Like Milk for Chocolate
Whether or not you enjoy The Price of Milk is largely dependent on your reaction to the following running gag: stricken by an unbearable case of agoraphobia, the protagonists’ dog, Nigel, spends the bulk of the film ambling around while hidden under a cardboard box. Or maybe it depends on how you see this joke: while in their bathtub heated by hot coals, lovers Rob (Karl Urban) and Lucinda (Danielle Cormack) polish off the last of their supper—then proceed to wash the dishes off in the bath water. It’s that kind of film.
The sophomore effort by New Zealand writer-director Harry Sinclair, The Price of Milk is likely to charm the majority of its intended audience—the romantically inclined, fantasy-loving art house crowd. But in spite of its unpredictable charms and lush cinematography, the film remains a cloying fairy tale with ideals straight out of the 1950s. Rob is a dairy farmer, a lovable dufus who greets each of his 117 cows by its number, while Lucinda tends to the housework. Sure, their shack is falling apart, but the worst of their struggles is the nightly battle for possession of their patchwork quilt. It’s not just any quilt. It’s a symbol… of what, I’m not entirely sure. Fidelity? The comforts of home? A director’s inability to censor his own whimsies?
Regardless, two things are certain. First, the specter of commitment looms heavy over these unmarried lovers as they toss and turn in their bed each night. Second, Rob and Lucinda are not the only ones fighting over the quilt. This is where things turn really weird. The morning after Rob proposes to Lucinda, she’s admiring her ring while driving and accidentally runs down an old woman in the middle of the road. Remarkably, the woman is unscathed and heads into the brush, hissing ominous words of advice: “Keep warm.” Soon afterwards, the quilt is stolen by a wily band of golfers (yes, you read that right) for their perpetually cold Auntie (Rangi Motu)... who bears a striking resemblance to the old woman in the road.
Auntie’s appearance marks the beginning of the couple’s real struggle. As is the rule in romantic comedy, their love must be tested. After all, they have settled into that comfortable stage where Rob is more concerned about a worrisome moo from his herd than discussing his and Lucinda’s relationship. While Rob becomes complacent, Lucinda starts to panic; presumably burdened by her impending wifely duties, she finds kitchen utensils tangled in her hair. Has the proverbial spark gone out? Lucinda’s best friend Drosophila (Willa O’Neil) would have her believe so. Influenced by the nagging doubts that Drosophila has planted in her mind, Lucinda sets out to sabotage—er, test—her relationship with Rob. First, she tries picking a fight, but they just end up having make-up sex. Then she contaminates a vat of milk by swimming in it, but Rob quickly forgives her and dives in. Finally, she concocts the ultimate trial: she will trade Rob’s beloved herd of cows for their missing quilt. Needless to say, this last act is a bit harder for him to swallow.
What follows is a standard break-up/betrayal/reunion plot, alternating between quirkiness and heavy-handed symbolism. For instance, when we discover early on that Lucinda collects baby shoes (and then hides them from Rob in a suitcase), she claims that it’s just because she likes them. Naturally, there’s more to it than that. But the film is not interested in exploring the serious issues of trust and motherhood that it raises, settling instead for a simplistic treatment of her fears and desires. In short, gendered behavior in The Price of Milk is stereotypical, and none of the female characters are remotely sympathetic. Who would you root for: the insecure lover, willing to trade her fiance’s livelihood for her own piece of mind; the jealous and manipulative best friend; or Auntie, the greedy old woman who encourages her nephews to steal from her neighbors? Admittedly, the male characters are equally one-dimensional (Rob is not exactly the brightest bulb), but at least they are forgiving, light-hearted, and kind.
In addition, the film suffers from Sinclair’s artistic method of scriptless improvisation, meandering from one contrivance to the next. Urban and Cormack do their best to act their way through a story that requires little more than surprised reaction shots (lots of gaping mouths and expressions of bug-eyed wonder). While there are certainly moments of delight along the way, ultimately the film doesn’t add up to much. Okay, perhaps I’m being a bit hard on a light romantic comedy that doesn’t even pretend to be realistic. But as a fairy tale with a clearly moralistic center, the film opens itself up to such concerns. One moment it is overly precious, offering fanciful images reminiscent of magical realism; the next moment, it espouses the importance of honesty and trust in modern-day relationships.
Who knows? Maybe I just didn’t like the dog.