Lake Mungo

Lake Mungo (2008)

Lake Mungo first published by Little White Lies

“It just didn’t really feel like it was real,” says Kim Whittle (Chloe Armstrong). She is describing to an interviewer what it was like to learn that her best friend, 16-year-old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker), had drowned in a tragic accident at their local picnic spot in Ararat, Victoria. Kim’s words are re-echoed by Alice’s brother Mathew (Martin Sharpe): “It didn’t feel real”.

It is the sort of denial that typically accompanies grief – but in Lake Mungo, these words come with a double-edge. For this feature debut from Australian writer/director Joel Anderson presents itself formally as a documentary, and has been so expertly constructed out of faux news reports, post-eventum interviews, stylised inserts (pleasingly fashioned in imitation of Errol Morris) and ‘found’ footage from a variety of sources, that it always “feels real”, even as the very story that it unfolds expressly highlights the way that images can be falsified and invested with emotional content that does not properly belong to them.

So this sombre tale of sex, lies and videotape is haunted by, amongst other things, its own concealed fictionality – even if the note of overwhelming sadness on which it ends is earned the hard way, through a rigorous focus on solid, utterly believable characters who remain subtly realised (in both script and performance) no matter how much their circumstances are, or at least seem, incapable of accommodating a rational explanation.

As Mathew, his mother June (Rosie Traynor) and father Russell (David Pledger) mourn the loss of Alice in their different ways, her lingering presence keeps reasserting itself, whether in the mysterious noises that come from her bedroom at night, or in June’s distressing nightmares, or in an upsettingly vivid manifestation before Russell’s wide-awake eyes, or as a spectral figure in photos and video footage shot by the Palmers and others.

Desperate for answers, June turns to ‘Australia’s wog psychic of choice’ Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell) – although this earnest and unpretentious man comes with secrets and loneliness to match Alice’s own. As one surprise revelation leads to another, the Palmers will eventually be drawn interstate to the ancient rocky lunettes of Lake Mungo in southwestern New South Wales, where an impossible paradox lies buried that just might free them to forget.

Sharing her forename with a literary figure who went through a looking glass, and her surname with television’s most famous small-town, diary-keeping dead girl, Alice Palmer is a character whom we get to know only in suggestive fragments – but if these are neither consistent, reliable, or easily pieced back together into a coherent whole, then the film in which she appears similarly defies categorisation, slipping elusively between genres and confounding expectations all the way.

On the one hand, it is a ‘mockumentary’ ghost story in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project, The Collingswood Story and Paranormal Activity – but it replaces the cheap thrills of those films with a more intelligently conceived uncanniness, while offering an aesthetically attractive package of sound and image that belies its low budget. On the other hand, it is a dramatic study of grief and loss, if an unusually, insidiously creepy one.

It is a horror film so unlike other horror films that it will (pleasantly) surprise those viewers who normally cannot abide the genre. Most of all, though, it is a sophisticated, adult tale that blends complex, compelling emotions with reflexive commentary on film as a ‘medium’ of memory, manipulation and magic.

No wonder, then, that so singular and indefinable a movie should have struggled to find a UK distributor. After an all-too-brief screening at the 2009 London Australian Film Festival, Lake Mungo disappeared from sight on these shores, only at last to get its straight-to-DVD release some two years later. Put out, fittingly enough, by Second Sight, this is a film of duplicities, double takes and doppelgängers, where visual details initially unnoticed are best not overlooked, and where multiple viewings are amply rewarded.

For all its puzzle-like cleverness, however, Lake Mungo is also deeply affecting. Inevitably there is an American remake on the way – and although this might be good, or even great, best to stick to the original. After all, it is impossible to improve upon perfection, and although Anderson’s chiller may up till now have remained largely buried from the public eye, it is without question a classic supernatural enigma, once seen never forgotten.

© Anton Bitel