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My Life Without Steve (1986)


After a lengthy romance, Steve (who is only seen in photographs and is played by Mark McManus) has left Liz (Jenny Vuletic). During the months that follow, the wounded and angry Liz obsesses on the end of the relationship, attempting to understand why and how it happened and so avoid the recurrence of such emotional pain.

Curator’s notes

Gillian Leahy had been active in the Women’s Liberation movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. After graduating from Sydney University in the early 1970s she attended the Australian Film Television and Radio School, developing a reputation primarily in documentary. Like many independent filmmakers, she also taught, and by the time she made My Life Without Steve, had been lecturing in media production at UTS for a number of years. In Australian film schools and university media courses at the time, one of the key preoccupations was genre – finding ways of both working within its parameters and of subverting its forms. And of course there was the ever-present Australian problem of limited budgets. For Leahy, this latter factor had resulted in a regrettable compromise in the technical quality of independent films – especially feminist films, the production budgets of which were particularly low.

Leahy’s proposal for My Life Without Steve was for an autobiographical account of her own experiences after the end of an affair – based on real events, using real material, but with names changed and cast as a drama. She argued strongly for the project to be shot on 35 mm and for special attention to be paid to the composition of the soundtrack, the costs being offset by the entire script being set in the one interior location. She planned to call the film a documentary, although she encountered resistance to this and the film was eventually marketed as an experimental drama or an essay film on romantic love and loss. She took as her influences filmmakers like Chris Marker (whose fluid poetic approach to documentary had transcended the then entrenched nexus between genre and distribution and exhibition) and Chantal Ackerman (whose work exploring modes of address and representation of the feminine suggested the possibility of a feminist film language and, by its nature – with extended takes and sublimated narrative – circumvented the problem of budget constraints).

My Life Without Steve is set over a year, in a Sydney inner-west harbourside flat. This is the living space where Liz, the film’s only present character, undertakes her recovery from rejection by her lover. In the opening lines of narration Liz states 'After you left I moved in here for a year, hoping the view would pull me out of my misery’. For the next 50 or so minutes the film probes these binary components – the view and the misery. The camera, in carefully framed and beautifully composed shots, explores only that which can be seen from inside the dwelling, while the narration (a structured monologue) drills relentlessly down into the misery. Liz speaks to (the absent) Steve and to herself, quoting Freud, Barthes, Juliet Mitchell, Colette, Marge Piercy, Bob Dylan, et al, as well as her therapists, her friends, her mother, her diary, and letters, while breaking at regular intervals into bars of popular song, all to outline and highlight the anatomy of her suffering.

Funded by the Creative Development Branch of the AFC and the Women’s Film Fund, the film did exceptionally well at the time of its release. It won awards at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals, as well as AFI and ATOM awards. And yet the film’s audiences were very divided. Those who loved it saw it as an overdue challenge to feminist orthodoxy, which had dictated the rules of engagement in heterosexual relationships and determined who would take the rap for the injustices and hazards of romantic love. Those who disliked the film saw it as a litany of excessive masochism, serving only to reinforce social notions of extreme states (like obsession, jealousy, possessiveness, compulsion, fear and hysteria) being exclusively the province of the feminine. Liz – who names herself a feminist – blames Steve, blames Steve’s new girlfriend, blames her mother, blames herself, quoting only texts which fortify her feelings of anguish. By the end of the film she has taken the smallest of steps towards emotional equilibrium.

Twenty or so years after the film’s release, gender politics have made their way into the mainstream, and like most politics today, have been shackled to the material and the economic. In the meantime the politics of emotion have been designated to the amply stocked self-help shelves of the bookstores. The pursuit of romantic love continues to be a thorny business, not for the faint-hearted and neither My Life Without Steve nor an entire movement (feminist or post-feminist) will change this fact. Regardless, the film remains a challenging examination of the first phase of one woman’s long road to recovery from having loved and lost.