I am always on the lookout for adorable, eccentric protagonists. Two compatible weirdos whom the world does not understand. And there’s nobody that fits the bill better than Oscar & Lucinda. This quirky Australian film, based on a novel by the same name, follows the lives of two compulsive (or obsessive?) gamblers who meet and fall in love, but a twist of misfortune keeps them apart.
They are both social outcasts due to their eccentricities.
Oscar is a gangly young man of obsessive behaviors, who enjoys categorizing his dead mother’s button collection by color, size, and pattern, for fun. His autistic behavior earns the scorn of the boys at the college, but a man wanders into his rooms by accident, and introduces him to his lifelong obsession with gambling. Oscar is studying to become a minister, and feels torn between his obsessive gambling addiction, and his need to be above moral reproach. He will bet on anything from cock fights to the horse track, and then stuff everything he wins but doesn’t need into the poor box at the local church. He has a pathological fear of water and of drowning, since a childhood incident in which he saw his father cast his mother’s clothes out to sea after her death. “The sea,” the narrator tells us, “became forever entwined with death for Oscar.”
Oscar has rationalized away his addiction with the belief God cannot “look down upon a poor chap wagering a few quid on the outcome of a race,” because God asks us to “wager our immortal soul on His existence. We bet that He exists, and we risk everything!” But once he “plays for pleasure,” he becomes so wrenched with guilt, he suffers a nervous breakdown. Eventually, his addiction turns him into a social outcast, and he swears off gambling ever again.
Lucinda has not his hesitation over gambling; she quite happily is compulsive about it, and admits to even setting up a card game on a sea voyage to “trap the steward into playing, since I know him to like cards.” Instead, she plays with Oscar when he comes to take her confession. She too has strange behaviors, and a love of categorizing things… she arranges her glass collection meticulously according to her own system and doesn’t want her maid to clear any of it away. She’s obsessed with glass, and purchases a glass works on impulse, out of a desire to relive the experience she had as a child in which she smashed a Prince Rupert’s Drop. It burst into an explosion of color and sound, and she regrets that she could not keep the lovely thing. An heiress, the narrator tells us that Lucinda seems oblivious to the fact that every gamble was “one less brick in the foundation of her fortune.”
The pair of them are undeniably flawed but utterly adorable—one scene of them playfully challenging each other to a scrubbing game to see who can win first is delightful. “Cute,” as my mother put it. Lucinda is a free spirit. She wears her hair in uncontrolled curls and short skirts over trousers, in a daring challenge of the conventional Victorian dress code of the time. Oscar, meanwhile, looks like he just rolled out of bed. His “togs” (clothes) are tattered, since he keeps no money for himself beyond what he needs to pay his rent. He is scrupulous in his moral code, Lucinda isn’t above deceit.
But they don’t wind up together, and the narrator, Oscar’s grandson, doesn’t let us in on that fact until the very end, when a tragic turn of events takes the life of one of them, in a way both beautiful and awful. In a sense, the writer is paralleling the ‘trap’ they have made for themselves, through a lack of communication (had they admitted their feelings for each other, one of them would never have taken a journey that ended terribly) and by the wager that costs one of them their life. It’s as if the author is reminding us that there are consequences, awful ones, to living as ‘recklessly’ as these two people, who are willing to stake their lives on the outcome of a bet.
The movie is often hard to watch, not just because of the ending, but because of the lost innocence each encounters along the way. They are somewhat idealistic, but often butt up against the harshness of a cruel world and its realities. The sweet, delicate Oscar witnesses terrible atrocities that he cannot stop, and even commits one such act in a desperate attempt to protect himself. Lucinda’s fear of allowing people to get too close to her makes her admit that she cannot let anyone be just a “simple, good chap. I criticize too much.” The story also revolves around faith, and the lack thereof or how it shapes people’s lives, since her reverend friend is sent away by the Church to “preach things you do not believe, to people who will not care,” for associating with Lucinda. Oscar grapples continually with his faith, his desire to be above moral reproach, and in a sad way, that is what condemns one of them to death. In the very way they feared all along, no less. It’s a sadistic twist, and I wish the story could end any other way.
I wanted them to have their happy ending. To come together and be strange together. To battle against their addictions together, to run the glass works together, to have a cute little romance without a tragedy… but alas, that is not how the story flows. Loss makes their relationship all the more bittersweet, because it contains echoes of what “could have been…” had Fate, or the story’s author, been more kind.
I wrote this post in participation of The Unhappy Valentines Blog-A-Thon. Please click the link for more entries.