Essence review – a cold, cerebral and unusual drama from Melbourne | Melbourne International Film Festival

In her assiduously atypical second feature, writer/director Alena Lodkina seems to view “gender” as some sort of bait she refuses to take. In Petrol, she creates an experience that is hard to categorize and often hard to appreciate, yet subtly captivating. Lodkina has a way of acting out a seemingly normal scene and then making you think “huh?” at the end. One trick she uses is to insert horror-associated imagery, stripped of aesthetics and context – there’s no nervous blast of music heralding the arrival of a frightening visual, for example, and no narrative model that clearly indicates where it is taking us.

About 40 minutes into Petrol, protagonist Eva (Nathalie Morris, of Bump) looks at herself in a bathroom mirror and, instead of seeing her face, looks at the back of her head. It’s trippy but presented in a neutral way. The world, in which fleeting oddities like this occur, is framed in a realistic, borderline-truth style – with ordinary settings, a slow pace, and, despite brief pauses in reality, a generally tight to verisimilitude. The essence looks like a silent act of subversion: a statement, perhaps, against the predictability of popular conventions and the prescriptive nature of gender conventions.

The cryptic Petrol invites to this kind of intellectual readings, which one could think about during its many slow motions. The central mystery does not involve what actually happens or even Whybut the scope and purpose of the film itself – a mystery that encourages critical thinking, but leaves you emotionally distant.

Petrol begins with Eva on the coast, wielding a large microphone, capturing sounds for a college assignment. For a while I thought the film might explore sound recording, which would have given it some newness, but Lodkina moves on pretty quickly. The closest thing to a central narrative in this film traces the evolution of friendship between two young people in their twenties: the even-tempered and more outgoing Eva Mia (Hannah Lynch).

Nathalie Morris as Eva (left) and Hannah Lynch as Mia (right). Photography: PR

The couple cross paths several times, including at a house party where they sip red wine and chat, before Mia asks Eva to move in with her. The women are obviously drawn to each other but Lodkina doesn’t overdo it, with no sharp lines encapsulating what they see in each other. But the way their developing relationship is presented leaves you feeling a little cold, waiting for a moment of pure connection.

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Lodkina’s previous film, the opal-mining town drama Strange Colours, is relatively straightforward: about a young city woman who visits an outback community to eventually reunite with her sick father. Petrol, set in Melbourne, is the kind of movie where people discuss topics like the nature of privilege, art as lived experience, and compare Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky – so not one to take kids if the latest Minions movie is out of print. In Strange Colours, the filmmaker’s cerebral sensibility was brought down to earth by hard-yakka country men — not the kind of people who know Russian literature. Here the tone is distinctly haughty and very mannered, Lodkina again leading with firm control.

As Eva, Morris gives a subtle performance, matching the tone of the film in its quiet weirdness and ability to balance realism with whispers of eccentricity. Lynch as Mia is also strong, even if her performance seems truncated: much more restrained and much less charming than a Greta Gerwig-type free spirit. The pair lack chemistry, although it almost feels like a director’s decision – speaking of the film’s prioritization from head to heart. He commands a certain type of respect, but doesn’t give much in return.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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