The camera slowly crawls towards the front door, over the first-floor balcony and into the front bedroom to discover Steve (Gary Sweet) asleep in his bed, watched by his wife Alexandra (Helen Buday). She goes to the bathroom where she says 'Sorry, Steve’, then spits angrily at the mirror and tells herself not to be sorry. She re-enters the bedroom with their two children, who wish Steve happy birthday and give him presents. Summary by Lynden Barber.
At the end of the film’s opening credits, the creeping camera, unsettling ambient music and heightened sound design (including the peculiarly loud sound of an unseen garden hose) create a highly effective sense of unease that’s reminiscent of David Lynch films such as Blue Velvet (1986) and Lost Highway (1997). (The significance of the water will become clear later in the story).
Alexandra’s actions in front of the mirror alerts us to the fact that she has planned something unpleasant for Steve. Writer-director Rolf de Heer creates suspense and mystery by establishing this early in the film. Not until the beginning of the script’s second act (after Steve returns from work) will he start to reveal the nature of her 'project’.
Alexandra’s 'sorry, not sorry’ routine is the first of a pattern of reversals that occur throughout the film. These include two instances of Steve being unhappy about being called into the boardroom (and then receiving pleasant surprises); and a major revelation from Alexandra on videotape that she later reveals to be untrue.
After Steve (Gary Sweet) has enjoyed birthday greetings and gifts from his two children, Sam (Jack Christie) and Emma (Samantha Knigge), he cheerfully leaves for work. Clearly anxious, his wife Alexandra (Helen Buday) tells the children they’re not going to school today – part of daddy’s surprise. At work Steve is worried when he’s twice called into the boardroom, thinking he’s about to be demoted or lose his job, but each time he has a pleasant surprise – a birthday cake, and a promotion. When he finds his photos of his children are missing, a secretary tells him she has couriered them to his wife because she had rung and asked for them as part of a surprise she was preparing.
Steve arrives home expecting a surprise party but has trouble unlocking the front door and finds the house deserted – the shutters are closed, the chairs stacked, lights out and a video camera on a tripod is in the middle of the room. He spots a parcel labelled 'Open Me Dad’, and finds a VHS cassette inside. He puts it on and finds Alexandra and the kids wishing him happy birthday. The children then disappear.
What he sees next initially titillates and then repeatedly shocks, astonishes and upsets Steve. Alexandra has prepared a lengthy video address that is so elaborate as to constitute a performance. After acknowledging he is a good father, she teases him sexually, accuses him of repeated sexual insensitivity, makes shocking personal revelations (one of which she later reveals not to be true) and threatens to commit suicide. Still on camera, Alexandra accuses Steve of causing and being blind to her pain, depression and frustration. Then she reveals that a second person has been in the room with her. Steve concludes this is 'the gardener’ – their next-door neighbour Bill (Bogdan Koca), a home security expert who has done major work on their house and whose obsessive gardening Steve had complained about early that morning.
Even more shocks are in store for Steve, who has discovered that he is locked in the house and the phone is disconnected. He eventually decides to try to break out of the house and into Bill’s property next door, where yet more surprises are waiting for him.
At a casual glance Alexandra’s Project might appear to have emerged from the militant feminism of the 1970s and ’80s, the kind of provocative film that the Netherlands’ Marleen Gorris ( A Question of Silence, 1982), might have directed. There’s little question that in portraying an ordinary housewife turning the tables on her husband for allegedly sexually objectifying her, it traverses classic feminist terrain. In using the device of the videotape the script implicitly recalls the feminist film academic Laura Mulvey’s once-influential theory of the 'male gaze’, in which cinema was seen as representing a male view of women. With her initial striptease routine, Alexandra cleverly exploits the male gaze only to then powerfully subvert it. Steve is not set up as a deliberately cruel husband; he’s depicted as a good father who is loved by the couple’s two children. The film’s domestic setting and the scenes in his office offer a picture of suburban normalcy. If Steve is an average Australian male, his insensitive treatment of his wife is by implication a serious indictment of not only him, but Australian men in general.
However, the film is far more complex – and interesting – than any of the above might imply. Writer-director Rolf de Heer ingeniously pulls viewers’ sympathies to and fro between the two lead characters, requiring the audience to work hard at making moral sense of the behaviour and accusations on display. Alexandra’s 'project’ is so deliberately cruel and vindictive, so twisted and extreme, and her manipulation of their children so obviously selfish and unprincipled (they clearly don’t suspect they are about to be pulled away from their much-loved father), that the question of who is victim and who is the victimiser is unsettlingly ambiguous.
Different viewers may emerge with completely opposing interpretations. For evidence see viewers’ comments on discussion boards about the film on the Internet Movie Database, which tend to veer between two extremes, either seeing the film as being about a crazy and vindictive wife or a brutally insensitive husband. A more considered reaction might be that both statements are true. De Heer is not setting up conventional heroes and villains. In his film both parties may be culpable – a far more uncomfortable (and therefore resonant) artistic 'truth’.
De Heer’s script cleverly sustains a consistently high level of tension, despite inherent limitations: a confined domestic location, only two main characters and no subplots, a major character – Steve – who remains largely passive throughout much of the running time, and the prolonged use of a videotaped recording which prevents conventional, two-way dramatic conflict (though note that this changes towards the end of the second act).
Alexandra’s Project premiered in competition at the 2003 Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival) and went on to screen at international festivals including Edinburgh, Telluride, Toronto, Puchon and Montreal, where it won the Golden Zenith for Best Film in the Oceania section. It also won best original screenplay at the Australian Film Critics’ Circle and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and Buday was named best actress at Spain’s Valladolid International Film Festival. It was nominated for five AFI Awards: best film, actress, editing (Tania Nehme), original music (Graham Tardif) and sound (James Currie, Andrew Plain, Nada Mikas and Rory McGregor).
Notes by Lynden Barber