Rotterdam 2021: Reimagining Joseph Conrad In Lone Wolf, Exploring Motherhood In Aurora

The fact that almost all the primary characters are seen through video footage becomes a distancing device, which is probably intentional. But it also makes it hard to invest in the stakes.
Rotterdam 2021: Reimagining Joseph Conrad In Lone Wolf, Exploring Motherhood In Aurora

Jonathan Ogilvie's Lone Wolf is based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. The outline is the same. The characters come with the same names. The setting, however, is Australia in the very near future. There are cameras everywhere, even inside the smoke detectors at homes. As the film opens, a former police officer named Kylie (Diana Glenn) walks in (rather, barges in) to see the Minister of Justice (Hugo Weaving). She has something to show: a "timeline" of events she has created using electronic surveillance footage and decrypted caches. I found this framing device rather clumsy (it's too obvious a set-up), but it does the job. Through the stream of video footage being viewed by the Minister, we enter the world of the people whose story we'll follow: Conrad (Josh McConville), his animal-rights activist girlfriend Winnie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), and her developmentally challenged brother Stevie (Chris Bunton).

 Winnie and Conrad run a store named Pleasure Pen, and the sign outside says what's sold: lingerie, adult DVDs, sex toys. But they're also kinda-sorta resistance workers, with their own agenda. They use fax machines, for instance, because analogue communication leaves no data trail: an all-important consideration in a State where "dataveillance" is everywhere. One day, they get a call from a "Vladimir". (In the Conrad novel, the name was an obvious suggestion that the character might be Russian, because the country that he belonged to remained unnamed. Here, I am not so sure. But then again, in our present-day globe of immigrants, I supposed a "Vladimir" could belong to any country.)

Anyway, Vladimir wants Conrad to commit an act of terrorism at an upcoming G20 summit. He hopes that will instigate the government to clamp down even more with "dataveillance". But there's a catch. He wants the explosion to have no casualties. He calls it a "victimless atrocity". (Remember this phrase! It will come back at the end.) We are primed for a thriller, but the director has essentially crafted an anti-thriller. The fact that almost all the primary characters are seen through video footage (being viewed by the Minister, remember?) becomes a distancing device, which is probably intentional. But it also makes it hard to invest in the stakes. Lone Wolf works better as an abstraction, as a demonstration of technique.

 The most interesting aspect of the film is its title, which suggests a solitary creature on the prowl. We think it's Conrad, at first — he is, after all, the man who's been handed a mission that he will have to carry out all by himself. But Stevie springs a surprise. He has a project. He is documenting the human species with his camera phone. He describes the people he records like David Attenborough would describe lions or hyenas. He is also a collector of collective nouns for animals: for instance, a "murder" of crows, or a "brace" of deer. And this trait brings with it the hint that none of us is truly, well, a lone wolf. All that we do affects all of us. It's hardly subtle. But it's the warmest thought in this cold movie.

 An unexpected pregnancy in Aurora

 In these times of outrage, it's idly amusing to consider how Lone Wolf will play in other countries. We've seen the instance of the word "Sexy" being dismantled from Durga in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's film. Here, a character calls Jesus "God's bastard son", a "fellator of Apostles". Will there be a tandav of sorts over this? Meanwhile, let's move on to a drama that no one's likely to object to, Paz Fábrega's Aurora, in Spanish. First, we meet a 40-something single woman named Luisa (Rebecca Woodbridge). She's an architect, and she's talking about the importance of drawing — even though, at the end, we see the building and not the blueprint. She will soon find out that life isn't always so deliberately constructed, so adhering to the initial "drawing", which could be another word for our plans.

 And life places Luisa on a collision course with a minor named Yuliana (Raquel Villalobos), who has discovered she is pregnant. (Of course, it's… unplanned!) Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica and Yuliana is terrified of telling her mother (Erika Rojas), so Luisa begins to help her. She takes Yuliana to an adoption counsellor. She offers the girl the keys to her home, and they bond over small talk and silly jokes. Slowly, we realise that it's not just Yuliana whose  life has not gone according to the blueprints in her mind. Just like she is facing the prospect of an unplanned baby, Luisa has become an unplanned "mother" of sorts. She becomes protective of Yuliana. She even puts off a weekend in Brazil with a man she appears to be in a long-distance relationship with, because who, then, will be there for Yuliana?

The biggest suspension of disbelief needed in Aurora is that Yuliana's mother remains unaware of the girl's ballooning stomach. (There's only so much loose clothes can do!) But that is an easy enough obstacle to overcome, because the drama is so beautifully done. Luisa likes natural light in her spaces, and the film's frames are luminescent. But the beauty goes deeper, right into the question of who a mother is, and whether one can "play" a mother without actually experiencing motherhood. The final scenes are quietly devastating. What Luisa experiences, what she's left with at the end — that's unplanned, too. Put differently, we can never fully hope to be the architects of our lives.

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