Published August 1, 1997
Love Serenade, an Australian film by Shirley Barrett stars George Shevtsov as Ken Sherry, a recently divorced (for the third time) disc jockey from Brisbane who comes to work in the little Australian town of Sunray on the Murray River. Next door to him live two young sisters, Vicki Ann (Rebecca Frith) and Dimity (Miranda Otto) Hurley. Vicki Ann is a hairdresser and beautician while Dimity is a waitress in the little town’s Chinese restaurant, run by a Chinese nudist called Albert (John Alansu). Apart from a few shadowy and non-speaking characters in the background, these appear to be the only people in town. Why the place is virtually deserted is never explained, but the effect produced by the peopleless vistas in this dusty, run-down agricultural town in the Australian interior, like that of the grey, eucalyptus-choked river, is to suggest that we have entered the twilight zone.
What makes it even more spooky is that the characters don’t realize that that is where they are. “Isn’t it beautiful?” the girls ask Ken Sherry as the three of them are floating down the grey river against a backdrop of otherworldly bleakness.The strangeness of so many familiar things is simply taken for granted by all of them. The story, too, grows stranger and stranger without the characters’ ever seeming to notice it. When Vicki Ann says that there are not many eligible bachelors in Sunray, we are forcefully struck by the truth of her observation: it is not merely the eternal female lament but literally and rather horribly true. Vicki Ann has had a suitor, or at least a boyfriend, in the past, but he had an accident with a chain saw. Nothing more than this is known about him.
At first the film looks like a familiar comedy situation of two maids wooing a man. First Vicki Ann sets her cap at Ken Sherry, then Ken chooses the virginal Dimity instead, then, when Dimity begins to get a bit possessive, he turns to Vicki Ann. Dimity is mostly clueless, while Vicki Ann practises some basic feminine wiles. Dimity tells Ken Sherry when he comes into Albert’s restaurant that her sister is “looking for a boyfriend.” Vicki Ann is extremely annoyed: “He must think I’m totally desperate,” she says. Later the dutiful Dimity emends her statement to Ken when he comes into the restaurant again: “She’s not desperate or anything.”
But everybody here is desperate, most of the time without realizing it. It is a desperate town at the end of the world. Through it all Ken Sherry, an aging product of the 1960s, takes on this desperation with a comic mellowness, reciting “Desiderata” from memory on the air and talking airily about love needing to be free. But the loneliness of this man playing records about love and, as Albert says, “the act of procreation” for those who never see him is the most remarkable thing about him too. Only the two girls listen to his show, so far as we know. Vicki Ann is given to fantasizing about the warmth with which he receives her various culinary offerings, left on his doorstep, while Dimity refers to her proffered virginity as something to “ease your loneliness.” Ken makes a joke of it. He tells her that “virgins are my speciality.”
Another strange thing is the sisters’ fondness for fishing. At first Vicki’s idea is to offer Ken a fish, but he doesn’t eat fish, he says. When Dimity goes home with him it is to see a very large fish—a marlin—that he has mounted on his wall. There is no explanation offered for this, but it comes to symbolize his libido. “I have a very large fish that I could show you,” he says to Dimity by way of picking her up in the restaurant. And he does. It is practically the only furnishing in his house, which is as bare as everything else in the film. When Dimity sits in his living room as he is making love to her sister, the fish seems to come to life, and falls off the wall. It is also Dimity who sees, or thinks she sees (she is, as her sister says, “odd” ), gills on the side of Ken’s neck. “I have reason to believe he’s some kind of fish,” she tries to warn her sister. “Or at least part fish.”
The final scenes are at once funny and shocking, and the funniness is all a part of the shock. What happens to the fishy Ken Sherry, still trying to pitch his 60s hippie philosophy in a context where, for some reason we cannot quite understand, it has become as strange and other-worldly as the Murray River, is both horrible and oddly appropriate, but Shirley Barrett will not even leave it at that. Maybe it didn’t happen after all. Maybe Ken Sherry really is part fish. At any rate, the images of his fishy courtship of the two sisters, and their mysterious feminine power, are as memorable as anything I have seen at the movies this year.