Take a Chance on…Priscilla: Plotlines in THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT
16 June 2013
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), written and directed by Stephan Elliott, has an interesting narrative structure in that its subplots often take center stage over its main plotline. Presumably, the main plot of the film is Tick’s belated journey into fatherhood. After six years he finally takes his “walkabout” (of sorts) into parenthood, symbolically represented by his pilgrimage across Australian terrain, in bus named Pricilla, to Alice Springs, where his son awaits him. This must be the main plot of the film because it is ambiguously introduced in the beginning, creates the action that moves the narrative along, and is the plotline that’s resolution concludes the film; however, many subplots are introduced during this “walkabout,” and one in particular stands out because, arguably, it is handled with more cinematic care than any other plotline in the film.
One theme the film highlights is the need for judgment-free loyalty and support, particularly for people embracing lives which lack conventionality, and a subplot the film spotlights to capture this theme is the growing bond between Bernadette (Terrance Stamp), Tick (Hugo Weaving), and Adam (Guy Pearce). These three characters are very different from one another, and, because of their differences, they bicker with one another repeatedly throughout the film, yet they have one very important thing in common: they are outsiders. Because of their sexual orientations and lifestyles (which vary among the three), these characters are isolated from society.
In their subplot, which traces their literal and figurative trek through the wilderness, the film suggests their isolation from society puts each one of these characters in a dangerous position; the position to be trampled by the norm they cannot acclimate into and therefore crushed by the society that pushed them out. Their only shield from the danger is one another. The bond that develops between the three is necessary for each one’s survival, or so the film proposes. Friendship and camaraderie amongst outsiders is survival in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and the film literalizes this statement when this subplot reaches its climax, roughly three-quarters of the way through the film. Moreover, the cinematic care in which this subplot’s climax is handled suggest just how significant it is to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The climax of this subplot is one of the most memorable scenes in the film. This climax comes in the form of a conflict between Adam and several burly men he offends. One night, while Bernadette and Tick are having dinner in a local restaurant, Adam, who is experimenting with drugs, wanders down to an industrial park, where several men are standing around drinking. Adam attempts to illicit sexual attention from the crowd. Initially the men are interested, and one man even begins a flirtatious conversation with Adam, assuming this he is actually a she because of Adam’s cross-dressed garb. However, this man quickly notices Adam’s masculine arms and realizes Adam’s true sex. Chaos erupts as Adam flees from the angered mob, who chase him, seeking revenge. Eventually, Adam runs passed the restaurant Bernadette and Tick are dining in, and the pair see him through a window. Alerted to their friend’s peril, Bernadette swoops in and intervenes, saving Adam from any physical harm.
While it may sound as though this scene is memorable for its dramatic action, the real reason this scene is so remarkable is because of the cinematic devices at work, namely the cross-cutting. This is the only scene in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert that is cross-cut, meaning simultaneous action is being captured; the film cuts back and forth between Adam and the mob of men and Bernadette and Tick in the restaurant. The cross-cut works for this scene because it creates tension. Through cross-cutting, as with any cutting, that scene’s pace increases, which communicates anxiety. Also, a cross-cut typically asks the audience to piece together two respective actions working toward each other. The audience does not know how Bernadette and Tick’s dinner with connect with Adam’s interaction with the men in the industrial park, but they cross-cutting suggests the two actions will meet or are connected. This suggestion peaks curiosity, as well as tension in the scene.
Moreover, connected to the cross-cutting is the scene’s lighting. Because the nighttime scene jumps between a restaurant and industrial park, two different lighting designs are juxtaposed, which helps add even more tension to the scene. The restaurant is bright and colorful; it feels safe. Conversely, the cuts to Adam show a low-key lighting, full of shadows for danger to hide in. Clearly, the lighting encompassing Adam is menacing and threatening, suggesting his is in peril.
Also, and still connected to the cross-cutting and how well it juxtaposes, the setting of each action contributes to the tension. In the restaurant Bernadette and Tick talk intimately about their past; figuratively speaking, they are feed by their exchange. Set in a restaurant, their portion of this scene is nourishing. Moreover, they are together, seated in front of a large picture window. They are on the inside, and, therefore, are protected. In opposition, Adam is alone amid a group of strangers. He is outside. He is in an industrial park full of metal, machinery, and strewn tires. This is an unsafe environment. Cross-cutting between these two setting builds more tension. Sure, the industrial park at night would always be a scary and unsafe place, but jumping into a well-lit, cozy restaurant from time to time heightens the audience’s awareness of just how unsafe Adam’s actually is.
Lastly, an earlier scene also connects with this climax. Toward the beginning of the film, Adam leaves Priscilla on the first night to cook some dinner outside. Bernadette and Tick lock him out of the bus. Adam pulls every antic he knows to get back onboard; he sings and even bangs on the bus in an effort to gain readmittance. Yet, Bernadette and Tick turn the lights off, presumably leaving Adam outside for the night. This scene is comic relief, almost as though the young blood (Adam) is being initiated into a club by the older and wiser members (Bernadette and Tick). However, early on we have Adam alone, outside at night and Bernadette and Tick safely inside. Although comedic, there is a suggestion, if not complete foreshadowing of similar danger to come. Retrospectively, this scene is a visual echo of the conflict Adam finds himself in with the burly mob at the industrial park.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is film with many plotlines running through it, and the film takes time with each one of them because, in some ways, they film is a web and all these plotlines are interconnected and interdependent. Nevertheless, not all subplots are handled with as much cinematic care as the aforementioned, suggesting how significant this developing bond between Bernadette, Tick, and Adam is to Priscilla, supporting the theme of friendship, particularly for amid outsiders. In the end, Tick unites with his son and gains the confidence to be a father, which was, presumably, the film’s main plotline; however, by the end the film is not Tick’s story; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the story of three outsiders who built a bond which ultimately saved them because this is the plotline the film successfully employs the strongest use of cinematic devices to communicate with.