Dir. Rolf de Heer. Australia. 2002. 103mins.

Whether the portrait of a husband victimised by his vindictive and possibly disturbed wife, or a fiercely feminist tract on male insensitivity, this new addition to Rolf de Heer's track record of eccentric speculations, is certainly a skilful exercise - if not a particularly affecting one. Yet another attempt to paint marital life as hell once the glossy cover is torn off, this competition entry finds the director in top technical form and features an astounding performance from Helen Buday as a vengeful housewife. However, the retribution she inflicts on her spouse for his inconsiderate behaviour seems disproportionate, considering the husband's sins. De Heer shrewdly springs a number of surprises along the way, leading the victim and the audience along false paths and then pulling the rug from under their feet at the last moment. But beyond appreciating his talent in handling the plot, there is little sympathy for the characters involved. Somewhere between family drama and thriller, Alexandra's Project may do limited business, but it is too distant from its characters to fully engage audiences. Palace will distribute it in May.

Steve (Sweet) is the typical Australian middle-aged macho, fit, handsome, liked by all and on his way up the career ladder. Married to Alexandra (Buday), they have two children, live in suburbia and present the perfect image of the happy, successful couple. But on this particular day Alexandra, waking up next to her self-satisfied partner, has a different perspective on their marriage. It is his birthday, and she intends to offer him a gift that will display her opinion of their bliss.

When Steve returns home from the office, expecting a surprise party, he instead finds an abandoned flat, his wife and children gone, and a videotape whose label reads 'Play me'. The rest of the film, or almost all of it, consists of the dialogue he is forced to entertain with the tape, for lack of a better partner.

Innocuous at first, the tape shows Alexandra and the kids wishing him happy birthday, before she shoos them away and embarks on an amateurish strip tease for his benefit. After a while the music stops and the by-now-bra-less Alexandra launches into a long soliloquy that Steve fast-forwards through - until he notices she is holding a gun. Rewinding the tape, she tells him she has cancer in both her breasts and will undergo surgery in the next two weeks. It then emerges that this is not the case, and from there Alexandra's carefully planned project proceeds, as Steve gradually discovers the extent of the punishment and humiliation he is to undergo, without recourse.

Taking place almost entirely in one darkened flat, between a man sat in an armchair and the TV screen, de Heer's chamber piece uses all the tricks of the trade to cut Steve off, step by step, from the outside world. The locks have been changed, the phone lines have been cut, the lights are disconnected and battery of his mobile phone replaced by a bullet. There is nothing for Steve to do but return time and again to the tape.

The claustrophobic feeling is effectively enhanced by the sets and the darkened lights create an adequately sinister mood. Acting is never less than solid and in Bonay's case superlative. The only problem is de Heer's pacing, mostly in the second act, when Steve's every fit of impotent frustration is accompanied by his turning the tape off, pacing angrily through the flat and then returning to it, breaking the intensity of the scene and prolonging proceedings. De Heer, to his credit, does not take sides and keeps his distance. But distance is not always good for drama.

Prod: Fandango Australia
Aust dist: Palace
Int'l sales: Wild Bunch
Prod: Julie Ryan, Domenico Procacci, Rolf de Heer
Scr: de Heer
Cinematography: Ian Jones
Ed: Tani Nehme
Prod des: Ian Jobson, Phil Macpherson
Music: Graham Tardif
Sound: Andrew Plain, Nada Mikas
Cast: Gary Sweet, Helen Buday, Bogdan Koca