Saturday, December 05, 2009

Thoughts on DISGRACE (spoilers)

DISGRACE is Australian director Steve Jacobs' faithful adaptation of J M Coetzee's challenging, radical Booker-prize winning novel, starring John Malkovich in the lead role. Despite the pedigree of both the source material and the lead actor, the film has difficulty getting wide release, a fact that the director is clearly very bitter about. In an opening statement to a crowd at the ICA, he blamed the increasing commercialisation of cinema, and claimed that his film wouldn't be funded today. I'm not so sure. After all, we've recently seen successful commercial release of challenging books with big stars - THE READER, for one - so surely the difficulty is more to do with this particular film and how it was or wasn't marketed. I can't speak for the marketing, but I can say that the film has one absolutely fatal flaw that irritated from start to finish: as fine as John Malkovich's performance is, he simply cannot do a South African accent. God knows what effect he was actually going for, but it sounds like no natural accent on earth. Other than this, my review of the film and the book are one and the same, given their similarity. Both are finely made and are admirably brave and radical in their subject matter and point of view. My critique of the book is the same as my critique of the film.

Coetzee gives us the character of Professor Lurie (Malkovich). He is a middle-aged literary man, who idealises himself as a sort of romantic hero, above petty bourgeois morality, who goes where he likes and fucks who he likes. When his usual biracial prostitute is unavailable, Lurie casually seduces a biracial student. What proceeds is not rape, but a submission of a sort - a distinction which I think is more finely graded in the book than in the film. The student reports him for sexual harassment and an unapologetic Lurie refuses to play ball with a University committee saturated with political correctness, demanding a quasi-religious confession. He is kicked out, but not yet in disgrace - rather confirmed in his views that he is the last bastion of European culture in a country now run by people whose morality, language and culture he cannot understand. Just as Byron, Lurie chooses exile, but the irony is that he exiles himself to a place where the challenge of living in the new South Africa is to played out in a far more savage manner than at his University.

Lurie's daughter Lucy lives alone on a small farm, and runs a market garden and dog-kennel. She makes a show of practical independence, but it soon transpires that she is dependent for practical help and protection from her black "dog-man" Petrus, an ambitious New South African who will play the system of land grants and maybe something more sinister, to cement his ascendency over Lucy. Three young black men gang-rape and impregnate Lucy - an act even more traumatic because she is a lesbian - and lock the desperate Lurie in a bathroom before setting him alight. Lurie is fiercely angry, and wants Lucy to prosecute what turns out to be Petrus' nephew, or maybe even son, but Lucy refuses. She will not run away from her country, and knows that the price of remaining is to accept subjugation by Petrus and to carry the baby to term.

Lurie shares the reaction of the reader/audience - sheer shock that Lucy will not conform to our expectations of what a rape victim should do and feel. But he has himself been changing, softening, since the attack - learning to respect the unattractive Bev, who runs an animal welfare shelter - even starting an affair with her, and becoming a "dog man" himself. He realises that he has wronged his former student, and apologises to her family. He even selflessly has the battered dog he has come to love put down.

What can we make of a book so transparently written and so full of radical ideas and elegant dualities? I found Lurie's transformation from selfish, delusional Byron figure to a more vulnerable, frustrated and yet caring man utterly believable in both the book and film. Indeed, Malkovich's performance really is very powerful and it is such a shame he didn't just play the role with a standard American accent if he couldn't manage the South African accent. He goes from self-styled Byron to finding comfort in a fat middle-aged woman. He goes from belittling her work to respecting animal rights. And he understands that he has never really been there for his daughter and so has no right to interfere now. He is a man made redundant by societal change - and thus an essentially tragic figure. For Coetzee is making the radical point that, despite all the PR spin about a Rainbow Nation, there is no room for a European-literary man in the new South Africa. The nation's concerns, discourse, language and value-system are different now.

What I found incredibly difficult to understand in both the novel and the film was the decision made by Lucy. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of Lucy, and the idea of Coetzee subverting our ideas of her reactions to being impregnated by her rapist. She is a provocative vehicle for provocative ideas. But does she work as a believable character? Are her actions routed in some kind of reality that we can empathise with? No. It's as though he posits a reaction and then takes it to its logical consequences. He doesn't argue for the reaction or embed it in reality. I found that incredibly frustrating in the book, and continued to find it frustrating in the film, despite Jessica Haines' superb performance.

Overall, then, DISGRACE the film is as problematic as DISGRACE the novel. And not problematic in that its ideas are difficult and shocking - which they are - but problematic insofar as they make the novel seem less like a convincing fiction than an excuse to work out a hypothesis of the possibility of life in the new South Africa. Coetzee subverts many of our conventional responses but he does so at the price of a credible lead character. Neither the book nor the film survive the thought-experiment.

Additional tags: steve jacobs, eriq ebouaney, jessica haines, steve arnold,

DISGRACE played Toronto 2008 but has not had much luck with distribution. It opened in Norway in December 2008 and in Russia, Poland, the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Spain, the US, Germany, New Zealand and Portugal earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in France on January 20th.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, nuanced review, as ever. Haven't seen this yet, and hope to, but even as a longstanding Coetzee fan, I don't really expect it to work in film. For one thing, Coetzee's work is almost never naturalistic - he veers off into the realms of the metaphysical, the fabulist, the magical realist even. That's got to get lost in the translation to celluloid.
    And for another thing, there's not an actor on earth north of the Orange River that can do a South African accent. DiCaprio hashed it in Blood Diamond; Juliette Binoche and Samuel L Jackson hashed it in their version of Antjie Krog's novel; if Malkovich can't get it right filming amongst a South African crew, you've got to wonder if anyone can.