The Footstep Man

Sam Jolley (Steven Grives) is a sound technician working on a low-budget feature film about the life of painter Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (Michael Hurst). The production difficulties Sam faces in his small studio are exacerbated by personal unhappiness. One of his jobs is to create sound effects such as footsteps (hence the title) and, because this process requires close attention to the characters on screen, he gradually builds up involvement with the film’s fictional story. Sam becomes especially caught up in the fate of Mireille (Jennifer Ward-Lealand), a prostitute in love with Toulouse Lautrec. As Sam’s mental condition deteriorates, past and present, framing story and inner story become more and more tangled.

This plot outline is an odd one, especially when the film is New Zealand made, with well-chosen parts of central Auckland simulating fin-de-siècle Paris. Perhaps it is more understandable when seen as the creation of talented director Leon Narbey whose only previous feature is the spellbinding Illustrious Energy Narbey has a feeling for unusual projects and is attracted to small-scale stories focusing on close examination of the characters’ predicaments. It is a pity though that such lavish care and superb craft has been expended on what is essentially a silly idea with a particularly trite resolution.

Narbey shows us with admirable clarity several aspects of movie post-production in a style reminiscent of Truffaut’s Day For Night, and the old TVNZ studio in Shortland Street makes an effectively moody backdrop to Sam’s disintegration. But the mix of time frames, the bleeding of material from film-within-a-film into framing story is less successful. With something of the strategy of Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Narbey has Sam resolve his own dilemma by drawing him into involvement in the destiny of Mireille. The intertextual possibilities here are intriguing, but the net result is less Borges than boredom.

In the present, Sam’s views on Mireille’s story-fate clash with those of Vida (Rosey Jones), the director he is working with. Both people have painful secrets which they must work through before either plot strand call be unravelled. Sam is visited in his dreams by a ghostly Mireille (shades of the succubus in The Returning) and Vida is burdened by memories of a family suicide. Her politically scrupulous film foregrounds the lives of the women Toulouse-Lautrec painted, valorising their role in a patriarchal society. Vida’s reconsideration of her vision in her film’s conclusion fails to make the resulting change less preposterous.

The Footstep Man is beautifully made, with tremendous production values and consistent performances. As with many other local films, it is the script’s vaulting ambition that causes a disappointing stumble.

By Brian McDonnell - North & South - November 1992

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