While visiting friends in Australia, Colo (Isabelle Huppert) is injured in an automobile crash. She loses sight in her left eye, and a doctor recommends that she have it removed in order to save sight in her right eye. Her hosts, Tom (Norman Kaye) and Bea (Monica Maughan), sense Colo's fear and depression and introduce her to Robert (Robert Menzies), a man blind since birth.
Robert tends a large cacti collection inherited from his father and is looked after by Banduk (Banduk Marika), an aboriginal woman. At first, he declines any involvement with the French woman, telling Tom "wounded animals should be left alone." But once he meets Colo, he finds himself very relaxed with her. The two share the stories of their lives on long walks together, and she eventually realizes that she must have the eye operation.
In the spirit of Man of Flowers and My First Wife, this Paul Cox film offers another set of richly developed characters who elicit our attention and empathy. Like the cacti in the garden, their personalities expand and bloom before our eyes. "It's been so comfortable in the dark up to now," Roberts says after Colo introduces him to the pleasures of lovemaking. Sex with her lights up the darkness in his life.
Robert helps Colo see that she is capable of a deeper and richer kind of knowledge about herself and the world. Losing her sight is "not goodbye, it's a new kind of hello," he tells her. When her French husband (Jean-Pierre Mignon) arrives to take her home, Colo realizes she has a number of new options for her life.
The screenplay for Cactus by Paul Cox, Norman Kaye, and Bob Ellis conveys how love that blends caring and sharing can be seen as "a gift from God," as Robert puts it. Through the crystalline images of nature photographed by Yuri Sokol, the unusual mix of popular and classical music, and the flashbacks to the childhoods of Robert and Colo, Paul Cox has fashioned a movie that caresses the senses.
This Australian filmmaker consistently explores the mystery of the human personality as a magical nexus of memory, loneliness, and longing. He looks imaginatively into the chambers of the soul. Each of Cox's movies probes those desires that we cannot define but which lie at the center of our existence the ache for some sort of structure against chaos, a home as sanctuary from the world, love as warmth against the chill. Best of all, Cox proves that something ordinary and true can be made extraordinary by the art of storytelling.