Martin (Hugo Weaving) has been blind his entire life. He also happens to be an avid photographer. His meticulous snapshots, though seemingly random to a partial observer, actually supply the framework that defines his world. With descriptive summaries typed in Braille stuck to their undersides, the photographs are categorical ‘proof’ that Martin existed in a time and place, each with its own memory attached. In Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof, a masterful exploration of friendship, trust and the reliance we have in our senses to confirm what’s real, we soon learn how Martin’s misgivings about his mother (Heather Mitchell) tainted his reduced perception of the world, threatening to forever poison his interactions with others. Her daily description of the view from his window was a ritual he would scrutinise with questions to catch her in a lie. Though we never see the view, we believe absolutely in Martin’s assertions of fabricated minor details which imply a cruelty he’s never forgotten.
As an adult he retreats into a place of solitude where as little harm as possible can encroach upon his privacy. His only significant relationship is with Celia (Genevieve Picot), his housekeeper of more than three years, with whom he shares a strangely antagonistic relationship. The two act like adversaries who can barely stand the other’s presence, but there’s a deep-rooted psychological cause inciting this peculiar behaviour. Martin senses that Celia has a sexual attraction to him but by treating her with reckless indifference he maintains a sense of dominance over her that enables him to pity the weakness of her need. By giving in he imagines the flow of pity would be reversed, causing him to relinquish his tenuous psychological hold. Then a dishwasher at a local restaurant Martin frequents, Andy (Russell Crowe), enters his life, becoming an unlikely friend after Martin accidentally kills a feline scavenger Andy feeds in the adjoining alleyway. Andy helps Martin to lower his guard, describing and labeling his photographs, bringing order to chaos, but with a promise that he must never lie about what he sees in the snapshots.
There are so many interesting aspects to Proof, a multi-faceted drama which gradually evolves into an unconventional love triangle of sorts. Foremost is Martin’s steadfast need for truth in a world heightened by the senses he still possesses. He’s determined to uphold a standard those around him ultimately fail to match. Without the sight to delineate the subtle differences between what is seen and what is observed, any lie takes the form of a direct betrayal. Brief flashbacks to Martin’s childhood prove to be useful signposts to his fragile status. He remained at the mercy of his mother, the guiding hand leading him through the dark void of his formative years, ravaged by festering suspicions of being deceived. It becomes clear that beneath the adult façade of deliberate malice is the sadness of a boy whose suspicions even extended to a belief that his mother faked her own death to avoid responsibility of a son she secretly despised and lied to “because she could”.
Despite the underlying seriousness, the film is filled with blackly hilarious moments, especially as Martin and Andy’s relationship develops. There’s Martin’s ploy to get catch the eye of an inattentive waitress who seems more blind than he is; the sight of Martin and Andy, each in turn, cradling the dead cat in a vet’s office as a group of strangers look on in wide-eyed astonishment - before posing for photos! Best of all is their escapade at a drive-in which culminates in Martin ramming the rear-end of a police cruiser after a suspicious-looking exploration of the confines of Andy’s car draws the undue attention of some foul-mouthed lowlifes, necessitating a hasty getaway.
As the dynamics of the trio’s relationships become more complex, avenues of exploitation are opened up. Celia uses Andy as a pawn to take him down a few notches in Martin’s estimation, to expose him as being as vulnerable to temptation as any man. It’s an intrinsically warped game she plays with Martin’s weak spots. Wavering between the petty cruelty of discreetly placing objects in Martin’s path, to exposing him to classical music at a concert plunging his senses into something wondrous and new, Celia is hard to fathom initially. A startling glimpse at the interior of her home tips the scales however, causing us to look at her in a new light. Is she just a demented stalker closing in on her prey? Fortunately, Moorhouse’s dazzling original screenplay has the gift of subtlety shaping it all the way, with intriguing grey areas continually subverting our expectations.
There’s a single line of dialogue - Andy expressing his feelings for Celia - that stands out in stark incongruity against the grounded reality of the rest of the film, but it can’t blight what is ultimately a sensitive, painfully real film. Martin proves to be a fascinating creation, reflecting all the multi-layered ambiguities of Moorhouse’s film. Weaving skillfully evokes empathy in his convincing portrayal of a blind man, even though Martin’s moments of harsh reproach can be alienating. Crowe’s natural charisma provides a perfect counterbalance; only a fool would have guessed at anything but fame for the young actor after watching him shine in this. Picot is wonderfully cool as the slightly sinister Celia, her remoteness hiding vulnerabilities more damaging than any of the many neuroses that thrive in Martin’s wounded psyche. Though she’s ultimately a pitiful creature, she’s as sympathetic as he in a peculiar way.
Whose recollection of events or version of reality is more legitimate and to what end can they be manipulated? The one Andy sees or the one Martin senses? The answer may be what ultimately places a wedge between all three or draws them closer together. The answer may seem a matter of simple deduction but Moorhouse’s film, which hasn’t aged at all, is far more complex than that and, abstaining from any conventional sort of resolution, winds down to a couple of tiny but perfectly formed moments of poignant wonder. Finally, beyond the bitterness and self-pity, Martin is able to acknowledge that the most valuable proof of a past he doubted is confirmation of the truth itself, through the eyes of a third party and uncontaminated by the prejudices of the sad little boy he once was.