Sunday, July 25, 2010

Wind of Change

French director Claire Denis grew up in Africa and it shows. She avoids most of the cliches about that continent and there are no guilt-ridden white Western males sacrificing themselves here in acts of faux atonement, as in Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener and Shooting Dogs.

This is the Africa in which the wind of change blows literally through the trees and over the blood-red earth, constantly. Her protagonist, Maria Vial, played by an ever-lean Isabelle Huppert, runs her father's coffee plantation in some unspecified part of French Africa and clearly doesn't see what's coming. Or rather, she does but knows there's nothing for her back in France and acts accordingly.

All the signs of impending doom are there. Her workers are fleeing in droves; her husband, played by a faded Christophe Lambert of Highlander fame, is doing land deals with the local warlord-in-waiting; the child soldiers are coming with their machetes and machine guns; the local Rasta DJ is preaching an uprising; Maria's even harbouring a renegade rebel; and her son's going stark raving bonkers. But she is not interested; what needs to be done is the harvest.

The film, with a fine soundtrack by Tindersticks, has frightening parallels with Zimbabwe and accurately reflects the casual - but very real - terror which stalks that country and South Africa's white farmers.

But what exactly is Denis saying? That whites are deluded about their stay in Africa, since Maria doesn't even ask the wounded Boxer (Isaach De Bankole) what he's up to; or that this is just a bit of French eccentricity in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Africans could simply argue that the film portrays them as bloodthirsty killers and therefore reinforces the usual stereotype, and they'd have a very good point.

Denis finally declares her hand with a violently shocking authorial intervention and we end up with another European - albeit feminist - fantasy about Africa.

Not Such Nobel Intentions

Tenaciously standing its ground on the main shelves at my local DVD store in Auckland, the film adaptation of JM Coetzee's Disgrace is still doing business long after it's probably been shoved aside in the country it's about: South Africa.

The novel deservedly won the prestigious Booker prize - Coetzee was the first writer to win it twice - but the ruling African National Congress said it was a racist book. Then, when he equally deservedly won the Nobel prize in 2003, they said it was still a racist book, but that they were very proud of him as a South African.

By then, of course, Coetzee had emigrated to Australia.

Naturally no one in South Africa was going to put a cent into a film that might be branded racist by their new master and sponsor, even though it had won the Booker, which was an English institution and they were a bunch of imperialists anyway.

But the book is not about racism - it's about, among others, the abuse of power by means of rape, whether it's a white man abusing his intellectual power or black peasants abusing theirs physically. It was this latter fact that stuck in the craw of the ruling party, who seem to think that democracy means you can differ with each other but only when it's on their terms.

Disgrace is not exactly a bit of light entertainment, so it took an Australian actor and his partner quite a while to get the money together to make the film. Not even the fact that they got a big "name" actor like John Malkovich on board would sway the new South African elite's lickspittles to put any money into it.

So how does Steve Jacobs's film measure up to this novel that another writer described as having been written with a scalpel? All things considered, rather well, even though there is much to do what most South Africans love doing, which is complain.

For example, Jacobs lets a golden opportunity slip by to subvert the touristic nature of the iconic Table Mountain in Cape Town. Had we seen that mountain while hearing a bed creak and then discovering Professor Lurie with a Muslim prostitute, it would have added a little more oomph to the story. It would also have helped clarify a key scene later on.

In fact, Jacobs's sense of place is appalling. As a South African I know that his Grahamstown and George are neither of those and that a Cape Town suburb is doubling up as the latter. As non-South Africans we'd at least like to know that we're in some or other small town via a signpost or establishing shot rather than just through dialogue.

Jacobs was obviously trying to be subtle, but it comes across as cost-cutting. He might as well have given the real names of the places he used, which were closer to the Mother City for perfectly practical reasons - that is, budgetary restrictions - and the story would not have suffered in the least.

Furthermore, when Malkovich's Lurie does his weird apology to the mother and sister of the student he seduced/raped by kneeling and bowing his head to the floor like a Muslim at prayer in their suburban home, there is nothing that has prepared us for this gesture. He is, in fact, also apologising to the prostitute of the opening scene: another opportunity missed.

But then Lurie's seduction/rape of the student is as unconvincing as the book's is twee. Young, impressionable students are in awe of their lecturers, who have the patriarchal power of knowledge. It is deeply sexy and, in the literary sense, terribly romantic. Colin Firth would have got it down to a T. The author, the director and the actor, alas, don't.

Instead, Malkovich is directed to be a kind of predatory animal, which Lurie certainly is, but it's not quite the same. The actor gets the slimy part right, but not the sexy one, and Lurie is sexy on paper in the sense that he's got a mind that is positively cooking with ideas.

One of those ideas is that maybe the true story of South Africa - if not all the colonies - can not be told in the language of the colonist. This is only touched on through his dialogue with Petrus (a solid performance from Eric Ebouanney), but very obliquely.

And then there is that accent. Though Malkovich doesn't do too badly, it's highly unlikely that a lecturer in English with an English surname, in that most European of South African cities, would have an Afrikaans accent. Her or she would instead cultivate a desperately neutral mid-Atlantic brew or, in the case of someone like Andre Brink at the University of Cape Town, a very sexy, modulated English.

So after all that, what is good about the film? Well, unlike most South African stories with their plodding plots, mandatory history-lesson forewords and rainbow sentiments, this drama of ideas is deeply original and Malkovich is still professional enough to carry it. In this he is ably supported by a good South African cast, especially newcomer Jessice Haines who plays his daughter, Lucy.

In fact, the strength of Lucy's character and Haines's powerful portrayal of her convinces us that her father - an accomplished academic who could find work anywhere else in the world - would really stay to be with the one person he loves unreservedly, finally, even though there is only more humiliation and darkness ahead.

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