Lantana the Film: A Brief Synopsis

Lantana Movie - DVD (Australia) front image (front cover)

For Students in Year 11 English Studying the Film Lantana

Lantana is a 2001 film Produced by Jan Chapman and Directed by Ray Lawrence with the screenplay written by Andrew Bovell, which was adapted from his stage play Speaking in Tongues performed in 1996. Like novels and short stories, films can recount a fictional narrative using characters, events and settings. To study Lantana for Year 11 English it is advisable to view the movie in full at least twice so you can look carefully at:

  1. key scenes
  2. the opening and closing scenes
  3. the introduction of main characters
  4. turning points
  5. crisis points and
  6. the film’s climax

Look at the Film Style

Besides your focus on what actually happens in the film it is a good idea to notice the look and feel of the film in its style. Pay particular attention to the visual images of lightness and darkness. In a close analysis of the film style look at:

  1. Cinematography = shots in the film set up under instruction from the director to show various camera angles to create different effects = extreme close ups, close ups, medium shots, long shots, aerial shots, tilt down shots, tilt up shots and zoom shots
  2. Mise en scene = Literally means ‘staging the action’ referring to the visual elements within the frame of a shot ie. acting style, setting, costumes and lighting
  3. Sounds = Everything we hear in the film ie. music, dialogue, sound effects, voice-overs, for instance like the frequent sound of cicadas

It is important to identify the key elements of film style and how they work together to create an overall impact on the audience and how they tell a compelling story.

For Example Look Carefully at the Cinematography / Mise en Scene / Sounds in Scene 1 of Lantana which Sets up the ‘Mindscape of Terror’

The names of the key players are superimposed over a backdrop of Lantana, thick, tangled and in blossom. While the plant portends danger, it is also attributed criminal responsibility, both as the scene of Valerie’s death and through a play of alignment with Jane.

This opening shot of the Lantana is accompanied by the din of cicadas, which is a very familiar Australian setting, while visually thrusting us towards a deep, dark void. It evokes memories of the humid heat in which cicadas flourish and become noisy, and the rich sticky smells of plants in that climate. The frenzied chirping of cicadas and other creatures is used at an extremely high volume for effect on this occasion.

This unease and remembered discomfort is then rekindled throughout the film by the regular inclusion of the plant at the edges of sets, at the front of establishing shots, or as the scene of dramatic action. This is an archetypal beginning to a cinematic thriller, prefacing the narrative with the crime at its centre.

The camera slowly pans over the bloodied, bruised body of a woman wearing a wedding ring. The movement of the opening shot is significant, replaying an Australian cinematic convention in which the landscape appears to draw its victims into its depths or barren expanses. It is a tracking shot presented from the victim-character’s point-of-view and seems to follow the desire of that character into mysterious manifestations of landscape.

The camera then cuts away to Scene 2 with Leon and Jane engaging in urgent, impersonal sex. Death and sex are continuously juxtaposed in this manner, giving rise to a feeling of quiet desperation lurking within our everyday lives.

What is Lantana About in a Nutshell?

At first glance, Lantana looks like a murder mystery thriller, an essay in love or a darkly playful assertion of the role of coincidence and chance in our lives. In the opening scene, the camera delves into the undergrowth until it comes upon the dead body of a woman. We don’t know who she is or what happened to her, but it soon becomes apparent that this disturbing initial image is a premonition. One of three women, we begin to suspect; will end up dead in those bushes. Will it be Sonja Zat (Kerry Armstrong), the frustrated wife of an ill-tempered Sydney Police Detective? Dr Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), Sonja’s therapist, whose own marriage has been damaged by the murder of her young daughter Eleanor several years earlier? Or Jane O’May (Rachael Blake), who is having an affair with Sonja’s husband? The three seem to be more or less the same height and physical type, and each of them is shown wearing sheer black hose like those we have noticed on the dead woman. Which one is it and why?

These questions will generate plenty of dread and suspense before the answers become clear, but the real mystery of Lantana lies elsewhere. Although its short scenes are tense with danger and implication, and a barely suppressed violence courses through even the most casual snatches of dialogue, the film is not a whodunit or a thriller. The real danger, the real mystery, lies squarely in front of us, in the hurt and puzzlement of daily life. In fact the film takes a view of life in a modern city that is rigorously bleak without being entirely hopeless.

In pretending to be something like a detective story and then refusing the reassuringly balanced equations that the genre offers, Lantana manages to hold complexity and coherence in balance. It is a movie, primarily, about the paradoxes of contemporary marriage, in particular about the ways the most intimate relations engender — and indeed are based upon — secrecy and deceit. A corollary paradox is that honesty is only possible between strangers.

Such pessimism is neither glib nor easy, and the film does not entirely rule out the possibility of love or forgiveness. Nor do the filmmakers — or the actors — entirely overlook the comedy that selfishness, stupidity or desperation can be. All the characters are bundles of flaws and unclear needs, and they blindly collide with one another, setting off sparks of calamity and, occasionally, a glow of recognition.

The Characters are Linked by Proximity and Chance

The characters are linked by proximity and chance, knots in an invisible, shifting web in which work, family and social life intersect:

  1. The central figure is Detective Sergeant Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), Sonja’s husband, who seems capable of only two emotions: morose self-pity and volcanic rage. Leon is a mass of contradictions; he loves his wife and family but is playing around with Jane. Mr. LaPaglia, with his dour presence, is able to suggest a range of feeling that has been drained from Leon by the onset of middle age. Leon carries disappointment around within him like the extra pounds he tries to jog away. His affair with Jane — ”a one-night stand that happened to last two nights” as he brutally puts it — is a desperate attempt to jolt himself into feeling. Sonja’s therapy sessions, which Leon doesn’t know about, serve an analogous purpose: they offer a chance to explore with a stranger the feelings she can’t voice at home.
  2. Sonja Zat is the linchpin that holds the Zat family together as a supportive wife and loving mother of her two sons.       While Sonja has concerns about her marriage she is willing to proactively seek advice from Dr Valerie Somers and enough commitment to try to work through the issues that trouble her. When Leon admits to his infidelity, Sonja forgives him which is testimony to her love.
  3. Dr Valerie Somers, for her part, becomes convinced that another of her patients, a young gay man named Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps), is having an affair with her husband, John Knox (Geoffrey Rush). There is something superstitious about this idea, which Leon will later latch on to and something seductive as well. Even as she torments herself with the idea of John’s secret sexuality, the thought of him and Patrick together offers an explanation for their domestic misery as neat as the solution to a detective story.
  4. John Knox is Valerie’s husband, a professional academic, Professor of Law. He is a private and reserved man whose response to their daughter Eleanor’s death is diametrically at odds with his wife. He privately grieves his daughter by leaving flowers at the site of her murder. John resents Valerie’s emotional dependence and resists intimacy with her.       By admitting to being home on the night that Valerie went missing it shows the audience he is an equally flawed individual like the other characters in the film. He does love Valerie but admits that “sometimes love isn’t enough” (Scene 72).
  5. Jane O’May is in direct contrast to Sonja.       As the ‘other woman’ in the affair with Leon Jane does not invite our sympathy but we realise she is lonely and vulnerable. She is deliberately looking for new romantic options and joins the Latin dance class as a way to meet people. Jane is driven by disappointment as her marriage has not proved satisfactory, nor is her single status offering the opportunities she had hoped for. She envies Nik and Paula’s relationship and often looks out the window at the comings and goings of the house next door. The final image of her dancing by herself, cigarette in one hand and drink in the other, is testament to what Paula says to her “Haven’t you got anything better to do than spy on your neighbours?” (Scene 56).       The simple answer appears to be no.
  6. Pete O’May is separated from his wife Jane but he struggles with his life without her. The marital break is not of his choosing and he hopes for reconciliation but he is unwilling or unable to move on. Even when Jane asks him for help to mind the neighbours’ children late at night, Pete helps willingly, only to eventually drive away from his home a lonely figure.
  7. Paula D’Amato is a hard-working mother of three young children. Her life is not easy juggling extra shifts at the hospital to cope with her husband Nik being unemployed. Regardless of her considerable responsibility as the family breadwinner she is a contented woman, sustained by her own inner strength and a secure, loving relationship. She loves Nik unconditionally and is prepared to trust him without question. When Nik is a suspect in Valerie’s disappearance, Paula knows Nik had done nothing wrong, simply because ‘he told me’ (Scene 87), which sums up her absolute faith in her husband.
  8. Nik D’Amato is a good-natured, easy going man who loves his wife Paula and family. He is a committed family man who looks after the baby and continues job hunting while Paula works. When he is apprehended by the Police regarding Valerie’s disappearance he calls out for Paul as he needs the reassurance of her love and strength. His generosity gets him into trouble when he stops to give Valerie a lift.       Unfortunately for Nik when Valerie runs frantically into the bush he simply leaves her then disposes of her shoe. Once news of Valerie’s disappearance hits the news, Nik realises he is trapped and asks “Who was going to believe me?” (Scene 85).
  9. Claudia Weis is Leon’s Detective partner in the Police and as a result of their close working relationship, she understands him well. Claudia does not always approve of what she observes and does not hesitate to tell Leon so. She is equally blunt with regard to the marital hole Leon is digging for himself and although she covers for him about his relationship with Jane, she admires Sonja and resents being drawn into any deception.
  10. Patrick Phelan is a client of Valerie’s. He continually tests Valerie’s professionalism as a psychiatrist which in turn threatens her by his provocative manner. As Valerie is emotionally vulnerable she entertains the bizarre, and totally unfounded, suspicion that Patrick is having an affair with her husband John. Patrick sees love as “a contest” (Scene 26) with winners and losers. In the end his married lover goes back to his own family, leaving Patrick alone again.

Structure of Lantana

Certainly Valerie’s disappearance is the catalyst that drives the story line. Andrew Bovell said that “It is like a stone dropped into a still pond, the ripples circling out and affecting all that they touch”. The text commences with reference to her death and then goes back to explore the sequence of events that led to the accident so that the film creeps up on you and you find yourself haunted. However, the plot is also character-driven with a number of interacting narrative threads:

  1. Sonja and Leon’s marital dilemma
  2. Leon’s relationship with Jane
  3. Jane’s estrangement from Pete
  4. Eleanor’s murder and its impact on Valerie and John
  5. The Police investigation into Valerie’s disappearance
  6. Nik’s complicity in the case and its effect on his relationship with Paula
  7. Claudia and her mystery man’s blossoming rapport
  8. Patrick’s affair with his married lover and the way this impacts on Valerie

Significance of the Lantana Bush as a Motif in the Film

Lantana is a noxious weed that has small colourful blooms that hides dense, thorny undergrowth which intertwines itself with other plants and eventually smothers them. The bush is a symbolic motif of the tangled relationships the movie explores — marriage, chance acquaintanceship, the prickly bond between therapist and patient — is clear enough. The movie, accordingly, finds traps and snares beneath the most benign and ordinary interactions as writer Andrew Bovell uses the plant to represent the intertwined relationships in the film. Although the Lantana bush looks beautiful with its brightly-coloured flowers, in reality, it is dense and spiky and this represents how the relationships all look fine on the surface but really there are many factors that contribute to their failings. The epigraph promoting the drama says “It’s tangled”. The Lantana motif also represents the complexity of love itself, its possibilities, its permutations and its dense emotional threads.

Throughout the film the image of Lantana keeps reasserting itself. A common thread is the way in which Lantana hides secrets:

  1. The mystery of the woman’s body at the beginning
  2. The children’s game of hide and seek
  3. Valerie’s shoe
  4. Jane hides from Nik in the thick undergrowth
  5. Eventually when the mystery is resolved, the Lantana yields up its secrets in the form of the body of Valerie

Other Motifs and Meanings in Lantana

Lantana explores the ideals of trust, respect, truth and reality, honesty, love and loyalty, love and marriage, betrayal, yearning and loss through the lens of the many characters in the film. Even characters that are not obviously deceitful are forced into lies or half-truths. Nik lies to Pete about Jane, Claudia covers for Leon’s infidelity, Leon’s son lies to his mother about Leon’s message when he says “He’s sorry, he loves you and he wants you to stop being angry with him”. The film is deliberately constructed to help the audience draw out as much meaning as possible.

  1. Jogging / Running = Jogging or running appears at several key moments in the film. It is often symbolic of a character’s struggle for freedom or escape. Early in the film Leon is seen running, ostensibly to improve his fitness, or may be to impress his new lover. In a very real way he is running from his life and responsibilities, a run that is cut short by the sharp pains in his chest. Even when he is trying to set himself free he is constricted by tightness in his chest, as though his depression has a grip on him. Leon’s collision with another jogger is another reminder of the damage that he is doing to those around him on his quest for personal fulfillment.
  2. Dancing = Dancing appears in the film on many occasions:
  • The Latin dancing classes that Jane, Leon and Sonja attend
  • The Latin Dance Club that Sonja goes to
  • Jane and Sonja dancing together
  • Jane dancing by herself at the end
  • Leon and Sonja dancing together at the end of the film

In many ways dancing stands in for the lack of intimacy in the character’s lives. Sonja seeks the passion that no longer exists in her marriage but in the end Leon is able to rediscover his passion for Sonja and they dance together. Jane is also searching for passion and romance (something that was missing from her marriage). Dancing alone at the end of the film we are aware that Jane is yet to find fulfillment.

  1. Windows = Windows are used throughout the film to signify distance and separation. Jane is constantly watching her neighbours’ ‘happy’ lives unfold through her window but she is not able to participate in this which is an emotional barrier being signified by an actual one. Claudia’s mystery man is seen through the windows of the restaurant highlighting their separation. Then compare this to the end when they meet in the restaurant without any barrier. Valerie and John are kept from their absent daughter by the window at the bookstore but forced to look on and unable to reach her. Patrick is removed from his lover as he looks through the window onto his ‘happy life’ but it is the unattainable he can see but not touch much like Jane. Leon must walk through the windowed door to reach out to Sonja to finalise reconciliation.
  2. Jewellery / Clothing = Jewellery and clothing serve as reminders of things lost in Lantana, drawing out emotion from the characters. Jane’s earring is the first notable personal item, a memento of her past life with her husband Pete, the loss of it during a romantic tryst with another man gives an insight to the audience of the complicated nature of these characters’ lives. Pete also lingers over the pearl earrings when he revisits their home when Jane is out. Both Jane and Valerie’s wedding rings are highlighted at points during the film. Jane discusses cutting hers off as it is on too tight which represents her being unable to extricate herself from her marriage. The marriage has become a burden, a blight and something that needs to be surgically removed, like a cancerous growth. Valerie’s show is the only physical indication of her disappearance, a symbol of Nik’s guilty conscience and later a symbol for Jane’s suspicion as it dominates the sitting room when the Police visit to interview her.
  3. Meals / Eating = Characters very rarely sit together to eat a meal adding significance to the times that they do during the film. They are often times when the characters are able to be open and honest with one another or at least more so than at other times. The breakfast scene with Leon and his family at the start of the film paints him in a sympathetic light, placed at the nucleus of his family home, it would appear to be a moment or normality which is directly juxtaposed with his violence in apprehending a criminal in the next scene. Claudia dining alone at a booth with room for two seems to be waiting, searching for something meaningful to share her life and dinner with. The act of eating together takes on a symbolic value of family connectedness. This idea is further explored in the scene with Patrick’s lover who is sharing a meal with his family while Patrick looks on, isolated and alone.
  4. Cars = Of all the forms of transport, cars are the most isolated and separate from the outside world. Many of the film’s characters travel through the world cocooned inside their cars, disconnected from the world around them, often travelling at night, through the darkness, unable to see what is passing them by. Valerie is forever suggesting to John that they share a car, endeavouring to overcome the distance between them, her suggestions are mostly rebuffed, John preferring to make his own way through the darkness of their lives, he is already disconnected from her. The failure of Valerie’s car, it’s breakdown echoes her own personal, psychological breakdown, she is both literally and figuratively left scrambling around in the dark looking for the way to get ‘back home’. Leon’s final breakdown occurs in his car, it is a personal space where he is protected from the outside world yet he cannot protect himself from his own mistakes and problems, they are locked in with him, his isolation forcing him to face then finally. By getting into someone else’s car (the Latin dance teacher) Sonja is making a connection with another person, a connection which she is essentially uncomfortable with. Nik’s car becomes central to the narrative, it is always on the street / on display / being tinkered with, improved, much like Nik himself his car has nothing to hide. Nik’s car also becomes central to Valerie’s disappearance when he picks her up on a deserted back road.
  5. Recordings / Tapes = The inability of many of the characters in Lantana to communicate directly is emphasized by the use of recordings and tapes to convey important messages. Valerie and Sonja are unable to voice their concerns to their partners but are able to divulge their personal information through the medium of tape. Another symbol of the disconnection between the characters, the tapes serve to bring truth into otherwise confused and secretive situations.
  6. Trust / Deception = Characters in Lantana have an uneasy relationship with the concept of Trust. Sonja and Patrick place trust in Valerie to help them deal with their personal issues as a professional, yet in some way this trust is broken when she disappears. The issues that they come to see her about are to do with whether or not they can trust their partners. Valerie, despite counseling others on the issue, seems to be unable to form a bond of trust with anyone. She assumes her husband is having an affair, she assumes that Nik has an ulterior motive for taking her off the main road. Nik and Paula seem to be the only characters in the film whose relationship is based on trust. Paula’s assertion that Nik didn’t kill Valerie “because he told me” is a damning indictment on the other character’s inability to trust each other.
  7. Grief / Malaise = Both grief and death and grief in relationships are represented in Lantana. Valerie and John’s daughter, Eleanor was murdered several years before, and their marriage has disintegrated as a result of their lack of communication. Valerie has written a book on grief and lectures both publicly and to her patients, but is unable to communicate with her husband. Sonja is grieving for her lost marriage and the distance that has arisen between herself and Leon. Leon’s response to the death of his relationship is more of a malaise, an inability to feel, which drives him towards self destructive behavior and infidelity.
  8. Love / Yearning / Betrayal = Sonja states, in a session with Valerie, that she loves her husband, despite her belief that he is having an affair. For Sonja the pain would not be the affair but the silence that surrounds the affair. Jane has left her husband because she has “fallen out of love with him”. Paula and Nik appear able to weather anything that is thrown at them because they love each other unconditionally. Leon is still in love with his wife but is unable to express this to her until the end of the film. John feels betrayed by Valerie and her public outpouring of grief, his love for her is quiet and painful but very much existent. Patrick is caught out by love, a love that is doomed to end in emotional pain due to the circumstances of his partner.

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