Many film critics have lamented the absence of “genuine erotica” and the emphasis on dysfunctional sex in Australian cinema. Continuing a long-running discourse, Mary Colbert, back in 1999, asked us to:
picture the Australian Kamasutra: Alvin Purple’s Rabelaisian romps, the tacky thrustings in Idiot Box, Bad Boy Bubby’s incestuous grapples with his mum, the bumbling zipper scene in Muriel’s Wedding, the Greek boy’s serial rampage in Head On? (you lost count?)…. With the exception of some genuine erotica in Jane Campion’s The Piano, the few depictions that break the drought in Australian film tend to be simplistic, rushed, chauvinistic, aggressive – dysfunctional sex. Foreplay, sensuality, passion, erotica – the areas in which French film excels – have largely been bypassed (1).
Rather than regard the absence of “genuine erotica” in Australian cinema as a lack, why not look upon it as a unique attribute, setting Australian film apart from other cinemas, and thus something to be celebrated? In the following few paragraphs I want to explore what is possibly the most unerotic striptease on celluloid. I often use this sequence in Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade (1996) to teach the importance of context when considering Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze.
Love Serenade is one of the most underrated Australian films of 1990s. Not long after its release, film scholar Lisa French wrote an article for Metro Magazine entitled, “Love Serenade: Is it a Feminist Film?” (2). At first glance, with its story of two sisters’ competition for slimey DJ Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov), it’s hardly a story of female emancipation and power.The daggier of the two sisters, Dimity (played by the usually glamorous Miranda Otto), following in her sister’s footsteps, has her sights set on losing her virginity to Sherry, a new arrival in the backwater of Sunray. Theatre actor Shevtsov brings a remarkable level of black-humoured sleaziness to the role of thrice divorced Sherry. He’s the antithesis of the suave Hollywood Lothario and it’s perhaps this attribute that inspired the French to give him a standing ovation when he walked on-stage at Cannes after Love Serenade received the Camera d’Or in 1996.
The striptease in question is prefaced by a visit by Ken to the local Chinese restaurant where Dimity works. Knowing Dimity’s penchant for fishing, Ken invites her back to his house to have a look at the enormous Marlin that is affixed to his wall. Ken, dressing-gown clad and lazing on his ’70s brown leather couch, is depicted nonchalantly looking at Dimity in medium shot while she gazes at the fish. In a shot/reverse-shot sequence, Dimity questions Ken about whether fish have souls. She then asks him suddenly:
Dimity: Do you ever feel loneliness?
Ken: Loneliness? Of course I feel loneliness.
Dimity: Me too. Sometimes. Not all the time…. Would you like me to ease it for you?
Ken: Ease what?
Dimity: Your loneliness.
Ken: My loneliness?
Dimity: I could ease it for you maybe?
At this point the camera cuts back into medium long shot, distancing the viewer from Dimity as she takes off her skirt. The non-diegetic Barry White track starts: “Feels so good, you lying here next to me”. A reverse-shot reveals Ken in medium long shot staring at Dimity, who goofily sways to the music, and then awkwardly takes off each item of clothing. Instead of drawing the viewer in, this scene’s parody of the striptease sabotages any possible objectification of the central female character. Its ridiculous subversion of the usual scopophilic tendency of the striptease is emphasised further when Dimity struggles to get her stockings off!