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The Plumber (1979) opens, as you might imagine a tale of plumbing would, in a shower where a man bathes to ominous organ music. Thus begins the kinky, disconcerting psychological thriller, black comedy and made-for-TV movie from Australian director Peter Weir.
A pair of cerebral anthropologists and academics living in university housing, Jill (Judy Morris) and Brian Cowper (Robert Coleby) are hard at work on their studies. Jill has agreed to keep the couple's home and be the housewife for a time as her husband more aggressively pursues his career. Brian has been contacted by Geneva's World Health Organization about a prestigious posting and Jill is finishing her thesis on the rituals of a Guinean tribe. The couple are the picture of p.c. liberalism, with their yoga classes, curry dinners and African masks decorating the apartment. Although their greatest fear just might be...the working class.
Disaster enters their lives one morning after Brian has left for work in the form of Max (Ivar Kants), a torn jeans wearing, rock music blasting, mop-topped plumber with a sunset painted on the side of his van; he claims to be fixing a problem with their plumbing. Mephistopheles with a plunger, Max quickly turns Jill's life asunder. He destroys her bathroom, chipping away at the tile and installing a crazy, visible circuit of pipes that snake their way around the bathroom like swords plunged in a magician's box. Max also can't stop interfering in Jill's life, interrupting her studies, scrounging for lunch, playing music and making insinuating threats. Jill is trapped, left alone each day in the desolate high rise with a man who seems to be deranged. Jill begins to suspect that he may not even be a plumber at all.
An increasing dramatic--and sexual--tension begins to arise between the pair, as well as a sort of game of one-upmanship. Max jokes with Jill that he was in prison, "for rape," comments on evidence of Brian's hair loss and attributes his own lush locks to "hormones." Jill's pleas for her husband's help are to no avail. He is consumed by work and tends to shrug off his wife's fears. Another status-conscious faculty wife Meg (Candy Raymond) is similarly oblivious to the threat Max poses, and clearly even sees the plumber as sexually attractive.
Similar to Michael Haneke's concept of two invading teenagers in Funny Games (1997) who simply won't go away, The Plumber is a skin-crawling examination of the quiet subterranean struggle for power that can unfold between two people. Deeply tolerant of Third World African cultures, Jill can't even relate to this working class Australian man who shares her own culture. By the same token, Max has a chip on his shoulder as a mere "tradesman" who never advanced very far in his studies and has dreams of becoming a folk singer. He is both intimidated and resentful of Jill's superior education and intellect. "Some people treat you like a mere peasant," he complains of some of the homes he enters. In some ways his invasion of their home is an attack on their values. "You people come and go in these units but not me," says Max, affirming his bitterness toward the occupants whose plumbing he "fixes."
Socially relevant and intellectually clever, among its many ideas, The Plumber is about class tension and how both the working class fear and despise the intellectual class while the latter fears and despises the working class. Max's assault on their bathroom is loaded with significance too. He invades a place associated with privacy, modesty, and also with the kind of daily habits not generally discussed in polite conversation, thereby striking the couple at its core.
The Plumber was shot in just three weeks and was reportedly inspired by a real-life experience told to Weir by his friends. Judy Morris, who bears a slight resemblance to Julie Christie and shares some of that actress's sense of vulnerability, gives a compelling performance as a woman beginning to feel more and more isolated as her husband and friend ignore her cries for help. A parallel tension develops between Brian who is often condescending and dismissive of his wife and Jill, who might be regretting her decision to play the role of a passive, stay-at-home housewife. In what one can't help but read in 1979 as the playing out of a feminist anxiety, Brian clearly views Jill not as a full partner and equal, but as someone who can enable him to rise in his career, as when he invites three of the visiting World Health Organization doctors to their apartment hoping to impress them with his wife's curry.
Janet Maslin, reviewing in The New York Times called The Plumber "a droll, claustrophobic work of absurdist humor," that illustrated the Australian New Wave director's versatility in films such as Gallipoli (1981) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). A director whose career has spanned iconoclastic sleepers like The Last Wave (1977) and major Hollywood blockbusters like his first American film Witness (1985), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), this creepy gem from Peter Weir shows the auteur in top form even early in the game.
Producer: Matt Carroll
Director: Peter Weir
Screenplay: Peter Weir
Cinematography: David Sanderson
Art Direction: Ken James, Herbert Pinter
Music: Rory O'Donoghue, Gerry Tolland
Film Editing: G. Turney-Smith
Cast: Judy Morris (Jill Cowper), Ivar Kants (Max, the plumber), Robert Coleby (Brian Cowper), Candy Raymond (Meg), Henri Szeps (David Medavoy), Yomi Abiodun (Dr. Matu), Beverley Roberts (Dr. Japari), Bruce Rosen (Dr. Don Felder), Daphne Grey (Caretaker's wife), Mémé Thorne (Anna).
by Felicia Feaster