Your level of skepticism will determine whether you hear the warning signs of a scam from the initial notes of the pan flute in Bad Behaviour.
Taking inspiration from her experiences at meditation retreats, Australian actress Alice Englert’s first film as a director, which she also wrote and acted in, centers around characters who are willing to do anything in their search for inner peace.
At the forefront is Lucy (Jennifer Connelly), formerly a child performer and now in her forties, attempting to overcome a guarded demeanor that is causing a rift between her and her daughter Dylan (Englert), who is employed as a stunt performer on a film set in New Zealand.
Lucy checks into an Oregon retreat operated by self-professed guru Elon (Ben Whishaw) where, with fellow searchers, she meditates on would-be koans like “it’s both” and “don’t give into hope”, paying and praying to crack them open and find healing within.
The majority of the movie is set at a retreat, but the main conflict revolves around a woman who works in the film industry under the shadow of her well-known mother. With Englert portraying the daughter, it’s hard not to see it as a reflection of her own life. Englert’s mother is Jane Campion, an Academy Award-winning director. The film was shown at the Sydney Film Festival this year, where it was featured alongside a 14-film retrospective of Campion’s work.
In 1994, Englert was born and spent a lot of time on the sets of various films. At the age of 12, she starred in her mother’s short film The Water Diary. She also appeared as a vengeful teenager in Campion’s Top of the Lake and had a role in Power of the Dog. Over the past ten years, Englert has consistently worked in both film and television with directors like Ryan Murphy, Sally Potter, and fellow Australian Goran Stolevski. She has also directed two of her own short films.
As a teenager, Englert accompanied her mother on her initial Bad Behaviour-inspired retreat. She admits that in hindsight it may seem absurd, but she continued to attend nonetheless.
Englert shared during a Zoom interview from Wollongong, where she has been selected for an upcoming series, “To be honest, I simply wanted to leave school. However, the experience left a lasting impact on me… I hoped for the film to have a more sensitive portrayal rather than a cynical one. You don’t mock something unless you have a genuine appreciation for it- or you could, but then you’d just be rude.”
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The release of this film has been overshadowed by the presence of the main actress’s mother, but rather than avoiding it, Englert incorporates it into the film, with director Campion making a brief and cute appearance. The relationship between Lucy and Dylan is tense and filled with cutting remarks, as they constantly hurt each other. Englert is aware that some may see their mother-daughter dynamic as a reflection of her own, but she is confident in the fact that it is not her personal relationship and is not bothered by people asking about it.
“I was concerned about how she might feel,” Englert explains, pausing before settling on an adjective – “but she ended up loving it.”
Upon her arrival at the retreat, Lucy immediately stands out as she effortlessly displays acts of cruelty, particularly towards fellow model Beverly (played by Dasha Nekrasova), who doesn’t hesitate to push back. As Lucy, Connelly is both unnerving and alluring, with a clear sense of pain and frustration evident in her gaze. She struggles with her own tendencies towards callousness and revels in the power it holds over others. Director Roseanne Englert explains that she wanted Lucy to embody the terrifying look of Medusa in Caravaggio’s painting, evoking a sense of fear and dread in those around her.
As she ultimately experiences a pivotal moment in a combination of horror and humor, the second part of Bad Behaviour takes a turn – and the outcome is anything but neat and clean.
The fear of getting older is constantly looming over them. Beverley, the young model, reveals her deepest fear of preferring death over aging to the group, while the leader, Elon, is infatuated with her. However, he is unsettled by Lucy and sometimes loses his cool as if she is holding him back.
In contrast, Elon appears humble, just like his simple turtlenecks made of wool. It’s uncertain if he’s a deceitful person who is aware of his actions, always concerned that his words will have consequences, or if he truly thinks he is aiding these individuals. Englert preferred to leave it open to interpretation.
“We, as humans, tend to engage in deceptive behaviors. I desired for Elon to experience the dilemma of determining if something is a scam or genuine,” she explains. “I did not want Elon to embody the stereotypical image of a cult leader with a charming, celebrity-like persona – that is not the norm at retreats. Instead, I typically observe individuals attempting to market intangible concepts, such as inner peace, without any tangible product to offer.”
During those retreats, she expresses that it seemed as though individuals were searching for enlightenment like gold. However, true enlightenment cannot be forced or grasped, yet every part of our being strives to do so.
The subplot of the movie centers on Dylan, who handles stressful conversations with her mother while dealing with a crush that completely overwhelms her, as described by Englert. She expresses her feelings through her job as a stunt double, which also has parallels for Englert.
“She expresses her fascination with the ability to portray pain and conflict through roleplaying,” she explains. “Dylan believes she can control her emotions in this environment, which I have also found in acting. It allows for a safe space to address topics that are typically avoided. I was always amazed by this unique opportunity.”
The film “Bad Behaviour” is currently screening in cinemas across Australia and New Zealand.