The Set follows the coming of age of an Australian artist. He romances a nice woman and a cruel man. Both relationships are diluted by a sprawling screenplay filled with underwritten characters and subplots. The melodrama, camp and copious nudity give it the feel of a Valley of the Dolls style exploitation flick. But the judgement free look at bisexuality earns it a spot in queer film history.
Curious? You can stream the film here or read my spoiler filled recap.
Content warning: The film contains domestic abuse, sexual assault, self-harm and aggressive jazz.
Act One: Starving Artist
Scene One: A Beach
(PAUL, a starving artist, watches TONY, a hunky architect, give mouth to mouth to a half-drowned woman. Later PAUL frolics naked with his girlfriend CARA.)
PAUL: My father wants me to work in the ship yard but I want to be an artist!
CARA: Well my father’s sending me to Italy. He found some letters from my ex-girlfriend.
PAUL: You’re bisexual!? I’m shocked and appalled!
Scene Two: A Society Party
MARIE (a mature designer): I got you a job designing a set for a musical comedy.
PAUL: Great! (Paul dances with young women.)
MARIE (drunk): HEY! I said I got you the job! Come home and make love to me!
PAUL: Fix your eyelashes mother.
(MARIE leaves in a rage and has a fatal car accident.)
Scene Three: A Gay Party
DRAG QUEEN: There, there Paul. We all miss her.
PAUL: You’re a man!? I’m shocked and appalled!
RICH GAY: Calm down. We’re all men here.
DRAG QUEEN: “Careful Red Riding Hood. The wolf is after your basket.”
(That’s my favorite line in the film but PAUL doesn’t understand the warning. RICH GAY slips PAUL a roofie. PAUL wakes up in RICH GAY’s bed.)
PAUL: Let’s never speak of this again.
Act Two: Domestic Bliss
Scene Four: Paul’s Studio
PAUL: I need an architect to help build my set model. It pays well.
TONY (an architect): I DON’T NEED YOU! I’m rich and hot and every woman wants me!
(TONY sleeps with TWO WOMEN.)
TWO WOMEN: You’re terrible at this. Go find a rubber doll.
(PAUL tries to give TONY a hand job. TONY slaps him away.)
PAUL: Tony I love you!
TONY: When did that happen? We didn’t develop this relationship at all.
(TONY has sex with PAUL.)
Scene Five: Paul’s Apartment
(PAUL and TONY have been living together a few weeks.)
PAUL: Here’s your first paycheck darling!
(TONY tears up the paycheck.)
TONY: I DON’T NEED YOUR MONEY! Your designs are crap. All your ideas were stolen from Marie.
PAUL: Why are you constantly negging me?
TONY: Toxic masculinity mixed with internalized homophobia. I’m leaving you for a woman.
(TONY leaves. PAUL overdoses on pills.)
TONY: I’m back. You took pills? You loser!
(TONY drinks a beer and stares at PAUL for a long time. Paul’s BOSS enters.)
BOSS: Why didn’t you answer my calls? A famous Director is coming to see your set. OH NO! I’LL CALL AN AMBULANCE!
(One hospital visit and some comedy subplots later we get…)
Act Three: That’s Show Biz
Scene Six: Pool Party
(Everyone oohs and ahs at the set model.)
DIRECTOR: I love your set darling! Meet my secretary.
CARA: Paul!? How I’ve missed you. (PAUL and CARA make out.)
TONY: Stop that! He’s mine! I’ve had him! Lots of men have had him!
CARA: Paul’s bisexual!?…… Meh.
(TONY leaves in a huff. The DIRECTOR pushes the party guests into the swimming pool. Everybody dances in the pool while PAUL and CARA make out.)
A critic’s search for the worst film ever made has ended. It’s called ‘The Set’, now showing at Trak Cinema. ~ Colin Bennett, The Age
It’s not the worst film ever. Merely amateurish. Author Roger Ward gave several interviews in 2011 when the film was re-released. He’d adapted his 1950’s journals into a novel in the 1960’s. No publisher would touch it. Frank Brittain agreed to produce a film adaptation in 1970 but multiple writers and actor ad libs clouded an already scattered script.
What do we take away from the film in 2020? Paul gets a happy ending but Marie is gone and Tony’s a train wreck. No one judges Paul for his sexuality, yet the men he sleeps with are predatory and abusive. We don’t learn much about Cara. Is the film favoring her by default because she’s a woman? A comedy subplot for Paul’s aunt sees her bed an aging stud but return to her mousy husband. Is the message of the film ultimately conservative? The author says no. Underneath the pain there’s a love letter to sexual freedom. It may look different now but in 1970 it was “a release, an opening of a door to lead a liberated life.”
What’s your favorite film about 50’s and 60’s counter culture? Is Paul a positive example of bi representation for 1970? For 2020? Will you give this film a watch? For more reviews of LGBT Media click here.