info I contact
advertising
editorial schedule
acknowledgements
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter
donate

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive

contents

  
John Malkovich, Disgrace John Malkovich, Disgrace
JM COETZEE’S 1999 BOOKER-WINNING NOVEL DISGRACE HAS, LIKE MOST OF HIS WRITINGS AND LECTURES (READERS TEND TO HAVE A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WRITER), DIVIDED AUDIENCES WITH ITS PORTRAYAL OF A BITTER, AGEING ACADEMIC, DAVID LURIE, FORCED TO RESIGN AFTER AN AFFAIR WITH A STUDENT. RUNNING FROM CAPE TOWN IN THE HOPE OF WRITING AN OPERA ON BYRON (RATHER THAN OUT OF ANY FEELING OF WRONG-DOING; THE DISGRACE COMES LATER), LURIE VISITS HIS DAUGHTER LUCY, LIVING ON AN ISOLATED FARM, AND EXPERIENCES THE DEVASTATING EFFECTS OF AN ATTACK BY THREE LOCAL MEN WHO RAPE HER, BEFORE SETTING HIM ALIGHT WITH METHYLATED SPIRITS. IT’S A WORLD WHERE WHITE SOUTH AFRICANS ARE THE OUTSIDERS LOOKING IN, DEPICTED AS ‘OTHER’, ALMOST A PLAGUE ON THE LANDSCAPE.

Director Steve Jacobs and writer-producer Anna Maria Monticelli acquired the book rights early on and the resulting film, shot on location in South Africa, is beautifully adapted and directed, restrained and subtle (after the same team’s vivacious La Spagnola) with Malkovich given the difficult task of bringing his masked character to cinematic life—without the help of a voiceover. From the opening scene I was worried about the casting. We always seemed to be approaching Malkovich from behind. As he peered out through vertical blinds in his bourgeois apartment or delivered lectures on Byron to zoned-out students, the camera was placed as if hiding from him, zooming in on the back of his head. All I could think about was Being John Malkovich, where the characters took the funpark ride of a lifetime into the portal of Malkovich’s brain. While Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s film remains a favourite, it has almost spoiled forever any power Malkovich had over me as an actor—that effete voice, the soft lisp, the limp walk. And here, Malkovich at first appears to be being-John-Malkovich-being-David-Lurie, but as we both warm up he inhabits Professor Lurie and almost makes him sympathetic—easier without the novel’s access to the inner-workings of Lurie’s bleak-mindedness (there’s a portal I wouldn’t want entry into).

He remembers Melanie, on the first evening of their closer acquaintance, sitting beside him on the sofa drinking the coffee with the shot-glass of whisky in it that was intended to—the word comes up reluctantly—lubricate her.

Lecherous academics have become clichés in literature and film. They usually have beards, wear tweed and read Wordsworth (cue opera music in background) and Coetzee pleads guilty in some aspects to the lecturer-as-pretentious-wanker label. Isabel Coixet’s Elegy (also based on a novel, by Philip Roth), released earlier this year and starring Ben Kingsley and Penélope Cruz, broke the mould, exploring the dynamics of such a relationship with finesse and empathy for both points of view. In Disgrace, things are more clumsy, both on the page and on screen. Lurie’s motivation for the affair with his student, Melanie, is unclear beyond the obvious; she’s young and beautiful. But as they make love she’s portrayed as unyielding, stiff; there’s no sense that she’s a willing participant. And perhaps, what Lurie doesn’t want to articulate, is that this conquest is the first step along the path to a self-destruction he craves anyway. The later scene where he meets Melanie’s younger sister (and we’re talking young here), Desiree, has an undercurrent of unease with his lascivious longings bordering on paedophilia. While he’s apparently visiting the family to apologise and gain some sort of redemption, in the book at least it’s clear that meeting this young girl carries for him a real erotic charge.

This recycling of power within relationships—given, taken away, renegotiated—is beautifully paralleled in Lucy’s story (a sharp performance by newcomer Jessica Haines who outmanoeuvres Malkovich in her film debut). While Lurie is misogynistic in tone when describing women in the book, his expression of love for his daughter is different. When she is raped (and, in the end, pregnant) by local men—one of whom Lurie soon discovers is a neighbour—he struggles to understand how she can remain working on her farm, alone, and bear a child springing from such deep hatred. It’s difficult for the audience to witness too, as it stems from a complex argument about race and responsibility in post-Apartheid South Africa. Perhaps you need to have lived there to fully comprehend it, but Haines’ performance has a robustness that suggests some hope for her and an acceptance of her plot (the one she tends in darkness so she can sell flowers at the market).

He would not mind hearing Petrus’ story one day. But preferably not reduced to English. More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa. Stretches of English code whole sentences long have thickened, lost their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness. Like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened.

For Lurie, who specialises in language as a scholar of Romantic poetry, the prosaic words of Lucy and Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney) continue to evade him. Petrus is probably the novel’s most intriguing character; in the film he’s evened out by Ebouaney’s performance, a calm soul. A local who has helped build Lucy’s farm and tend her dogs, he’s now working on his own patch, but also claims one of the boys who raped her as family and refuses to turn him over to police or accept responsibility. Each conversation between Lurie and Petrus reveals a gulf of philosophy; there’s no bridge here. Petrus accepts absolutely what is; Lurie is always positioned in the future, wanting things to change and adapt. Lucy manages to straddle the distance between them but her position seems the most tenuous as we near the end: bitterly tragic in the book; with an uplifting edge in the film.

With Samson and Delilah, Last Ride, My Year Without Sex, Mary and Max, and now Disgrace, it’s been a strong year for Australian features. Coming up is another literary adaptation, Bruce Beresford’s, Mao’s Last Dancer along with Bob Connolly’s political thriller Balibo and Ana Kokkinos’ Blessed. It looks like the AFI Awards this year are hotting up to be a real competition, with more than one serious contender vying for the prizes.

Disgrace was one of three Australian films in competition at Sydney Film Festival and is screening nationally. The film won the US $200,000 Black Pearl prize for best narrative film at the 2008 Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) in Abu Dhabi, the US $18,000 New Talent Competition at the Taipei Film Festival and the Prize of the International Critics (FIPRESCI Prize) for Special Presentations at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.


Disgrace, adapted from the novel by JM Coetzee, director, producer Steve Jacobs, screenplay, producer Anna Maria Monticelli, producer Emile Sherman, cinematography Steve Arnold, editor Alexandre de Franceschi, original music Antony Partos

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 24

© ; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Back to top