May 2, 2003
By Shannon J. Harvey
An edgy little Aussie thriller that will have husbands shaking in their shoes, Alexandra's Project is a film like no other. Written and directed by acclaimed Australian film-maker Rolf de Heer, who gave us The Tracker and Bad Boy Bubby, it features two main characters in one room during one day.
And it all hinges on one unforgettable videotape.
Steve (Gary Sweet) is an average mid-management executive living in suburban Adelaide with his wife Alexandra (Helen Buday) and their two young children. It's Steve's birthday and he wakes up to gifts from the kids – and a promise from Alexandra that her gift awaits him when he gets home from work.
That evening, Steve returns to an empty, darkened and deathly quiet house. The security shutters are drawn and locked, the wife and kids are nowhere to be seen, and there's no sign of a surprise party hiding behind the couch. What there is, Steve discovers, is a simple videotape with "Play me" written on it.
The tape, it appears, is Steve's gift from Alexandra. It begins with her wishing him happy birthday and doing a playful striptease. Steve sits back in his armchair, pours a beer and enjoys the show, but as the tape continues Alexandra slowly sheds more than just her clothes. Over the course of one chilling evening, the tape has catastrophic effects on Steve's life.
A gun and a nosy neighbour (Bogdan Koca) are involved but audiences had best discover all the juicy in-betweens for themselves.
In many ways, Alexandra's Project begins where Lantana finished as it rips into the myths of marriage: how appearances can be deceiving, how routine and tradition can stifle happiness, and how husbands can control their wives with a perceived sense of superiority. Alexandra has had enough, and her "project" stands as a kind of ultimate revenge for 20 years of physical or psychological abuse.
It's much darker than Lantana and Alexandra does some pretty shocking things on that tape – things that have Steve squirming and audiences wincing. But its brilliance is in the way what's said and done on a simple videotape flips the balance of power in a typical marriage, making the husband an impotent onlooker.
As Steve, Gary Sweet delivers a gut-wrenching performance – quite a feat considering he's working in front of a TV set. He says little, but every emotion is written on his face. As Alexandra, Helen Buday – a stage actress with a minor role in Mad Max 3 – comes out of nowhere to deliver a tour de force of emotional intensity. In a role other well-known Aussie actresses declined as too difficult to do, Buday bares her soul, her anger and indeed her entire body – not bad for working to a camera. But for both brave actors, their strip naked is not just skin deep.
Fast earning a name as the most controversial film-maker in Australia, Rolf de Heer has made a confronting, provocative psychosexual thriller that proves less is more, and that it's not the size of your budget that counts. If his script has a flaw, it's that he introduces an element of danger with the gun, but never follows through. More curiously, Steve's physical and psychological abuse – though insidious – seems too mild to drive such revenge-driven rage in Alexandra.
But bravo to all involved. This haunting, powerful modern tragedy will have husbands hugging their wives all the way home.
And well they should.
--Shannon J. Harvey/ Sunday Times (Australia) - Review
May 28, 2004
By Geoff Pevere
A domestic thriller in which a neglectful husband gets his comeuppance while watching TV, Rolf de Heer's Alexandra's Project would certainly make for a profoundly squirmy date movie.
Consisting largely of shots of a horrified middle-aged man named Steve (Gary Sweet) sitting on his La-Z-Boy while the videotaped image of his wife Alexandra (Helen Buday) systematically cites every act of marital indifference he has committed - most of which have naturally never occurred to him - it's a movie that will leave few men unrattled and many women vicariously satisfied.
Even the bare-bones dramatic situation is a metaphor for cross-gender payback: It's as though a guy popped in a porn tape in the VCR to find his wife looking back at him.
Set on the 40th birthday of Steve, a blandly handsome suburban businessman who lives with his wife and two kids in Adelaide, Australia, Alexandra's Project begins by creating an effective sense of looming domestic discord. While Steve's happy-go-lucky demeanour suggests a day like any other - and that's the point - the nervous, drawn-looking Alexandra suggests something more sinister is afoot.
Perhaps this won't be a day like all the others.
As we follow Steve through his big day, de Heer keeps ratcheting up the sense of dread by isolating certain incidents (like Steve knocking his family picture over) and playing up cracks in the man's smugly controlled veneer.
Then he goes home. The house is dark, the lightbulbs have been removed, the furniture moved. Below a banner gaily announcing "Happy Birthday Steve!" is a videotape on the TV that reads "Play Me." For most of the rest of the film, Steve will sit in a chair and watch.
The tape is basically the expression of Alexandra's years of accumulated humiliation, anger and neglect.
Initially presenting itself as a playful striptease but then proceeding into far darker forms of up-close-and-personal confrontation, Alexandra's tape is offered as a form of intimate torture. It takes careful pleasure from exposing Steve's shortcomings, exploiting his sense of marital presumption by offering the spectacle of voyeuristic infidelity.
Ultimately, the home movie screws with his head in the way he has presumably screwed with Alexandra's for years, perhaps making the "project" seem unduly cruel and harsh considering the nature of the crimes it aims to punish.
But that could also be interpreted as the cunning in Rolf de Heer's project. If, for male viewers, the punishment seems to exceed the crime, they're in precisely the same position as Steve himself. As far as Alexandra is concerned, Steve is guilty of no sin so great as thinking he hasn't done anything wrong.
And what a great way to get back at the guy: By confronting him through the one thing he probably gives his full attention.
--Geoff Pevere/ Toronto Star - Review