Frequent visitors to this site will have noticed that, following my viewing of Pialat’s Passe Ton Bac D’Abord (1979) and L’Enfance Nue (1968), I have written quite a bit about cinematic depictions of childhood. Pialat’s take on the matter was almost wilfully perverse. He cast a load of kids, gave them parts to play and then stuck a camera on them as they improvised. The resulting performances being supposedly ‘more real’ than films such as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) or Shane Meadows’ This is England (2007), which deal with childhood by projecting onto their child protagonists the fears, hopes and values of the film directors. Ann Turner’s Celia embodies a third approach to the problem of depicting childhood in that it examines the ways in which children process and try to make sense of the values and actions of the adults that surround them.
Celia (Rebecca Smart) lives in 1950s small-town Australia with her eccentric socialist grandmother (Margaret Ricketts) and her largely disinterested parents (Nicholas Eadie and Mary-Anne Fahey). Celia’s world is turned upside down when she discovers one morning that her grand-mother has died. Initially distraught, Celia soon cheers up when she makes friends with the newly arrived Tanner family. The Tanners provide a sympathetic group of kids for Celia to play with and a mother (Victoria Longley) who is much sweeter, much more sympathetic and much more fun than any of the other adults in Celia’s life. In fact, the adults in Celia’s life seem intent upon spoiling her fun.
Turner presents the world of adults as a claustrophobic and brutally unfair place governed by incomprehensible rules and statements of fact that not only contradict personal experience, but also seem strangely distant and unreal due to the fact that they mostly issue forth from the same cinema screen as the detective stories the family pay to see for fun. However, despite their distance and obvious falseness, the rules of the adult world seem to be forever conspiring to thwart Celia’s deepest desires. She is told that she cannot play with the Tanners because they are communists and communists are evil brain-washers who steal children from their families but the Tanners are clearly not like that and nor was Celia’s granny. Similarly, the cinema screen speaks of a great rabbit plague. A plague that means that children must be stripped of their pet rabbits, but the only rabbits Celia has seen are the ones in the pet shop and how could anything as cute be evil vermin?
Celia’s problems understanding the world are also compounded by the fact that she is female. Indeed, Turner presents 1950s Australia as a hideous patriarchy dominated by a caste of psychologically damaged and ultimately ineffectual macho wankers who are forever telling other people what to do. For example, Mrs Tanner is publicly humiliated by her husband who shouts at her for having doubts about Stalin. Even Celia’s mother is forced to take a back-seat when a cabal of men-folk decide that Communists are evil and that rabbits are vermin meaning that Celia must be deprived not only of her only friends but also of her beloved pet rabbit Murgatroyd.
This situation is then made worse by the fact that the large scale oppression of the government and the tin-pot dictatorship of the men-folk often flow into one another. For example, when Celia’s father decided that Communists were evil, was her genuinely worried about the Tanners being evil, or was he simply trying to prevent his daughter from talking about his tendency to sexually harass Mrs. Tanner?
Depressingly, while the world of adults is depicted as cruel and incomprehensible, the world of children is not that much better.
Celia is a hugely imaginative child and a born leader. Initially a lonely child, she has an intense rivalry with her cousin Stephanie (Amelia Frid). Where Celia struggles against the strictures of the adult world, Stephanie surrenders to them. We frequently see her using her policeman father and “the law” to get at Celia. When she turns up to throw rocks at Celia and her friends she uses not the language of the child’s world but that of the adult’s : “Dirty Reds!” her gang scream. We also see Stephanie trying on the dress that she will wear for her first communion, an act not only of spiritual maturation but also supplication. Stephanie cannot grow up and embrace the patriarchy quickly enough. Celia, in contrast, has no time for religion. When asked what she thinks about Stephanie’s dress she says that white is the wrong colour as a yellow dress would better match Stephanie’s teeth. In fact, instead of surrendering to the adult world, Celia constructs her own religion in an attempt to make sense of it and control it. A religion that elevates found objects and personal treasures are elevated to the status of religious icons. Spells are fashioned around masks and rabbits as the children chant into the flames their desires for revenge against the adult world. The metaphysical backbone of the religion is provided by the story of the Hobyahs. Having had the story read to her at school, Celia soon transforms the Australian night into a disturbing realm peopled with blue slimy creatures. However, as the film progresses the Hobyahs start to merge with the patriarchal powers that control the lives of Celia and the other females. In one wonderful moment, Celia takes down a picture of the Prime Minister and adorns it with a warty blue nose and blue ears.
What ultimately makes Celia such a satisfying film is the fact that it in no way seeks to justify the beliefs that Celia adopts. It shows us the pressures that Celia is under and it shows us how she is prone to hallucinating visitations not only from her dead Grandmother but also from the Hobyahs. If judged by the standards of the adult world, Celia is a deeply disturbed little girl. A violent psychotic who is as much a danger to herself as the people around her. However, because Celia is such a sympathetic figure and because the forces she fights against are so undeniably awful, we want to overlook the nastiness that is in her. In the film’s final scene, she taunts and mocks a little girl who has just lost her father. A father who was once a pillar of the male adult community is reclaimed by Celia’s world of myths and symbols. The little girl runs away in tears, Celia smiles. Who could deny her her victory?
Celia is also a film with interesting feminist tendencies. Aside from presenting its male characters as, at best, lackeys to feminine power and, at worst, brutal thugs, the film also stresses the importance of the relationships between women and little girls. Celia begins the film by losing her grandmother. She then replaces her grandmother with Mrs. Tanner and, when Mrs. Tanner goes away, that bond of friendship between woman and girl is transferred to Celia’s mother. In a way, the film could be seen as a lament over Celia’s home life. Celia’s mother allowed her idiot husband to take too much control over the raising of her child and as a result, Celia had to find her own way. Turner seems to be suggesting that both women and children are subjects to the whims of stupid and authoritarian men, and as such they need to stick together. A fact ably demonstrated by the film’s opening scene in which mother turns a hissing Hobyah into a small fluffy possum, so the film is also about the abandonment of children by self-involved parents.