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Wide angle: Ghosts from the past

The Australian-born director John Hillcoat launched his feature- film career in 1989 with Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead, a dark, uncompromising drama which unblinkingly chronicled the brutal events leading up to a "lockdown" at a hi-tech prison. The film received nine Australian Film Institute Award nominations, and was critically acclaimed abroad. Yet, despite this early success, it took Hillcoat seven years to make his eagerly- awaited second feature, To Have & To Hold.

There were numerous reasons for the hiatus, but one of the most critical was the difficulty Hillcoat had in finding a backer. "Ghosts scared a lot of people off. It's great to make strong, powerful films, but in terms of people wanting to finance them, it's also very difficult."

It's fair to say that Hillcoat doesn't make multiplex-friendly fare, nor films that send you back out into the street with a smile on your face. Certainly, there aren't any laughs in To Have & To Hold, a rich stew of tormented passions and social commentary, which compellingly relocates elements from Hitchcock's films Vertigo and Rebecca to Papua New Guinea.

There, surrounded by jungle and sweltering heat, expatriots Jack (Tcheky Karyo) and Kate (Rachel Griffiths) continue the passionate affair they began in Melbourne. But their romantic dream sours when Jack becomes obsessed with his dead wife, Rose, and tries to remodel Kate in her image.

Hillcoat says To Have & To Hold is a look at "that point where romantic love comes unhinged", although initially it had quite a different angle.

"I started out being intrigued by the relationship of disconnected expatriots in Papua New Guinea to the Third World, and to the way that they were projecting their values and vision onto it without thinking of the consequences.

"But then I saw a parallel to these actual relationships, where the man projects onto the woman his idealised image of her (and vice versa), and there's this discrepancy between what's in his head and who that person actually is, and what they really think about him.

"Jack, in a way, is doing to Kate what the First World is doing to the Third World, while she, like many other women, is subconsciously drawn to his darker side, and romanticises it without understanding what it is she's really attracted to or how dangerous it is."

Jack's obsession with his dead wife is fuelled by a videotape of her. He can't stop watching it, and gradually reaches a point where he's no longer able to distinguish between Kate and Rose. In a parallel sub-plot, Jack's relationship to the videotape is mirrored by members of vicious youth gangs who cite Rambo, Jackie Chan, John Wayne and Bruce Willis as their heroes; and who are perhaps also influenced by the brutal images Jack crudely cuts together from satellite broadcasts. So, does Hillcoat believe that film violence can inspire actual violence?

"I think that it feeds an already existing state; social, political and economic conditions, plus the emotional/psychological state of individuals, are much greater forces. But it is possible to get so caught up in media that you become very disconnected from your relationship to the real world. You cease to be grounded with who you are, and that can lead to violence, whether it's psychological violence that's perpetrated against yourself in the form of drink and drugs, or whether it's projected onto other people.

"Advertising and images of beauty and wealth probably have a more profound impact on people that are frustrated and unable to attain those goals [than do images of violence]. It's the aspirations that capitalism is promoting as beautiful, positive attributes that are dangerous. All that is in the bedrooms of the poor and in the villages of the Third World, and it's like a cruel carrot that's being waved in front of people's noses. It's a seduction, an unattainable dream. And it's that same desire and obsession to attain something that also makes romantic love potentially so dangerous."

There's so much going on in To Have & To Hold that many people have found it hard to digest and fully understand in one viewing. Hillcoat, though, isn't sure whether this is because the film is especially challenging, or because audiences - shaped, perhaps, by a multiplex mentality - are becoming less able to cope with such complex material. "Hitchcock, and particularly Sirk [two of the major influences in To Have & To Hold], made films that are loaded on different levels," he says wearily, "but these days it's almost taboo to do that."

Nevertheless, Hillcoat is determined to continue making the films he wants to make, in the way that he wants to make them. So, yes, his next project, an adaptation of John Arden's play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, will also be based on difficult, dark subject matter: "It's about guilt, violence, war, and social injustice," he says with a smile.

Clearly for John Hillcoat the business of film-making is no laughing matter.

`To Have & To Hold' is on release