Disgrace is exhilaration and terror
Running time: 118 minutes
Directed by Steve Jacobs
Written by Anna Maria Monticelli and J.M Coetzee
Cinematography by Steve Arnold
Edited by Alexandre de Franceschi
Moved by Nobel winning J.M Coetzee’s novel of the same name, I was eager to see the film, but also, afraid. ‘Disgrace’ is not easy material. So I postponed and wrestled with the idea of going for a few weeks. I was worried it was going to depress me at a time when there seems to be a real surfeit of troubles in the world. But I needn’t have worried, and I aim to reassure you why in this review.
Australian filmmakers backed this $6 million project, and Australia is where Coetzee now calls home. But this is flick is South African through and through. The casting is masterful, and the script, by Anna Maria Monticelli – who also produced 'Disgrace'– is excellent.
The storyline, briefly, follows a disgraced university professor, John Malkovich as David Lurie, a balding old dog at the end of his tenure, who beds one of his students. It is one of a series of debaucheries and dalliances in an otherwise unfulfilling life. It is when the professor visits his daughter on a farm near Grahamstown, that the sails of the plot stiffen. The landscape is lonely, pleasant and evocative. Jessica Haines is his daughter Lucy, as scarred and pretty and sunny-bright as the South African countryside. It is around Lucy though that the story landscape hinges, and it is here that the professor’s Disgrace is truly realized. He is, after all, her father, and it is in her, that ‘Disgrace’ is made manifest. You’ll have to watch the film to find out exactly what I mean.
I may be one of the few that did not find the professor’s behaviour particularly disgraceful or unusual. We have presidents, after all, accused of similar behaviour. Consorting with prostitutes, of course, is lurid behavior. On its own, sure, Lurie, appears to lack ordinary morals. He is suffering from chronic resignation, and it is in sex that he finds some relief, some reason to live and to take pleasure, to find reason in living. In the context of the film, there is also a life on a farm spent either providing a home for abandoned dogs, or a laboratory [in the local town] for the euthanasia of these animals. Can we call ourselves compassionate when we lack compassion for animals, rather than human beings? Can the desires of as a man overshadow our obligations as fathers and brothers, neighbours and sons?
The wind that blows the story on its way is an ill wind, and there is not a progression in a direction that obviously favours any of the characters – with the possible exception of Petrus [Eriq Ebouaney]. Despite having read the book, I found two or three scenes particularly shocking. One involves a young tsotsi [gangster] peeking in through a window of the farmhouse while Lucy is showering. The professor sees this, and with dog at his side, rugby tackles the youth. Lucy emerges moments later, wrapped in a white gown, and in her attempt to wrestle her father from the youth her gown opens, to reveal her vuleranble white nakedness – to both father and the intruder. For a moment there is a mutually shared, but unstated desire, between the attacker and protector. The black boy then charges off into their vegetable garden, hysterically screaming, “WE WILL KILL YOU!”
I won’t color by number other scenes, but if you are a South African, you’ll get a sense of that instinctive, that gut feel, that tension ‘Disgrace’ brings to the surface, like poison drawn from a wound. If you are not a South African, you have a flick, one of the first, that truly demonstrates the complexity of the situation those who live in this country are faced with. In this sense, ‘Disgrace’ can be regarded as the first quintessential South African story. ‘Tsotsi’ explored a particular niche, but ‘Disgrace’ covers a much broader spectrum, and surgically probes, in deep section, the South African psyche.
One reviewer intimates that it is the plight of the dogs that evokes the word ‘Disgrace’. This is true. I commented to my companion after the flick that the people in this story are no better at taking care of the dogs than they are of themselves. When Malkovitch’s character says, “This is so humiliating; we are no better than dogs,” for the first time, it seems, his daughter agrees. This is the centre of ‘Disgrace’; the degenerating conditions the human beings scrabbling for survival in closer and closer proximity towards each other. In the fiction and in the facts, the everyday crimes that are part and parcel of the real South Africa are a Disgrace. And as one would expect, despite the obvious horrors, no one can agree on what they are or whether they really exist.
You might think this would make Disgrace a depressing story. Surprisingly, it isn’t. It has plenty of existential flourishes, but it also has dabs of color, mewing kittens, touches of sizzle and pizzazz, fresh flowers and a few chuckles. Perhaps this is because this is the first mature telling of our common story, or because the characters are exotic enough to seem eccentric – a dirty old man and a daughter who rears dogs. Just because he reads Byron and she reads Dickens does not make them very different to ‘white trash’. But their demeanour leads us to think they are not; they are instead intelligent, and for the most part, civilized. It is the intelligence imbued in this flick that lifts it. One of the professor’s early statements to his daughter while walking their dogs is seminal, and likely to stay with audiences.
The script has been crafted to closely mirror the book, but especially the penultimate scene has been juxtaposed in a way that the flick ends on a slightly higher and more hopeful note than the book does. I agree with Monticelli for doing this, and overall, it’s a troubling story that somehow exhilarates – as sex does – and terrifies – as crimes do. Exhilaration and terror is not depressing, but rather, deeply disturbing.
SALON: Toward the end of the story, he reflects that the language he and others use has become "tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites" and that he, an expert practitioner, is also hollow, "like a fly-casing in a spiderweb."
One South African reviewer called ‘Disgrace’ one of the finest films of the year. It’s good to be able to not only agree, but to add to this that there is another flick, made by the South African, Blomkamp, that are essential to the 2009 movie Zeitgeist. If we count Gavin Hood’s Wolverine to District 9 and Disgrace, it’s a powerful portfolio of South African film talent showcasing in worldwide cinemas this year.