Celia: the left-wing melancholia of Australia’s forgotten Marxist masterpiece

Ann Turner’s poignant, eerie Cold War coming-of-age film Celia (1989) captures a period in Australian history that is glaringly absent from the national collective memory.

Turner was inspired to write and direct her semi-autobiographical film when she discovered that a childhood friend’s father had to leave Victoria in the 1950s because he was a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and blacklisted from employment during Menzies’ Red Scare. The film’s nine-year-old protagonist Celia (Rebecca Smart) is witness to similar intimidation when her kindly communist neighbours and friends, the Tanner family, are forced to relocate from their suburban Melbourne home.

Whether you were actively involved in a political party or simply listened to the radio, the 1950s were far from a decade of bland suburban contentment as the Cold War struggle against communism bled into the fabric of everyday life. This lays the groundwork for Celia’s prescient intervention into the unfounded but enduring myth that Australia is a uniquely liberal and democratically-minded society. We shouldn’t forget that the 1951 Referendum to outlaw the Communist Party, and allow the unelected Governor-General to declare any person a communist, was approved by 49.44% of Australians. Within the film, conservative Premier Henry Bolte’s rabbit muster signifies the socialist witch hunts of the 1950s which—although they did not reach the heights of McCarthyism in the US—impacted every Australian.

Difficult to market due to its political content and early Peter Weir-esque tonal shifts—oscillating between documentary naturalism, horror and the fantastique—it is now internationally regarded as an important precursor to film’s which explore political horrors through the lens of childhood, including Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Yet, despite the singularity of Turner’s artistic voice, equalling the critically acclaimed films about childhood The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut) and Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky), Celia remains criminally forgotten at home.

 Left-wing melancholia

Celia was made during a unique and painful historical juncture for the left, and captured the post-Cold War mood of left-wing melancholia. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 not only symbolised the end of the Cold War, but also marked the definitive end of the short twentieth century as an era of unmatched utopian belief in the future and its unimaginable improvements on the present.

If the Cold War provided the scaffolding that framed the political actions of states and individuals, leftists who made the transition into a post-Cold War world described feeling ‘out of kilter’, of inhabiting a temporality that no longer fitted the time and context in which they now found themselves. Rather than a teleologically guaranteed final victory, nobody could honestly pretend that socialism represented the future. Or, as Enzo Traverso puts it, the ‘spectres’ that Marx described no longer announced a socialist presence to come, but the ghosts of defeated revolutions in the past. This metaphor is made literal in Celia, with Celia’s dead communist grandmother appearing periodically throughout the film as a ghost.

The concept of left-wing melancholia is drawn from Freud’s seminal 1917 essay on mourning and melancholia. If mourning is the painful but necessary withdrawal of libido from the lost love object—whether a person or an abstract ideal—melancholia is for Freud the pathological inability to bring that loss into the conscious mind. The libido remains narcissistically invested in the lost love object. This self-torment and misery is, without doubt, enjoyable for the pathological melancholic, who feels little motivation to move on from their loss. Accordingly, the ‘left melancholy’ is used as a pejorative by Wendy Brown, who uses it to describe the revolutionary hack who loves their analyses and convictions more than their desire to actually change the world. For Brown, this sentiment is conservative and backward-looking in its enjoyment of the left’s impossibility, marginality, and failure.

However, if we take up Traverso’s suggestion to ‘depathologise’ melancholia, this emerges as a project which is steadfast in its refusal to let go of the ‘dead object’ of socialism so that it can be redeemed as a political project.

This does not mean a nostalgia for real socialism, Stalinism, or any other specific regime. Rather, the lost object is the potentialities of socialism, and a fidelity to its emancipatory promises: socialism as it was dreamed, not necessarily as it was realised. With Traverso’s utopian view of left-wing melancholia, Celia’s radicality as a text can be understood.


The return of the (communist) repressed

Socialism is partly represented in Turner’s film as a project in (and of) the past. Its 1950s setting almost has a tragic effect, given the audience is now aware that this was the last decade in Australia where communists played anything close to resembling an influential social force. (Although, and this should go without saying, they never achieved the conspiratorial institutional hegemony alleged by opportunists like Menzies or the perpetually ‘five minutes to midnight’ BA Santamaria). However, in Celia’s refusal to let go of her communist grandmother, these undead memories of socialism can be revived and redeemed in the present because children are one of the key sites in which the ‘return of the repressed’ is materialised.

In his  influential essay on horror film, Robin Wood argues that all civilisations require some level of repression. Basic repression makes us distinctively human, capable of directing our lives and coexisting with others. It is ‘surplus’ repression that specifically turns people into capitalist subjects. We become ‘bourgeois’ in terms of our ideological disposition, even if we are born into the working-class in terms of material status.

Capitalism requires many surplus repressions to function, including the severe repression of alternative political systems. The exemplary case is Marxism. Despite the influence and value of Marx’s thinking, it exists in our culture as a metonym for totalitarianism (‘fascism and communism are two sides of the same coin’). Likewise, children constitute one of the most repressed groups. In order to ensure the reproduction of bourgeois subjectivity, we must repress in our children what the previous generation repressed in us. Celia’s father even resorts to fascistic tactics to repress his daughter’s socialist sensibilities by burning her grandmother’s collection of left-wing literature.

In Celia’s clear ideological affinity with her radical grandmother and the Tanners, alongside her refusal to be fully incorporated into the conservative middle-class institutions of her reactionary father (school, police, church), Celia indicates the potential for this latent communist project to become manifest. She can reactivate the emancipatory potential of her grandmother’s ideals which have been lying dormant for a generation, but whose memory cannot be extinguished.


Although it was heralded as the end of history, 1989 was also the end of the future. The psychological, cultural, and political expectations that believed the future was progressing to something better has given way to the non-places and non-times of postmodernity’s eternal present. Celia’s eerie atmosphere is situated in this new temporality for leftists, who found themselves not as the inheritors of the future but relegated to the domain of memory. Yet, in Celia’s melancholic attachments to the ‘dead object’ of her grandmother— and her father’s inability to repress her budding communist leanings—it becomes possible to revive and redeem the leftist liberation struggles of the twentieth century.

Grace Brooks

Grace Brooks is a doctoral researcher at the University of Western Australia specialising in Australian labour history and film studies. She has taught across history and international relations, and her work has previously appeared in Jacobin.

More by Grace Brooks ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays