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Breathing Under Water (1991)


A late 20th century Beatrice (Anne Louise Lambert), mother of a young child, keeps a map ‘dredged from her dreams’ in a copy of Dante’s Inferno. Prompted by questions from her young daughter Maeve (Maeve Dermody), and feeling unease with her own historical present, Beatrice is compelled to make a journey to the underworld. Armed with her map, she and Maeve find a guide, a modern day Hermes-like taxi driver named Herman (Kristoffer Greaves), to take them below the city’s surface. Herman leads Beatrice and Maeve through the gates of Pluto’s Republic, to begin their subterranean journey. At a Chinese temple, a woman (Pauline Chan) gives Beatrice a red shopping bag for the collection of significant finds along the way. As the three journey further into the underworld, Beatrice modifies and enhances her map, with its sketched regions of Pluto’s Republic – Childhood of the Bomb, The Mothers, Land of Unlikeness, Wasteland and The Ninth Circle. In voice-over Beatrice recalls her own memories and dreams of childhood, weaving them abstractly into her venture to the nether regions of human consciousness. A Narrator (Gillian Jones) decodes and elaborates on Beatrice’s musings, as Beatrice searches for reasons for humanity’s critical flaw – its relentless insistence on driving itself to the very brink of existence.

The three exit the underworld for a ceremony on Tom Tiddler’s Ground, a momentary place where the balance of existence between hell and heaven becomes clear. Beatrice and Maeve leave Herman and board a bus, on which the only passengers are some children and a Conductor (David Argue). By the time the bus reaches its terminus, the seaside, Beatrice and Maeve are alone. At the beach, at ‘the edge of all the possible worlds’, Beatrice finds her understanding of paradise.

Curator’s notes

Susan Murphy Dermody was an academic and author of numerous published works on film and cultural theory when in 1991 she had the opportunity to direct her first feature, Breathing Under Water. She teamed with Megan McMurchy, who by then was one of the country’s most experienced producers of short drama and independent documentary. Between 1986 and 1988 McMurchy headed the Creative Development Branch of the AFC, where she worked to increase the funding prospects for low-budget features.

The budget for Breathing Under Water was raised from the AFC, supported by a presale to Channel 4 Television, an unusual achievement at that time for an Australian project. The sale was negotiated with Rod Stoneman, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Independent Film and Video. Stoneman read the script at an early stage and met the filmmakers while visiting Australia to take part in seminars on the ‘Channel 4 Model’. Breathing Under Water screened at the London Film Festival in November 1991 prior to its Channel 4 broadcast in a late-night slot Eleventh Hour, as part of a series of ‘features and documentaries representing the cutting edge of international cinema’. Following an Australian theatrical release in May 1992 via Ronin Films, and screenings at various European film festivals, Breathing Under Water was acquired by SBS-TV where it was first broadcast on Australia Day 1997.

In the August 1991 edition of Cinema Papers, Murphy Dermody talked about the 1980s Reagan era as the genesis of the ideas in Breathing Under Water. The US President’s unconstrained talk of nuclear war generated a great deal of fear in communities all over the world. Murphy Dermody became preoccupied with the ‘riddle of humankind’s setting the stage for its own extinction’ and her ponderings on the various embodiments of the ‘self-hate that this civilisation seems to secrete’ became the bones of the film. By the time production began, the Berlin Wall had come down and global nuclear fears had subsided considerably. But George Bush Snr was about to plunge the US and its allies into the first Gulf War. The concerns of the film were no less pertinent.

In Breathing Under Water Murphy Dermody uses the template of Dante Alighieri’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven to explore her own contemporary, secular and feminist questions about humankind’s ‘fall’ and the possibilities for its redemption in our age. The displacement of the fundamental human experiences of birth and death by materialist civilisation’s escalating capacity for invention and destruction forms the overarching thesis of the film. From there strands of enquiry branch out, represented by the paths Beatrice takes. Science, technology, the bomb, the mother, the body, language, and even the problem of storytelling itself are examined. The film looks at how cultural understandings of these concepts have been formed in the collective unconscious, attempting to take the viewer, as Beatrice articulates it, ‘beyond the narrow maze of mind that we start to live inside from the end of childhood’.

Breathing Under Water’s underworld is 'Pluto’s Republic’, an obvious pun on Plato’s model of utopian rationalism. Pluto, the god of the underworld, caused such grief to Ceres when he carried her daughter Proserpina off to his domain, that Ceres allowed the earth to go barren. Proserpina was subsequently allowed to return annually to the earth’s surface, bringing with her the spring. In Breathing Under Water, spring’s return is in doubt, so Beatrice must journey below to discover why. Pluto’s Republic is also the title of a collection of essays by Nobel Prize winning scientist Sir Peter Medawar, published in 1982. Uncompromising in his delineation of the boundaries of scientific truth and reason, and fierce in his denunciation of ‘pseudoscience’, Medawar claimed the title aptly described ‘that intellectual underworld which so many of the essays explore’.

The arguments of Medawar, and his contemporary successors like Richard Dawkins, are critical to the countering of what appears to be a global rise in religious fundamentalism. But these same arguments leave little room for management of the fallout and side effects of science’s intransigence. Deep down in Breathing Under Water’s Pluto’s Republic, evidence of the fallout – technology’s cost to humanity and to the planet – is everywhere to be found. But as Beatrice travels through the underworld, the film doesn’t condemn, on the basis of any pseudoscience, technological progress in the world above. It’s not technological progress that’s in question, but rather the nature of humanity itself. The film uses the various paths of Beatrice’s journey to delve deeply into humanity’s shadows, to the places where very complex alliances have been forged between scientific knowledge and humanity’s own destructive urges.