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Festival Conversations | BAD TOWNS AND WILD WOMEN

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a Melbourne-based film critic and author of seven books on cult, horror and exploitation film with a focus on gender politics. Follow her on twitter

Like George Miller’s 2015 dystopian futuristic hellscape MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, the location where Mirrah Foulkes’s JUDY & PUNCH is set is marked by an absence of water. The ironically-named town of Seaside is in fact nowhere near the ocean; rather, its name speaks of good old-fashioned wishful thinking on the part of the superstitious (and none-too-bright) powers that be within the town, its name indicating a communal yearning that somehow the briny depths might magically move closer.

While small towns dominated by corrupt power being challenged by a group of outsiders is far from specific to Australian cinema, it is undeniably a trope which the nation’s filmmakers have frequently embraced. Think, perhaps, of Peter Weir’s THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS from 1974, Steve Jodrell’s SHAME from 1988, and Laurie McInnes’s 1993 film BROKEN HIGHWAY, just for starters: bad towns full of rotten eggs, the only way towards a brighter future is to tackle the dominant paradigm head on.

Like SHAME – and like FURY ROAD – JUDY & PUNCH brings the institutionally sanctioned oppression and abuse of women to the fore. With one simple, elegant flip of the names of the historically ubiquitous Punch and Judy puppet show, Foulkes prioritises the subjectivity of the latter over the previously central figure of thuggish repeat offender Punch. Played with a sharp, almost feline canniness by the unceasingly adaptable Mia Wasikowska, the film is very much Judy’s story. Yet Foulkes playfully homages long traditions of the puppet show by including all the key iconographic ingredients; there’s the baby, the sausages, Toby the dog, a crocodile, and the local constable (the latter played as a bumbling moral compass by Benedict Hardie). Foulkes adds these to her own unique recipe, actively subverting the old familiar tale by providing a simultaneously scathing and enthralling critique of the normalisation of violence against women.

JUDY & PUNCH follows its eponymous characters as they struggle to relaunch their career in Judy’s home town after Punch’s affinity for booze, violence and women thwarted their initial attempts to garner major success as travelling performers. While Punch (Damon Herriman) is all ego and bluster, Judy – a loving mother, a sharp raconteur and undeniably the superior puppeteer of the duo – quietly busies herself until Punch’s violence escalates to an inevitable crescendo. With both Punch and the blood-thirsty mob of which the town now largely consists (as one local notes, the law is just an “outlandish social experiment”), a near-death Judy is rescued by a group of outsiders, a matriarchal community of self-identifying “Heretics” either expelled from the town or who left of their own accord before being stoned to death by the feral masses. While the Heretics ready themselves to move on to a safer environment, Judy decides another path of action is required if things are to change for the better.

If the thematic concerns of JUDY & PUNCH speak to today’s newspaper headlines as violence against women grows to epidemic proportions, it is no coincidence. “I was drawn to using this strange, misogynistic puppet show to explore our contemporary obsession with violence’, says Foulkes. “In doing so, I wanted to re-appropriate and revivify its meanings and resonances with our current climate.” Rather than painting a world of doom and gloom, however, through her absurdist vision of Seaside and its people, Foulkes shrewdly balances a corrupt, hateful mainstream with the comparatively liberated, joyful outsiders and rebels. While supposedly outcasts, the lifestyle and warm sense of community of the latter lies in striking contrast to the bitter, frightened villagers who expelled and tormented them in the first place.

Amongst the Heretics, most revered is folk medicine woman Dr. Goodtime, played by Australian screen icon Gillian Jones. Previously appearing in FURY ROAD as one of the Vuvalini, despite the fantastic worlds of Miller’s fourth film in the MAD MAX series and Foulkes’s reimagining of PUNCH AND JUDY, a very real spirit of subversive feminine (and feminist) resistance runs through Jones’s roles in both movies. Led by warrior women of the highest order, both the Vuvalini and the Heretics are a force for change in fictional but highly politically charged worlds, both putrefied in the hands of corrupt male power.

But in JUDY & PUNCH, even Jones’s Dr Goodtime has resigned herself to accepting her outcast position, despite her attempts to frame it as progress: “Keep moving forward and hope the rest of the world catches up”, she tells Judy as they discuss strategies for their community’s future. But Judy isn’t having it, and in a final spectacular display of radical action, she joins a swathe of women characters in Australian film – from Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and the Vuvalini to Deborah Lee Furness's Asta in SHAME – who draw the line, who take a stand, and who seek to put the final nail in the coffin of bad, bad towns.

All feature films in competition are available for members to watch online via AACTA TV until 30 October 2019.

For a complete guide to the feature films nominated for the 2019 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Judges Handbook here.

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