To watch Lovely Rita, is to follow the story of Rita in beautifully cut episodes of her life, at home, at school, around Vienna and in the woods by her parents country home. The camera is unrelenting in its focus on her and yet it is not a passionate gaze. There is an unmistakable and carefully cultivated distance between the viewer and the subject - a distance widened by gaping silences. When asked about this distance, Jessica Hausner was categorical: movies are about images, there is no need to say what can be seen. In Lovely Rita, Hausner takes this very seriously. Silence is not only the absence of dialogue, but the text behind the text, it is the resounding message of the film. To the question of why so much silence, Hausner answered quite simply that people do not know how to talk to one another, they do not know, how to be with one another. This is indeed Ritas problem, what Rita is fighting against.
The plot of the movie trudges forward following each attempt by Rita to find some way out, some joy. We watch her as she gets on the same local bus hoping that this time the bus driver will finally notice her. Rita, who is played by Barbara Osika and is mesmerising, is not able to communicate the way she would like and she is ostracized for it, but she is not just another girl with teenage angst. This film is not so easily pigeonholed, nor is its protagonist. She is, as Hausner puts it; both a victim and perpetrator and she is certainly not entirely likeable.
Hausner has made it clear that she wants her film and her protagonist to be nuanced, and un-categorical and this is what makes the movie so contemporary. But at the same time it is unclear as to whether Hausner has achieved her goal or whether she is caught reacting to past stereotypes, past images, distorted and adapted to a more uncertain contemporary reality.
Visually, Hausner plays with the question of past and present. She has Rita dress in the same bright green seventies coat and has the other characters wear bright and often unclassifiable clothes of the characters and yet she uses the local contemporary backdrop with modern buses and buildings. This ambiguity is deliberate, partly because, says Hausner, things have not changed in Austria since the seventies, people are a bit stuck, they are struck in seventies houses and not likely to move out.
This is unnerving to the viewer, and is both an insightful and also marginally artificial aspect of the film. Surely, the world that Rita lives in is not like that! At times you almost feel as if Hausner is recreating images from other films she has seen from a fictional reality one which no one has really experienced. The same feeling of unreality, of improbability crops up when you consider more closely Lovely Ritas plot. A young girl wanting to be herself, to find freedom and love, looks for it in the wrong places and sick of her parents, kills them quite spontaneously. Aspects of this plot are quite contemporary, the alienation of suburbia, the cruel violence of kids, but, they are also confused with more dated themes like repression. But is Rita really repressed by her parents.
Once again Hausner is fair she does not film the world in black and white but in grey flecked with colours. Those people around Rita are not meant to be bad. They are simply anal, limited by pettiness. The point is also made beautifully in the film by the repetition of a scene where the father gets angry because Rita has not replaced the lid on the toilet after using it.
Similarly, the school Rita attends is hardly a where Rita goes is hardly the repressive hell hole, of a repressed teenager, in fact Rita takes advantage of the understanding of her teachers to skip school. Indeed the general aura of the school is not one of repression but of quiet efficiency. Maintaining a recession economy of dialogue, Hausner does not allow us any real insight into her characters, they are peripheral, perhaps, because, they are so for Rita. Also she is not erratic in her characterisation; one of the most ebullient characters is an otherwise drab band of people is a nun/teacher. When asked about the luminous presence of this nun, Hausner replied that she too was surprised by it. In fact, Hausner explained that most of the characters in the film were not cast by an agent, but by chance, they got the part by being at the right place at the right time and saying yes. You would not think it to watch Lovely Rita but when confronted by this it is a little disconcerting. Hausner said that she wanted the film to have a life of its own that she likes the uncertainty the element of surprise and this carries over into the final version as well.
But Hausner had one thing clear from the beginning. Rita had to be a girl. Growing up in Austria, she left the pressure of being a lady; she did not want Rita to be a lady. Again it is surprising that this should be still be an issue today, as it seems like the décor, to be left over from the seventies. However, Hausner when interviewed, did make the point that very few daughters kill their parents and that this fascinated her and made her all the more set on a female protagonist. But how convincing is Rita, surely even the Austrian suburbs have seen the likes of girl power.
But Hausner is not interested in realism. When asked about the probability of someone like Rita today, Hausner makes the point that she wanted Rita to be a condensed version of how things are a sharpened reality. And in a way all film is just that. Hausner is right in that there is not total realism in art. However, the ambiguity in Lovely Rita makes it an alienating film. Hausner has created a highly critical film, where she attacks a society bogged down by its own lack of imagination and courage, but like her protagonist her views are adolescent and unforgiving.
Lovely Rita is nonetheless an excellent film, most of all because it puts into sharp relief the problems of our time, which though less exciting than those of our parents are perhaps of a deeper more insidious nature.
Lovely Rita is playing in select theatres in London this winter.