Colo (Isabelle Huppert) has come to Australia from France to stay with family friends, after the failure of her marriage. Tom (Norman Kaye) and his wife Beatrice (Monica Maughan) own a big house with a beautiful garden in the foothills outside Melbourne. Driving back from sightseeing with Tom, Colo crashes his car. She loses the sight in her left eye and that threatens the vision in her right eye. The specialist advises that the left eye must be removed, or she could go completely blind. She is appalled and terrified by the choice she has to make. Tom asks a young blind friend to talk to her. Robert (Robert Menzies) is immediately smitten by her and they become lovers. He helps her to see the possibility of blindness as a door to increased awareness, rather than a tragedy. Colo writes to her husband Francois, asking him not to come from France, but he does anyway. Robert immediately retreats, fearing that he has lost the only woman he has loved. Colo sends Francois away and goes to Robert, who is in his cactus nursery.
Cactus is one of Paul Cox’s most enigmatic and personal films, and one of his most beautiful. It is dedicated to his mother, Else Cox-Kuminack, who was born in Germany, but to a polyglot European background – French, German, Polish and Hungarian. One day when Paul was still at school in Holland, Else went blind. In his autobiography, Reflections, he wrote: ‘She had no idea that her sight would be restored, but her courage gave me hope and her peace had a great visionary aura. This planted the seeds for the film Cactus.
The film contains many key themes from Cox’s career but one of the most important is to do with the relationship to nature. The location is staggeringly beautiful, a house on a hill with a view back to the city, surrounded by beautiful gardens that meld seamlessly with a pristine eucalypt forest. The opening shot gives us a 360 degree pan of several minutes duration past a paradise of trees that could not be anywhere but Australia. Cox returns to this view again and again in the film, with an increasing blurring of the lens, to dramatise the sense of loss that Colo feels for her deteriorating vision. Most of the interior shots have mirrors, windows and works of art on the walls – all remind her of what she may never see again.
The growing sense of tragedy is then inverted, when Colo meets Robert, a man who is blind since birth (except for a brief moment when he bumped his head and saw light as a child). Robert regards blindness as a sort of dark privilege, akin to a state of grace. He connects the sharpened sense of awareness that it brings to the relationship of certain Aborigines to their land – he invokes the idea of songlines and describes blindness as a ‘kind of knowing’. All the same, Robert is very isolated and inexperienced when it comes to love. Falling for Colo makes him wish he could see her face, as we see in his question in clip three (‘Are you beautiful?’). The film is thus preoccupied with the horror of not being able to see, and the realisation that seeing is not the same as perceiving. Robert’s spirit is not impoverished by his blindness. Quite the opposite: his senses are sharpened by it. He leads Colo to a recognition of a future, even if she does go blind.
Cox’s films can be seen as a progression toward the beauty of transcendence and abstraction, which could be considered a kind of blurring. Behind that is a yearning for communion with nature that he sees as akin to religious feeling. He writes in Reflections: 'I read that religion has its origin in the personification of the powers of nature. Either man goes to seek the spirits of his ancestors, the spirit of the dead, or he needs to understand the power working behind the stupendous phenomena of nature. Whatever the case, he tries to transcend the limitations of the senses. The senses don’t satisfy him. In the end he needs to go beyond and the first glimpse of all this comes through dreams. 'In fact I think God speaks to us through dreams and visions, not religion. Therefore the most profound religion of them all is the Dreaming’.
In this statement is perhaps one explanation for the casting of Aboriginal artist Banduk Marika as Robert’s friend. She acts as a kind of sensible chorus, a check on his moodiness, and a character with her fingers in the soil who helps him with the cactus nursery bequeathed by his father. The metaphor of the cactus itself can be interpreted in a number of ways – it is a plant that the blind can appreciate, but only with caution; it’s an unloved plant, to some eyes a kind of monstrosity, but it grows in the harshest climates and with incredible variety. It may represent a kind of life force for Cox, because of these qualities of indomitability and toughness; the exterior defences of the cactus are similarly human-like. Robert’s cacti are like human figures, mute and immutable. One must be strong to stand among them.