Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Movie review - Disgrace

I saw Disgrace last night. It's based on the book by JM Coetzee. I must say I am thrilled that we have such a fine writer in residence at a university in Adelaide. It is a fantasy of mine to do a course taught by him, or attend his classes, or a workshop or something. I don't even know that he does such workshops. I tend to think the finer writers hide themselves away in caves - they don't want to deal with people, self-promote etc. This is one of my ideas which is possibly wrong. Why can't a fine writer be an extrovert, well-adjusted and likeable person?

Coetzee is an interesting writer. When I ask myself off the top of my head what he's written, I can only come up with Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. I bought the second but couldn't finish it. It was tedious and circular and nothing happened. I'm thinking there's something else he's written that I've read and liked, but I suspect that I'm mixing him up with another author I like - Ian McEwan. Of his books, I've read and liked Atonement, the balloon one, and On Chesil Beach. I think I read the Child in Time, but didn't like that one. Of course, the Comfort of Strangers is well-known; I've not read it, but plan to. I've heard Saturday is "not that good" so haven't read it. But hang on, the balloon one. It doesn't appear in his list of writings. Could the balloon one be a Coetzee one? Quick google check. No, it's not a Coetzee book. Back to McEwan. Ah yes, there it is: Enduring Love. Also liked that one. Really liked it. I've got McEwan's The Innocent here as well. Must read. Soon.

Oh how I yearn for my books. They're in storage. I know I keep banging on about that. In storage. May as well be on the moon, for they are hidden beneath a mountain of stuff - house stuff - and because they are boxes they are on the bottom layer, out of view, supporting other stuff which is less solid. I've dragged home what I could, boxes that were more on the edge of the mountain of stuff. But there are boxes and boxes, 30, 40 of them, tucked away.

They complete me.

But back to Coetzee. The above paragraph has proved my point. Coetzee is elusive as a writer. He has the reputation, but I don't seem to know much of his work, and indeed have only read one and a half of his novels. While I remember enjoying Disgrace, I seem to remember either being puzzled by certain parts of it, or not fully realising the themes. It took seeing the movie last night I think to brings things more into focus for me.

Firstly, John Malkovich was quite good, but he never becomes the character. He is always John M. In recent years, he's become a parody of himself, most obviously I thought in Burn After Reading. But that was the type of film it was - character exaggeration was key; subtlety not required thankyou very much. I was wondering how he would do the South Efrican eccent in the movie, and to my ear, he did well. Somehow, it forced him to tone down his tendency to bitingly enunciate and snappishly torture every syllable, and it smoothed his speech out so that it moved to the background, and wasn't the distraction it can so often be. (I put my hand up as one of, or perhaps the ONLY person in the world? who didn't fancy Being John Malkovich.)

Anway, I wanted this post to be about the themes of the book/movie as I saw them. I welcome discussion, what did you think? Have you read the book? Seen the film? I thought it was a successful treatment of some pretty hard, difficult, uncomfortable themes. If you don't want to know about book or movie, don't fucking read it! Do I have to tell you everything?? Jeez.

So. At the beginning we see the Malkovich character, a university lecturer in Capetown, a Byron-freak, single, 53 years old. He's self-possessed, erudite, but flawed and completely aware of his flaws, even arrogantly so? He is driven by desire it seems; he utilises prostitutes (a clue to his 'pushiness' - he gives one a gift then we see her making what seems an excuse as to why she can't see him again. Is this "relationship" making her uncomfortable? It is a hint to his character.) We then see him pursuing a student to her obvious discomfort. Why does she continue? Why does she 'let him' we ask? It's plain he either repulses her, it is clearly unwanted attention, or she has a boyfriend (an unexplained male starts to act as her defender, but it's not clear in the movie if he is relative or bf; it's hinted at he's her partner via a camera focus of her clinching his waist from the back of a motorbike.) He lies when he says "don't worry, I won't let it go too far." She and I both thought that meant he wouldn't fuck her. But he does, and it's unwanted. Even when it is clear to everyone (except him? even him?) that she doesn't want to be doing this, the lecturer does not desist in his pursuit; he is pushy, and we see him just taking what he wants, when he wants, despite her struggling with the whole thing. We never see her say "NO" though; she is passive, amazingly so. But is this what it's like? Even here, when attentions/pursuits are made which are unwelcome. What do women do? Even without the imbalance of power? Without the racial shit? Or is it only when there are those issues? I don't know. My sympathy for the girl at this point was tempered with an irritation that she wasn't standing up for herself. But could she? And what the fuck do I know about that kind of inequity?She was mixed-race (a point made later); is she a symbol of the incursion of the whites into the country? Of them spreading their seed as a way of taking over? This idea comes back into focus later in the story. Also, there is a terrific scene later where a young woman is planting seedlings in a garden bed. She is heavily pregnant. The camera focuses on the earth, dark and moist. Her hand enters sideways and pushes the soil to make a hole; it was a striking image and resonated with me in a surprisingly sexual way. Was it deliberate? Was I reading stuff into this movie? Was this character indeed impregnating the soil, marking her claim, her territory? It looked like it to me.

We see the lecturer hauled before the university board. The affair has become known, the girl has told her father. The lecturer makes no sincere apology, admits guilt on all counts, they seem stunned at his demeanour. Yes, I've been a bad boy, what can I say? kind of thing. There is no thought about what he has done, and while he doesn't blame anyone, he doesn't really blame himself, or offer any kind of reason or excuse. Because there aren't any reasons or excuse for impetuous desire. But they don't just happen. Mostly there is aforethought, even right from the beginning. Especially with predators - and he is clearly a predator of the most urbane variety.

He resigns from his position and travels to the country, to see his daughter who is living on a farm there. We quickly find out she is lesbian (the reason for this? Not sure. But he makes the comment flippantly though not damningly.) When he arrives, we find out her relationship has broken up, she is staying there alone, she has some dogs for protection, her father is worried about her, there is an older, man on the property who she has struck some sort of deal with where he can live there, help her and she's given him some land. As the movie progresses from this point, we can see the expansion of the African man's territory on the farm. At the beginning, he is living in a shack. Then a couple of goats appear, his wife (presumably from the village), a nephew, he starts laying pipes to bring water from the dam, which he has rehabilitated. He starts to build a proper house, with bricks. He is taciturn and has a kind face, but he is revealed to be quite hard. Hard? Realistic? With his own agenda? With little empathy for any plight a white person can find themselves in? I don't know. it's almost like he wants to say "What did you expect?" when the terrible thing, inevitably happens.

The daughter is attacked and gang-raped in her house after showing a kindness to a stranger; her father is beaten unconscious and can't help her. We don't see any of the attack on her, but we know. We see it from the father's perspective. What happens afterwards is the puzzling bit, and the audience, I suspect, was meant to be as confused as the father when the girl refuses to leave her farm, doesn't want to make trouble by going to the police, and even when one of the attackers shows up at her neighbour's place at a party, and is his nephew, she still decides to stay and not cause a scene. She is pregnant from the attack, and as her belly swells, other things come into play. Her African neighbour offers an arrangement where she can become his wife and give him some more land, and in return receive his protection. There have been suggestions that the baddies will come back; there's also the suggestion that her neighbour was somehow involved (he was away the day of the attack, which the father sees as a bit too coincidental.) Does the horror and lack of understanding that the father shows echo the horror and lack of understanding that some of the panellists at his university enquiry showed on their faces? Is it a case of the racial divide being uncrossable? And then the divide between man and woman - when he asks why his daughter didn't have an abortion, she says "I'm a woman." And something like: You expect me to make a decision on a child's life?

Why doesn't she have an abortion? Why doesn't she leave and go somewhere safer? She refuses these things when her father asks. It's like she is resigned to something; is she trading her life as a form of redemption for what she sees as her forefathers' crimes of invasion? She has a Dutch background - we learn that casually. Is she so settled that she can't leave? Even she will let her farm be taken from her - was it taken from someone else before? We get no information about how she came to be in possession of the farm. Is her determination also an echo of her forefathers'? And of the blacks that have been dispossessed in South Africa? Is it simply human determination? To survive, no matter what. She has a baby growing in her. Even if she dies, there's a chance her baby might continue.

Apart from small side stories which illustrate the father's continuing physical desires and impulses, even in a place where at first there seems to be no one to fill the part of hunted vixen (there are no nubile young girls as targets; there is a middle-aged, frumpy fat woman, who turns out to be desirable to him - lack of other opportunities?) the movie goes forward. The daughter starts to come through the horror of the attack; towards the end we see her again with colour in her face, smiling gently, she's back in the garden, planting, she's at the market, selling goods, she seems to have some sort of peace back. We see her father working at the animal shelter/vet with the frumpy love-interest (I'm saying frumpy as he would have seen her at the beginning; I though she was lovely) assisting her with putting down an endless stream of dogs. Even when it comes to the last one, a beautiful, alert, healthy young pup; he takes it in to her to be euthanased. Does this dog symbolise the father giving up? Loss of hope? Killing hope? I don't know, but it does represent something. The woman makes the comment "Oh, you've giving him up? I thought you were saving him a bit longer."

It's a terrific film, partly for the scenery, the colour, and how it's a different viewpoint. A different country, different accent, different cultural issues than what I'm used to considering as a movie-goer. There was something quite Australian in the setting; maybe that's why alot of South African whites come here? Even the accents seem similar, with a twist of Kiwi added in. It was conveyed with the neighbour that he was at home in that land; the father and daughter weren't really. But maybe they were becoming so. The neighbour had a sort of proprietorship about him which is revealed in certain ways. The father, the lecturer, would just take what he wanted, from whoever he wanted. He makes a throwaway line earlier in the movieabout "raping and pillaging" and guess what; those very things come to pass. His daughter raped, her house pillaged, his house back in Capetown when he returned, also pillaged. And he himself is seen to rape and pillage, both literally and metaphorically.

He goes to try to make some sort of apology to the girl's family; the student he seduced in the earlier part of the film. Her younger sister answers the door, she is home alone, she opens the door, several security doors in fact, and tells him he can wait until her parents get home. She is innocent, completely unafraid; she doesn't fear the white man. The irony is that with her Lolita beauty she should fear him. He is a predator, a fact her parents know and show when they come home. He apologises; he seems sincere. He even prostrates himself on the floor in front of the mother. The parents are shocked, but it's not clear what exactly they are feeling.

Is this story about karma? That what you visit upon others will come back to you? Is it a commentary on white settlers in South Africa; how they can invade and take, rape, steal, or have been able to, but now the tides are turned. For those people stupid enough to stay there, or stubborn or whatever; the revenge will come back to them? Was the neighbour somehow involved in a plot to get the daughter's farm from her? Threaten her, make her feel scared? And when that didn't work, make a land grab in other more civilised ways? Her becoming pregnant to one of her rapists; is this a deliberate twist on the methods historically used by humans to decimate or dilute another race? Or is it just a symptom of desire? Are there no layers of meaning, other than the theme of desire, and taking what you want, from people who are for whatever reason weaker than you?

It's a movie that's hard to watch. There was one delicate flower in the audience last night who gasped audibly a couple of times. There wasn't much of a soundtrack which was unsettling for me at the beginning as I'd eaten too much popcorn, and my digestive tract was struggling and gurgling embarrassingly. So I was physically primed for discomfort, and the film picked up and carried me along, from beginning to end, in an enthralled yet unsettled way. It was great.


Pepsi said...

Its a challenging story and a confronting film.

Coetzee is a bit like A S Byatt, lots rave about them, but not alot actually read them.

Was this story slightly autobiographical for him or am I imaging this bit?

I read Saturday and thought it wasnt so bad.

Melba said...

It's funny, the person who told me Saturday was not that good was my mum. This morning I was talking to her about Disgrace, and she said she hated the book and didn't want to see the movie.

So, just goes to show, we all have different taste. I'll give Saturday a go. She's got a copy...

Melba said...

And I wondered too about the autobiographical element. But it's an easy assumption to make, and something I think all readers do. Easy to jump to conclusions. Most writers I think make composites of characters, borrowing bits from life, some stuff from imagination. I'm not sure.

meva said...

I thought Disgrace was a terrific book! I think it will be difficult to translate into film, though.

I admire Coetzee, although I think he would be a diffiult man to know. I've read articles about him, and apparenlty one of his colleagues worked with him for 10 years and saw him laugh only once. I've also read that he can attend a dinner party and not utter a single word. (Wikipedia can't be wrong, can it?)

Given that, I really do admire his writing and his stand against animal cruelty.

Melba said...

That's interesting Meva. I'm re-reading the book, and it's a nice thing to do after seeing the movie. Sure it's not a pleasant story and he's not really a pleasant character, but Coetzee has done it well. The flaws of the professor are entirely human, and common. That information you provide, yes he does sound like a difficult person to know. My dad can be incredibly quiet, but if people try to talk to him, he does talk. It can be hard work though sometimes. Having said that, he laughs easily, so that kind of makes up for it.

The movie made me see or suspect the themes. I'm trying to trace them in the book; the idea that the man and the country reflect each other. He doesn't shy away from his issues, nor make any apologies. In fact, he resists this most vigorously. Likewise the character of Petrus seems accepting of the things that happen; he never apologises or tries to explain what happens to Lucy. It is what it is. There's a kind of fateful attitude shown by both these men.

I wonder what the femininists made of it. I wonder if Germaine has read it, and what she thought of it.