Home No More: “The Last Days of Chez Nous”

There was never any point in calling the Ibsen play, A Doll House, a feminist work; it is neither feminist nor anti-feminist.  But we can be confident in calling the Gillian Armstrong film, The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), a feminist work.  Though nearly as complex as A Doll House, this is precisely what it is; and it’s artistically sound.

An Australian film written by Helen Garner, it deals with a feminist writer, Beth, married (because of pregnancy) to a Frenchman, J.P. (Bruno Ganz).  Both Beth and J.P. were once opposed to marriage in principle, and Beth tells a friend, “I had to buy my own wedding ring.”  We feel safe in assuming, though, that J.P. is not the kind of man disposed to buy a wedding ring.  Although charming, he is frequently selfish as well as needling and unreasonable.  Some of what he says about Beth is probably true (he comments, “You were proud, I made you humble”—but at such a cost to Beth!); still, the woman is betrayed by both J.P. and Beth’s sister Vicki (Kerry Fox).  And Beth is basically admirable.  Lisa Harrow plays her magnificently, supplying the woman’s maturity, bemusement, vulnerability, outrage.  But then all the actors are stellar.

Garner writes good dialogue and creates surprising and unusual details.  There is limited narration.  Gillian Armstrong—and editor Nicholas Beauman—are responsible for a fluid cinematic undertaking.  During a walk with J.P., Beth rapidly shifts from good spirits to fury as the camera moves in for a tight shot of the couple, then reveals them at a bit of a distance.  They silently walk back to their home, and it almost seems like a trudging—to trouble.  The last days of chez nous.  It is a formidable scene in a fine motion picture.

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