Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Cris Jones
Stars: Xavier Samuel, Rachel Ward, Miranda Brown, Rose Riley, Terry Camilleri, Amber Clayton, Jacek Koman, Tyler Coppin, John Gaden
The curious case of Otto Bloom?
This rather quirky film, which opened the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2016, seems like a local variation on David Fincher’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, the story of a man living his life in reverse. But unlike F Scott Fitzgerald’s creation, who was born old and slowly grew younger, the enigmatic eponymous Otto believes that he is actually moving backwards in time. He was born with all his memories, but will die with none of them. Thus, he remembers everything before it happens to him but then he forgets about events after they happen. Bloom becomes something of a media sensation, but learns that there is a high price to pay for becoming a cult figure. He is alternately painted as a fraud, a freak, a madman and a messiah.
The film is driven by a rather strange and bold premise that does your head in, and it requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. I found it troubling, and not very convincing, and its unorthodox structure a little confusing. Unlike with Benjamin’s situation there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency to Otto’s dilemma, nor a real sense of his approaching mortality.
This is the debut feature for award winning writer/director Cris Jones, who has previously made three sort films, including The Heisenberg Principle. The film unfolds in nonlinear fashion. Jones has shot the film in the style of a faux documentary with lots of dramatic re-enactments, archival footage and different film stock, and plenty of talking head interviewees recounting their experiences of meeting and dealing with Otto. He has shot these in the straight forward style of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. Chief amongst them is Ada (Rachel Ward, in her first screen appearance since 2007), a psychiatrist who first encountered Otto after he was admitted to hospital seemingly suffering from amnesia, and who later had an intimate relationship with him. Much of the film’s focus is on the doomed relationship between Otto and Ada.
Otto is played in rather stilted fashion by the handsome and charismatic Xavier Samuel, who we recently saw in a couple of local bogan comedies like Spin Out and A Few Less Men, but he doesn’t give us much insight into the character. Otto throughout remains an enigma. Whereas Benjamin Button used some great makeup effects to convincingly age Brad Pitt, no such tricks are required here as Otto doesn’t really change his appearance. Otto’s love interest Ada is played at different stages of her life by Ward and her real-life daughter Matilda Brown. Ward brings a melancholy touch to her reading of the older and wiser Ada who talks about Otto’s condition, which she has named retrochronology.
This is a technically ambitious film and Jones has stretched his limited budget. The film’s technical requirements forced cinematographer Laszlo Baranyai (Downriver, etc) to work in diverse range of media formats, including Super 8 and digital, to try and lend authenticity to the different time periods covered and to make it seem believable. Much of the film is set in the 80s, but Jones eschews recreating the aesthetic in too much detail. Editor Bill Murphy (Harvey Krumpet, Mary And Max, etc) has also done a great job in moving back and forwards through the various time frames. However, at times the format creates a distance between the audience and the subject, making it hard to develop any sense of empathy for him. And the artifice hides the slight nature of the whole premise.
The Death And Life Of Otto Bloom is a study of the fickle nature of fame and celebrity and popularity, and Bloom’s journey may also remind many of Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi tale The Man Who Fell To Earth or even Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Like The Infinity Man or Predestination, this is another high concept local production that may struggle to connect with audiences. The Death And Life Of Otto Bloom is an ambitious and intriguing failure, but Jones has stamped himself as a director with a wonderful imagination and command of film language.