At Flavorwire, we often pay attention to the new, but we make sure to do so not at the expense of what’s come before it. In “Seminal,” a bi-weekly column, we examine earlier, under-acknowledged exemplars of dramatic mastery from revered actors’ careers — moments that should be described as, dare I say, seminal. This week, it’s the regal Cate Blanchett’s extraordinary work in an Australian cookie commercial.
Can we look past the neocolonial, commodified Orientalist underpinnings of an old piece of art that, beyond its more irredeemable connotations, bears one of the most towering performances of the 20th century, one that’d launch the career of one of the most infinite talents in contemporary cinema? If your answer is a staunch “No,” along the lines of “Can pigs fly?”, well, my retort is, yes, they can, if you put enough hot air in a balloon, then attach the pig to it. So, allow my hot air to elevate your pig, if you will. Join me as I pay homage to Cate Blanchett’s performance in this commercial short arthouse film about a little something called a Tim Tam — which, for you non-Aussies, is a multilayered delight: a biscuit both stuffed with and varnished in chocolate. [They are fucking great — Australian Ed.]
Though the short arthouse film may be brief, its plot isn’t as simple as you might think, and the complexities that Blanchett layers on to her character suggest multitudes extending beyond what’s shown; the performance is not an easy watch, and it will haunt you for days. The story follows an unnamed woman (Blanchett), mysteriously rummaging through an old attic with an unnamed man (note the comparative lack of nuance in his performance, and note that this actor would not go on to become one of the most acclaimed actors of the era). The implication is that she and her husband (or is he? The fact that this question is never answered, that they could in fact be cohabiting prenuptially hints the short arthouse film’s quiet radicalism — of course, barring its appropriative insensitivities) are desperate, destitute squatters, in a home where the former tenant has left some crucial relics behind. It becomes clear that the unnamed couple is burdened by secrets: one secret that goes unspoken, but can easily be deduced, is that the unnamed woman hasn’t had a cookie — or, in the Australian tongue, “biscuit” (cute!) — in days. Here, in a moment of respite with her partner, she munches on Tim Tams, and it makes her feel rewarded and safe from the overarching misery of her world. (It’s never expressly stated, but Blanchett makes it clear that her father, who never accepted her sinful life of premarital fornication, recently died of botulism, leaving a nagging, inextinguishable question of “what if?”).
They discover an old lamp, out of which a bejeweled genie pops, bemoaning how he’s spent the past 3,000 years in isolation, in a scene that’d be riveting and vital to this day if he weren’t played by a white Australian actor. Of course, the (colonial-connotative) genie’s not ecstatic about doing the bidding of those who’ll only exploit his powers and send him back to isolation, but he proceeds apathetically out of necessity, granting the couple three wishes. The unnamed woman barely considers: she’s been through the emotional ringer. She’s had such bad luck and been so deprived by the possibilities of life that she’s become necessarily shortsighted in her goals. And the Tim Tams she’s been enjoying in her first moment of solace in days are gone.
Through the tumultuous time she’s been had, there’s hardly been a moment to sneak a nibble at the old biscuit, and now that she has, her supply is already expended, not unlike the life-force within father, from the botulism. So when she makes a wish, she asks for a box of Tim Tams that never runs out. Of course, what she’s really craving is an answer to the unanswerable: why must human life — that baffling biscuit of organs and muscle covered in the creamy shell of skin — run out? Sitting in this room full of the ghosts of another person’s life, she’s keenly aware of her and her partner’s vulnerability to time.
It is poignant, it is futile, and Blanchett masters this tragic balancing act with acuity. The way Blanchett’s face lights up when the genie tells her she has three wishes, and as she realizes the depth of her desire for an inextinguishable Tim Tam supply, underscores the sad reality that no matter how many culturally problematic genies you have, life is fleeting. What potent, sad implications lie in the fact that she cannot even fathom asking for immortality, but instead projects this subconscious longing onto the snack? Blanchett’s hypnotic, salivatingly focused delivery of the words — still buzzing in my mind like a hymn — “a packet of Tim Tams that never runs out” — is layered atop the image of chocolate oozing onto the innards of the Tim Tam and coating it in its love. This is yet another hint at the desire to be shielded by immortality, as the inner biscuit is shielded by chocolate, and that wouldn’t be clear without Blanchett’s ability to use her voice to tersely deliver universal truths.
When she bites into the Tim Tam, there’s a sense of excitement to be alive that rushes to her face. The genie reminds her that she has three more wishes, and the useless actor playing her husband says, “We’ll have two more of those, then.”
You see, it’s not really biscuits that they hunger for, and as we exit the short arthouse film, speechless and dizzied (but also tense and critical about the connotations of the white genie revisionism) there’s a lingering notion that they’ll be forever hungry. These biscuits, delectably malted though they may be, are all the couple is left with, and we, the audience, are left with a paradox: this couple will be physically full, but they will be starved by the inherent callousness of human life.
Blanchett may have gone on to star in the likes of Blue Jasmine and Carol, but it’s doubtful any of that would have been possible if it weren’t for this Tim Tams commercial: would she have been able to express the simultaneous material wealth and emotional destitution of Jasmine without her role as the cookie-stuffed life-starved Unnamed Woman? Would she have been able to cast such an electric, longing gaze at Rooney Mara if she had not first done so with a gilded biscuit? Whatever she goes on to do next, it’s certain you’ll be able to find a crumb from this performative cookie nestled in its nooks.