Proof: 'Never lie to me'
Martin (Hugo Weaving) and new friend Andy (Russell Crowe) look at the pictures Martin took the previous night, when they took an injured cat to the vet. Martin asks Andy to describe each picture in less than ten words. He then labels the picture, for ‘proof’. Martin asks Andy to become his regular describer, but cautions him that he must never lie to him. Andy can’t imagine why he would ever need to. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Proof is that the script is not afraid to show its intelligence. This is more unusual than it might seem in Australian cinema, where there’s sometimes a horror of being seen as overly intellectual. Proof is powered by lots of ideas and questions, but they’re well embedded in the fabric of the story. The film considers the politics of photography in connection with the politics of relationships, starting from the question of whether trust is possible without some mode of verification. If Martin can never see what’s in front of him, how can he believe that it exists – one of the oldest questions of philosophy. Taking a picture doesn’t solve his problem, unless he can find a person who will describe and never lie. Proof is partly about the impossibility of a life with that much need for verification.
Martin (Hugo Weaving) is a 32-year-old blind photographer. He lives alone and trusts no-one, especially not his housekeeper Celia (Geneviève Picot), who loves him in secret. Their antagonistic relationship is disturbed when Martin meets Andy (Russell Crowe), a kitchen hand at a local Italian restaurant. Andy becomes Martin’s eyes – the only person he trusts to describe what is in the photographs. When Celia realises that her role is threatened, she seduces Andy. Having failed to make Martin love her, she tries to prove that he can’t trust Andy. Martin grew up doubting his mother’s love, always wanting proof that what she told him was true. Celia proves that she was not lying, and that she loves him. Martin fires her and renews his friendship with Andy.
Proof curator's notes
Proof was the astonishing debut feature of Jocelyn Moorhouse, who had graduated from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the mid-1980s. She heard a story around 1986 about a blind photographer; the idea intrigued her for its philosophical possibilities. How does a person, blind since birth, establish a sense of truth? Martin takes photographs, but he must still rely on someone else to describe them. What if that person decides to lie?
The script works so well because it establishes its own slightly aberrant world, but depicts it as normal. Martin and Celia have been taunting each other for the three-and-a-half years that she has worked for him. She loves him, but he will not acknowledge her feelings, even to himself. He will not give her the satisfaction of feeling pity, so he treats her with contempt. She moves furniture around in his home so he’ll trip over – a reminder of his helplessness and her power to hurt him whenever she wants. When Andy enters the story, their private war is well underway. He has no idea what he’s dealing with, or the ruthlessness that each is capable of.
One of the script’s great strengths is that Moorhouse maintains a sense of vulnerability within each character, even as they do their worst. Each is incomplete. Martin has both a physical and spiritual disability; Celia and Andy may be able of body but each has a brooding need for connection. Andy feels like a no-hoper, an itinerant, which is why Martin’s need for his help – to describe the photographs – gives him a sense of purpose. Celia’s desire to love is so strong she puts up with Martin’s humiliations just so she can be near him. Martin’s flashbacks to childhood, when his distrust of the world began, help us to accept how he might have become this pitiful and pitiless adult – a man so lonely and yet so proud that he’d rather be hated than pitied.
The film has an almost Hitchcockian darkness, tinged with bleak humour that’s worthy of Roman Polanski. The scene in the park, where Celia demonstrates her power by holding on to Bill, Martin’s seeing-eye dog, is constructed as a perfect Hitchcock sequence – it shifts the vulnerability from Martin’s inability to see to Andy’s fear of being seen by a man whose only weapon is a camera. It’s the point in the film where Andy begins to lie – something he didn’t think he was capable of.
Moorhouse’s skilful understanding of the metaphors of sight and the power of the image make the film mysterious on multiple levels. It’s a textbook example of how to keep a film’s logistics simple – three actors, very few locations – while sacrificing nothing in terms of thematic complexity and dramatic impact. None of these actors was particularly well known in 1991; each gives a superb performance in a film that has lost none of its sting since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, followed by the Sydney Film Festival, in mid-1991. The film won six awards at the Australian Film Institute awards in late 1991, including best director and best original screenplay for Jocelyn Moorhouse. Weaving won the AFI for best actor, Crowe won for best supporting actor and Picot was nominated for best actress (she lost to Sheila Florance, in A Woman’s Tale).
Notes by Paul Byrnes