic focus is on Glenn Maynard as Warren.
This could have been a disaster in the hands of a lesser actor, but Maynard is incredible. At first glance, with a lisp and a cartoonish costume, he appears to be a caricature, but it doesn’t take long for the authenticity of Maynard’s portrayal of Warren to become apparent. His Taxi Driver-esque development is heartbreaking to follow, and Maynard is genuinely frightening in the film’s final scenes. While the audience was guffawing through the scene where Warren runs over his cat and buries him, personally, I found Warren’s eulogy at his cat’s grave gut-wrenching, especially when he talks about choosing his kitten from the litter. It should also be pointed out that Maynard bravely gets his dick out onscreen and endures several sweaty masturbation scenes – a commendable effort all round.
The rest of the cast bounce off Maynard brilliantly. Of particular note is Aston Elliot as Rocko who plays his aggressive, asshole of a character to perfection. Louise Bremner is also excellent as Rocko’s significant other, as is Michelle Myers in a small but important role. Kyrie Capri looks the part as soap star Katey George.
I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say this: the film’s finale is fucking spectacular. Without going into too much detail, there’s some phenomenal practical effects work on display as Warren’s journey takes a soul-shattering turn. Simpson, who also operated the camera, captures this last scene with great skill and stylistic flair without going overboard.
The film is not perfect. A lot of the editing choices, especially the use of flash-forwards in the opening scenes, I did not enjoy. And some of the video diary scenes seemed unnecessary. But my complaints are insignificant. Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla had a far stronger emotional resonance than I expected, and it features one of the most impressive lead performances seen in Aussie cinema for some time. I’m looking forward to checking this out again at home when it’s released on DVD or blu-ray.
Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla played to a sellout crowd last night. By popular demand, it’s playing again this Wednesday the 27th at Cinema Nova. Go and bloody see it!