Scolded by Australiansby Nathan Zeno / 28.07.2009
I was never sure how I was meant to feel about Disgrace, the JM Coetzee novel. I always wondered if the decisions the characters made at the end of the book were meant to be taken in earnest or if my mild irritation at them was the point Coetzee was trying to make.
John Malkovich stars as David Lurie, a Cape Town University lecturer. Malkovich takes the annoying intellectual liberalism of Lurie and humanizes him, but ever so slightly. Directed by Australian Steve Jacobs, Disgrace follows Lurie’s dismissal from his teaching post after having his affair with a student exposed by her boyfriend. The boyfriend is played by a young actor (pictured in red and black jacket) whose performance managed to stink up the screen so badly that there were audible groans from around the cinema. Lurie heads out to the country to stay on his daughter Lucy’s farm. But Lurie discovers that his daughter’s lesbian lover has left her and she is now working in co-operation with Petrus, her former-farmworker, who after receiving a land grant, is now her co-tenant and neighbor. It becomes clear to David that this alliance is uneasy. David starts working in an animal shelter and drifts toward an affair with the woman (played by Fiona Press, delivering the stand out performance in the film) who runs the place. If ever there was a portrait of wasted aimless liberal mores, this is it. And then when Petrus is away, David and Lucy are attacked by three young men. It is how they deal with this attack that is the pivot to them discovering more about the place in which they are now living.
Eric Ebouaney plays Petrus as a sort of wise fool who knows nothing and while the plot invests the character with plenty of menace, Ebouaney does not. While I think it is perfectly understandable, for funding reasons, that the two lead roles in this South African story are played by American and French actors, it does no service to the nuances inherent in the novel. Maybe it because I can’t get past Malkovich’s meta-character history, but something about Disgrace feels removed and inappropriate.
At the novel’s conclusion, Coetzee, seemed to be distancing himself, in essence saying “This is what you have wrought”, the film version seems to say “This is the solution”, offering up as the only option to “misguided” liberals that they must go through the repentance that Lurie seeks to avoid. It’s like being scolded by a substitute teacher for something someone else did. And I, for one, don’t take kindly to that sort of preaching, especially from an Australian.
Disgrace is at the DIFF on the 29th at The Sneddon and 1st at Nouveau. It releases on circuit later in the year.