Almost as scary as the thought of death is the realization that life can suddenly change on you. What you once thought was unshakable can be shattered in an instant. That possibility is vividly explored in the Australian film The Last Days of Chez Nous.

Beth (Lisa Harrow) is the take-charge person in her Sydney home where she lives with her husband, her daughter, and a boarder. She's a self-reliant woman who has found success as a writer. Yet despite all the energy she has expended in trying to keep things under control, her seven-year marriage to J.P. (Bruno Ganz) is falling apart.

He's a laid-back Frenchman who has never felt at home in Australia. And there's a large streak of chauvinism in his complaint that Beth is too domineering and bossy. When she shows him her latest work, he responds: "You have written life the way you want it to be — life is much blacker than this." He sees the glass half-empty while she sees it as full of possibilities.

Beth's burdens are increased when her sister Vicki (Kerry Fox) comes back to live with them after traveling abroad. She would love to be a writer too but lacks the discipline. Beth helps Vicki get an abortion and then heads off on a vacation with her father. She hopes to clear up the tension which has existed between them for years. It seems as if everyone in Beth's family circle is uneasy with her drive, competence, and accomplishments.

Gillian Armstrong's direction of The Last Days of Chez Nous is masterful. As demonstrated by My Brilliant Career (1979) and High Tide (1987), she has an uncanny ability to probe the lives of women who march to the beat of their own drummer.

Lisa Harrow's fiery performance as Beth has already earned her the 1992 Best Actress Award from the Australian Film Institute. She conveys the conflicted emotions of a strong soul who courageously survives after the continents of her life are rearranged.

Bruno Ganz is fine as the world-weary, food-loving, displaced Frenchman who yearns for a little romance in his humdrum existence no matter what the cost to those around him. And Kerry Fox (An Angel at My Table) turns in an astonishingly good performance as the unstable Vicki, one of those high spirited, free spirits whose dreams can never reach her high expectations.

The literate and affecting screenplay by Helen Garner shows how the art of staying in love is a difficult craft to master. Our most cherished relationships can wither and die from neglect, misunderstandings, and a thousand little betrayals. The Last Days of Chez Nous offers a bittersweet anatomy of one marital breakup.