Love Serenade (Australia, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Winner of the Camera d'Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, Love Serenade, the feature debut of Australian director Shirley Barrett, has the kind of nasty, biting wit that juries at film festivals seem to appreciate. For the most part, movies tend to tell the stories of love affairs between the "right" people, with romance and fate being an integral part of the mix. Love Serenade is a clear exception -- call it an anti-romantic comedy. And, unlike Ellen DeGeneres' failed Mr. Wrong, with which it shares a few superficial characteristics, Love Serenade is well-written and ably acted.

There aren't many characters in Love Serenade, which takes place in an almost-deserted outback town called Sunray. We're introduced to a pair of sisters, Dimity (Miranda Otto) and Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Firth), who share a house. Dimity, the shy and insecure sibling, is a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant. Vicki-Ann, the brash one, is a hair stylist. Both are, in their own way, looking for love, although the prospects in Sunray seem bleak, at best. That is, until Ken Sherry (George Shetsov) moves into the house next door.

To Dimity and Vicki-Ann, Sherry is a star. A journeyman radio personality who was once on the air in Brisbane, Sherry has come to Sunray to take a deejay's job at the local FM station. The sisters, enthralled by his apparently urbane, cultured manner, fail to recognize what a slimy person he is. Sherry has the mannerisms and appetites of a snake. He is cold, calculating, and cruel. He engages in mechanical sex, not because he likes it, but because it's a means to give him power. His dead eyes reflect an equally lifeless soul. Actor George Shetsov does a marvelous job bringing this character to life in all of his sinister glory.

In their own way, the sisters are both innocents. Dimity, who is played with great appeal by Miranda Otto, falls for Sherry when he arrives at her restaurant for a meal. Her clumsy "seduction" of him leads to a brief tryst that doesn't sit well with Vicki-Ann, who has set her sights on the disc jockey as a potential husband. As the brazen sister, Rebecca Firth's performance is the most broadly comic in the film, and occasionally seems a little too over-the-top.

The first thirty minutes of Love Serenade are nearly perfect. The script is clever, the acting is fresh, and the cinematography is interesting. Thereafter, however, things start to become repetitive, leading to several patches where the proceedings drag. Fortunately, the level of humor remains consistently high and the film never loses its edge, even when it's spinning its wheels. And the ending is definitely worth staying for.

As has become commonplace in Australian films, the soundtrack is bloated with '70s songs, many of which we haven't heard since they stopped playing on the radio two decades ago. In this film, there's a twist -- the lyrics of the songs are matched perfectly to the scenes they're used in. The movie's title comes from a Barry White hit that the writer/director calls the "creepiest seduction song" that she has ever heard.

Love Serenade is a sly, quirky offering guaranteed to appeal to anyone who is sick of screen romances that always work out for the best. In fact, this is one film where we pray that the leads don't get together in the end. Shirley Barrett has done an effective job of combining acid humor and parody with a somewhat more serious subtext about unrealistic expectations. The resulting motion picture is considerably different from the usual multiplex fare, and all the more worthwhile because of it.

Love Serenade (Australia, 1996)

Director: Shirley Barrett
Cast: Miranda Otto, Rebecca Firth, George Shetsov, John Alansu
Screenplay: Shirley Barrett
Cinematography: Mandy Walker
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1