It’s always fascinating to see an artist removed from his or her comfort zone, as acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert was in Paul Cox’s 1986 feature Cactus, written by the director with Norman Kaye and Bob Ellis. Having to rely on her instincts whilst coping with the demands of performing in another language, Huppert slowly begins to loosen up after the awkward early scenes in which her slightly stilted movements seem more a result of Cox’s fastidious devotion to moving his actors from point A to point B like wind-up toys.
Huppert is Colo, a young French woman holidaying alone in rural Victoria with friends of her family, leaving a waning marriage behind to “find herself”. Things go horribly awry however when she asks friend Tom (Kaye) for a leisurely few moments at the wheel of his car, only to crash it within minutes. A shard of glass pierces her left eye, rendering it sightless, a condition that becomes more dire when a specialist reveals the cancerous impact this will have on her right eye. Colo is faced with the excruciating choice of either having her left eye removed, possibly stabilizing her limited sight in the other eye, or leaving it untended, resulting in total blindness.
Feeling ever more isolated in a foreign country, she’s consoled by Tom and his wife Bea (Monica Maughan) who integrate her more substantially into their daily life as she contemplates the world from a new, but dwindling, perspective. They introduce her to Robert (Robert Menzies), a blind friend who devotes much of his time to tending the mass of cactus plants on his property. He becomes not only a friend but a symbolic assurance of her capacity to beat down the demons that claim her at night, tiny sparks of tangled memory firing in her subconscious with a malicious intent as the fateful crash is relived in her dreams.
Ironically, as Colo’s predicament worsens – with time running out for a rational decision – her “eyes” are opened to the possibility of coping without sight by Robert’s attentive devotion and sensitive probing of her state of mind. As she spends more time in his presence, he becomes a blanket to cling to in comfort, like someone reaching across raging rapids for the reassuring embrace of a figure that’s already crossed to the other side.
Cox’s film begins to take on a more coherent, believable shape as it progresses, though it still wavers on occasion and the subtext of the cacti and their metaphoric usage for Robert’s nurturing, calming side is hardly an enthralling one. At times, some of the sidetracking and below-par support players – especially Sean Scully as the robotic doctor – threaten to derail the interesting dynamic of Colo and Robert’s burgeoning relationship. Then there’s the occasional, bizarrely incongruous scene thrown in for good measure, like a horrible old lady beating a piano to within an inch of its life whilst garbling some wretched comedic ballad in what is one of the more off-putting scenes of supposed domestic conviviality you’re ever likely to see.
Huppert is a great actress, even though she’s often accused of being a clinical technician whose intellectual coldness inhibits access to her characters. She steadily grows into this role, providing more than just exotic compensation for a threadbare plot as the confused Colo whose life is given sharper focus by her unfortunate accident. The amiable Menzies is excellent too, revealing believable vulnerabilities as a man whose own life is altered by his meeting with this defenceless woman, shaking him free of the consolatory aloneness he’s clung to in the darkness until now.
Cox’s direction is infuriating languid at times but impressive when projecting the dark fears that plague Colo. Best of all are the vivid snippets of the accident, a wordless scene of lonely Colo, lost in an anonymous crowd, swaying in emotionless consternation near Flinders St. station, and a slickly edited, nightmarish dream sequence of an eye being surgically cut away from its fleshy hold as decision time closes in.
Though perhaps not one of the more memorable films of Paul Cox’s lengthy career, Cactus retains more than just the curiosity value of showcasing an internationally renowned actress – even more so today – in a pivotal role. This sensitively handled drama, marked by unusual symbolism, rural trappings and the endlessly mysterious allure of Huppert is well worth revisiting.