Australia (MIFF 2022)
Director: Alena Lodkina
An idealistic film student is drawn into an enigmatic performance artist’s shadowy world in Alena Lodkina’s follow-up to the much-acclaimed Strange Colours (MIFF 2018).
While scouting locations for a university project, Eva (played by Bump’s Nathalie Morris) crosses paths with Mia; later, they meet again at a house party, and an intense friendship soon forms between the introverted student filmmaker and the inscrutable but magnetic performer. As the pair becomes ever more entwined, so does the supernatural begin to entangle with the everyday, revealing the cracks between memory and make-believe, reality and fantasy. All the while, Eva seeks to better understand her friend – and her own self – leading her deeper into the surreal rabbit hole that is Mia’s life.
Supported by the MIFF Premiere Fund, the bewitching second feature from Accelerator Lab alumna Lodkina is a visually commanding, masterfully zany distillation of twentysomething drift: share houses, substances, and conversations about existence, ethics and literature, but also unforeseen darkness and lack of direction. This life stage’s liminal quality is matched by the glitchy milieu the film weaves: a Melbourne made otherworldly by the intrusion of ghosts, fate, ‘quantum entanglement’ and the occult. Like the lovechild of Round the Twist and David Lynch, Petrol summons the inherent mystique of youth and other people.
MIFF Critics Campus 2022 participant Andrew Fraser spoke in August to Petrol writer/director Alena Lodkina – about creative synergies, cultural cringe and challenging audiences to watch films as co-creators – after the premiere of her MIFF Premiere Fund-supported film in MIFF’s inaugural competition.
“It’s very hard to say things clearly,” says Eva (Nathalie Morris, Bump), the aspiring filmmaker at the centre of writer/director Alena Lodkina’s Petrol. Eva stutters and struggles to describe to her tutor the concept for her student film – there’s no shape, only a feeling. She spends nights looking at her computer screen, focused on the individual pixels that make up an image. Entranced by the galaxy of colours they create, she is emboldened with creative possibility. It’s an image that others might only see as a jagged mess.
Petrol is formed by a fascination with detail. The film’s narrative is composed of many disparate threads, woven together into dreamlike tableaux by Lodkina, who notes: “The film is about the process of making something and figuring out what art is, and what relationships are.”
The film is also about a young woman’s search for her identity. It’s about a friendship that becomes an obsession. It’s about the desire to see and be seen. It’s a contemporary riff on Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating. It’s about Melbourne’s social ecosystem, populated by the kind of people you’d inevitably run into on Smith Street, Freitag bag in hand. While the film is not autobiographical, Lodkina does share many traits with Petrol’s protagonist. Both are Russian-born, Melbourne-based filmmakers, quietly observant and inquisitive about the communities they occupy.
“I believe in remaining porous and open to the world. You can’t be certain of what you see. You’re always looking for different perspectives,” says Lodkina who describes the character of Eva in a similar way, noting: “She keeps trying to know something that she can’t.”
That something, or someone, is Mia (Hannah Lynch), an elusive performance artist with whom Eva becomes entranced, so much so that she decides to base her next film around Mia’s persona. The two women find a mutual benefit in one another: Eva has her muse, and Mia is seen by someone, validating what some may deem as narcissism.
Being a muse can be an overwhelming responsibility, and it is this tenuous dynamic that fascinates Lodkina, who says that “the power is always shifting between Eva and Mia. If Eva is chasing her, Mia is always escaping her grasp and resisting her gaze.” The enigma of Mia may lead audiences to question whether she is even real or simply a creation of Eva’s to fulfil her desires, both on and off camera.
Lodkina found her own muses in Morris and Lynch from a casting process that parallels the film’s own malleable sense of identity. “[Morris] actually went for the role of Mia. When I saw her, I just had a really good feeling about her right away,” recalls Lodkina, who shares that, after winning the role of Eva, it was Morris who suggested that Mia was played by Lynch, the pair having attended drama school together. “They already had a close friendship. I loved that it became part of the film in an unspoken way.”
To help the actors prepare for their roles, Lodkina shared some of her own influences, saying through laughter “it’s not going to help my image of being pretentious, but I asked Nathalie to read [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time,” the famed Russian director being an early influence on Lodkina who “wanted her to get into the mind of a young student grappling with the greats and trying to find her own way.” Similarly, she had Lynch read Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, a seminal 17th century religious text, as “I wanted [Mia] to be a little bit out of this world.”
The out-of-this-world quality that Lodkina describes permeates the world of Petrol, and it is an aesthetic and conceptual interest shared with all her collaborators, many of whom worked on her previous film Strange Colours (MIFF 2018). “Independent filmmaking has always been about breaking rules and boundaries,” Lodkina says of her creative team. “We all have a shared excitement to build something that is our own.”
This esoteric style is intended to challenge viewers. “I really tried to build a narrative in an unusual way,” Lodkina explains. “I wanted to make a work where the audience can be co-creators.” The audience in question had polarised responses to Petrol, particularly in Melbourne. The film’s oblique style is atypical of mainstream Australian cinema and the film’s preoccupation with artists and their creative pursuits can leave some viewers cold.
“It was really exciting to see the film evoke strong reactions. I know people have a barrier with films about filmmakers. And I knew that at the start of writing because people kind of warned me,” says Lodkina, embracing the divided response. “I didn’t quite understand what it would mean to make a film like this in Australia today and what it meant for audiences. But my hope is that the film will linger in people’s heads.”
Whilst well-acquainted with an audience’s desire to have films that accurately reflect their specific cultural milieu, Lodkina acknowledges that this is often outweighed by a national ‘cultural cringe’ that leads audiences to reject their own. It’s an enormous external pressure placed on the shoulders of young talents wanting to make work in Australia, and much of Petrol feels like Lodkina grappling with these conflicting feelings. There is an undeniable love for the Melbourne film community present in the film, particularly in its sumptuous visual grandeur, and this might be the best the city has ever looked onscreen.
Petrol is an exciting indication of Lodkina’s continued willingness to, as she describes it, go “down the rabbit hole”. Brimming with the passion you’d expect from one of Australia’s most exciting young filmmakers, she says: “It’s easy to make up your mind and close yourself off. It’s tempting but I think that we have to work against that in life, as hard as that is.”