The Plumber
Editorials

‘The Plumber’ Is a Sour Clash of Class and Gender

After directing Australian New Wave classics Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, Peter Weir made The Plumber, a television film that — like Steven Spielberg’s Duel — was released theatrically in overseas territories. It’s a forgotten middle child of Weir’s filmography. Not a ground-breaking piece of art like the dreamily stylish Picnic at Hanging Rock nor a universal cultural touchstone like later Weir films Dead Poets Society or The Truman Show. But beyond its beginnings on television, the pleasures The Plumber offers are more off-kilter. It goes down satisfyingly sour. 

The Plumber is a small film, befitting its genesis on the small screen. Husband and wife Jill (Judy Morris) and Brian Cowper (Robert Coleby) are both academics. While Brian works on research he hopes to present to the World Health Organisation, Jill is finishing her thesis on the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea. Then she’s transitioned out of the workforce at least in part because of Brian’s expectations of a wife. “It was you who said you were sick of being married to an academic,” she fires back when Brian mentions getting a job, “Coming home to an empty flat, opening tins of sardines … You wanted a real home, maybe even children.”  

One day, when Jill is alone, Max (Ivar Kants) comes to the door. He says he’s the plumber. Routine inspection, didn’t they tell you? And, naturally, she lets him in. It shouldn’t take long, after all. 

What follows is both acrid social satire and spiny home invasion horror. It is, as Janet Maslin wrote, “both comedy and nightmare.” But where Maslin frames the film as a story of two academics driven “half-mad” by a plumber, it is Jill alone who is his real victim. Almost as soon as she lets Max inside, she starts feeling unnerved. All the pipes, Max says, need to be replaced. He’s there every day, working, but the bathroom becomes in ever greater disarray. He knocks down walls. He pries open the ceiling. There’s scaffolding and PVC piping everywhere. And there’s no end in sight. 

To the other characters he interacts with, Max is a charming, slightly goofy guy — a harmless eccentric, Brian calls him. But when Jill is alone, he’s always disconcerting and frequently menacing. Kants’ performance turns on a dime so easily that it makes you doubt both your own perceptions and those of Jill. When she tries to describe what she finds so unsettling about their interactions, none of it quite captures that threatening inflection in his voice. The way he looms. His sudden bursts of rage and how she can never quite tell if he’s joking. He’s terrorizing her in a way that’s inarticulable. Brian thinks she’s just upset he’s up for a big job in Geneva. 

The whole film plays on the particular gender and class dynamics between Jill, a wealthy well-educated woman, and Max, a working-class man. Part of why Jill finds it so difficult to make Brian understand what’s happening is that it’s a particularly gendered fear. “It’s funny letting a complete stranger into your house,” he says to a female friend. 

“A man, you mean,” she says. She gets it in a way Brian doesn’t even begin to. Rape, Jill says, is part of the fear. But it’s clearly something more amorphous than that. In a world that demands women’s hypervigilance lest they be blamed for being assaulted, the fear response is so ingrained it’s become automated. Impossible to fully explain and impossible to fully escape. 

Almost the entire film takes place in one apartment, but the narrative never feels small — the film is about the apartment. The nervy intimacy of a man in that space, without even the reassuring buffer of a man you know and trust. That Max works in the bathroom, the most private place in a home, underlines this point. Thinking Max has left for the day, Jill is undressing to have a shower, but then startles to realize he’s still there and possibly spying on her. 

At one point, Max tells her he was in prison. For rape. Then he says he was just joking. We never find out what’s true.  

But if the gender dynamics alone mean Max has all the power, the class dynamics tell a different story. Max talks at length about the mistreatment of the working class, from houses with a “tradesmen’s entrance” to the prison system. He doesn’t appear to have coherent ideology, complaining that the criminal underground in Adelaide is so much more capitalist than in good old Melbourne (even as his jacket sports a sticker supporting Australia’s right-wing Liberal Party). He seems driven, not unreasonably, by resentment. 

Jill makes vague sympathetic noises, saying no one still looks down on tradesmen. But her sympathy dissolves on contact with reality. When Max is talking amiably to Jill’s Mercedes-driving, back-garden-pool-having best friend, Jill snaps about his grammar: “I did,” not “I done.” It’s humiliating, and he mumbles to himself about it when he’s alone, braced against the bathroom door. 

When frustration and fear finally shatter her polite façade, she screams, “You’re just a dirty, filthy tradesman!” Her frustration is more than warranted, but that she goes straight for calling him a dirty, filthy tradesman reveals something inside her. Reveals it to herself as much as to the audience. 

In the final offing, to get rid of Max for good, Jill puts her four-hundred-and-seventy-dollar watch in his van, framing him for theft. She’s icy calm as she tells Brian she lost the watch. A portrait of innocence too perfect to be real, and a perfect wife to boot: she is yielding, supportive, and drained of personality. Jill knows that she will be believed. She knows that Max won’t. And when Brian shows that a fabricated threat to his property will be taken more seriously than the real harassment of his wife, The Plumber hits its final, bitter note.

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