DISGRACE: IT'S JOHN MALKOVICH WHO DESERVES A NOBEL

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Oh how I wish Anthony Lane would have reviewed this film; unfortunately the New Yorker didn’t assign him. I always value his insights, particularly on movies I find disturbing. And I found this one so not because of the subject matter (race and gender-based violence in post-apartheid South Africa), but because of the way men, women, blacks and whites are all depicted, the extremely outmoded essentialist terms in which women and men are portrayed (ie: I am man, therefore I desire to rape women; I am woman therefore I love children and won’t have an abortion, etc. etc.)

The film is based on the Booker-prize-winning novel of the same name by Nobel-winning writer, J.M. Coetzee, a white man from South Africa who currently lives in Australia.

David Lurie (Malkovich) is a 52-year-old white professor at a Cape Town university who’s attracted to younger biracial women. As the movie opens, we see him soliciting a prostitute who fits such description, and shortly thereafter he becomes taken with one of his students, Melanie, and the two begin having an affair. It’s not clear how Melanie feels about him though. She seems completely dead during their sex scenes, and whenever she leaves his house, she always looks sad and violated. But it’s not like he’s raping her; she’s there of her own volition and she’s an adult and went into the affair knowingly. Nor is it made clear that he’s committing quid pro quo sexual harrassment — telling her he’ll fail her if she doesn’t do as he pleases; in fact it’s later revealed that the opposite is true — he passes her even though she’s truant and fails to show up for exams.

Eventually her young black boyfriend finds out about them and exposes Lurie. Students drop his classes and the disciplinary committee calls him for a hearing. Lurie seems to agree with the committee that he’s done something wrong (though it’s not clear to me what this is — again, she’s an adult and the sex seems consensual), but won’t defend himself because he can’t apologize for what he considers his (male) “nature.” The disciplinary committee dismisses him from his post and he moves to the country, into his daughter’s farmhouse.

His daughter, Lucy, is a lesbian whose lover has just left her. She shares the farm with a black man, Petrus – -he lives not in the main house but in a shed — who’s worked part of the land, installing pipelines and a well, and who, because of his labor, now owns part of the land. I wish the film had done more to educate viewers about this practice. It’s not clear, in post-apartheid S.A., whether Lucy is trying to help Petrus (she’s clearly liberal-minded and believes in righting historical wrongs) or whether this is the way the new system works to enable black South Africans to gain land ownership. In any event, Petrus is depicted early on as someone who’s up to no good. He’s nearly drooling at the mouth when we (and Lurie) first meet him (like a dog, I guess, since that seems to be the main — totally overdone — metaphor here).

So the dogs: Lucy houses several out back in a cage, partly for humane purposes — apparently there’s an over-population of dogs in S.A. and Lucy’s friends with a female veterinary nurse who catches them, tries to adopt them out and then euthanizes them when she can’t — and partly for protection. We’re made aware up front it’s very dangerous out on the farm — there’s been a lot of pillagings. She also keeps a loaded rifle in the house. At one point, she and Lurie are walking one of the dogs and Lurie tells her dogs are “creatures of habit.” He tells her a story of his childhood neighbor’s dog. The dog (a male) would always go nuts when the bitch next door was in heat. He’d dig holes in the yard, tear things up, etc. — create chaos basically. So his owner would punish him every time this happened. Eventually, the minute the female dog went into heat, the male dog would crouch and whine and walk around with his tail between his legs. The horror of this Pavlovian game, Lurie says, is that the dog eventually learned to deny his own nature. This is why, Lurie says, he shouldn’t be expected to deny his own nature (screwing around with young women, presumably to their detriment).

One day, Lucy and Lurie return to the farm after walking some of the dogs, to find three young black men taunting the caged dogs. Lucy approaches them and asks them to stop. They give her a story about one of the boys being stranded and ask if he can come inside and use her phone. She cages the dogs she’s walked and tells him yes; he alone can come inside. This is a ruse and after she’s caged her dogs, the boys drag her and Lurie into the house, gang rape her, lock Lurie in the bathroom where they douse him with gasoline and set him on fire, and use Lucy’s gun to shoot and kill all of the caged dogs. They also loot the place and cart off Lucy’s possessions in Lurie’s car. Lurie manages to save himself with toilet water but he’s still badly burned.

Lurie tries to get Lucy to go to police but for some nonsensical reason she won’t. Ludicrously, she tells him he doesn’t know what happened because he didn’t witness “the crime” — ie, he wasn’t in her bedroom, which, ridiculously, he doesn’t argue with. Her friend echoes her — he “wasn’t there” during “the crime.” He tells her he’d like to talk to the police, but she tells him there’s no information he could give them that she can’t, which he also inexplicably doesn’t argue with.

So a man is bludgeoned and set on fire and almost killed, but he isn’t the victim of a crime? He sees the attackers as they kill the dogs and pour gasoline on him, then throw a match at him, while Lucy is still in the bedroom, but he has “no information” of “the crime” that she doesn’t have?

Sadly, there are still parts of the world where women are considered male property, and therefore her rape is seen as the worst possible thing that could ever happen to her (or her “owners”). Worse than being set on fire. Worse than being shot and killed. I find it beyond shocking that the rape is seen as the only crime here.

It turns out Lucy is pregnant with the child of one of the rapists. Lurie tries to get her to have an abortion but she responds with, “I’m a woman. I don’t hate children because of where they came from.”

Petrus, who was suspiciously missing during the time of the break-in and whom Lurie suspects of having set the whole thing up so that he could scare Lucy away and own the farm himself, returns to the farm, with a new wife, and throws a party in the shed. At this party, Lucy and Lurie discover that one of the boys who raped her is the son of Petrus’s new wife. Lurie wants to call the police but Lucy forbids him from doing so, saying she needs to get along with these people since they’re now co-owners of the farm.

Lurie goes to talk to Petrus. Petrus insists his new son is not one of the rapists, but tells Lurie because of what’s happened, he would still make him marry Lucy but for the fact that he is too young for her. Petrus then tells Lurie he will marry Lucy himself (I don’t know if the filmmakers forgot that Petrus is already married or whether in S.A. bigamy is legal). Lurie delivers this message to Lucy and she accepts Petrus’s marriage proposal. Lurie thinks she is completely nuts (as does most of the audience, I’d venture to say) and tries to plead with her but to no avail.

Eventually, through all of this trauma, Lurie realizes the wrongness of his ways (because, apparently, in this world, rape is equal to sex with prostitutes and consensual sex with adults). He visits the father of the student he seduced to apologize. It’s a testament to Malkovich’s enormous talents that this climactic scene actually works, based in nonsense though it is since he’s really done nothing wrong to this supposedly full-grown woman.

Lurie begins having an affair with Lucy’s friend, the humane euthanizer, and helps her put the dogs down. In the second climactic moment, Lurie sacrifices his favorite dog in order to show that he’s finally has decided to disavow his own male / dog “nature.”

By the end of the movie, Lurie has learned to accept his daughter and her pregancy. In the last shot, the camera slowly pans across the land (like in Howard’s End) to reveal the entire farm. The bright new house Petrus has built himself is a marked contrast from the shabby, broken home housing Lucy. So, through rape and pillage, black South Africans have “taken over.”

The biggest problem with the movie (apart from the bad metaphors, the infantalizing of women and the equating of sex with rape) is that all the black South Africans are portrayed either as evil or easily taken advantage of. I’m sure it can be very dangerous for whites on those farms, particularly for women living alone, and I’m sure there are many rapes. But the film doesn’t present the perspective of any of the black South Africans, the historical oppression, the conditions creating the severe inequality that have led to such hatred and violence. The film is one-sided and in my mind comes across as feeding into racist stereotypes.

The film’s only redeeming quality, to me (apart from some beautiful shots of South Africa), is Malkovich, who — I have no idea how — was able to make his way through all the aforementioned problems and create a truly sympathetic, memorable portrait of this man. He always does that though, no matter how unlikeable the character. The man is a genius.

Has anyone else seen the movie? Or read the book? I have the book, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I didn’t like Diary of a Bad Year and so was putting it off but I probably should now because I have a feeling there was a lot left out. I hope there was anyway.

Photo taken from Rotten Tomatoes.

7 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review. I won't be seeing that one.

  2. Polygamy is indeed legally recognized in South Africa. Actually, the current president has more than one wife. I think it's dangerous for women in South Africa whether they're living on farms or no. Something like one in four South African girls is raped by the time she's 16. I know there are also issues with child rape and the “corrective rape” of lesbians.

    Oh, and the real reason I'm commenting: the Coetzee book I'd recommend is Foe which is also racially charged but in a less explicit way than his books set in South Africa. Coetzee was a pretty prominent opponent of apartheid and I can't imagine that his intention would be to portray all black South Africans as evil so it's certainly unfortunate if the movie makes it seem that way.

  3. Thank you, Meg. I am going to check out that book. I'm also going to read Disgrace — it's not very long; I have a feeling people who read the book got something different out of the film. But, still, I think the film has to stand on its own.

    I didn't know about the statistics — wow, how horrible. And also about the “corrective rape” — that might have been at play here since Lucy is a lesbian, though the film didn't address that.

  4. Oh, I absolutely agree with you that a movie should stand on its own. And from the sound of it this is a movie that I think I can skip (for some reason, to me at least, unlikeable main characters seem so much more tolerable in books than in movies).

  5. Thank you, Meg. I am going to check out that book. I'm also going to read Disgrace — it's not very long; I have a feeling people who read the book got something different out of the film. But, still, I think the film has to stand on its own.

    I didn't know about the statistics — wow, how horrible. And also about the “corrective rape” — that might have been at play here since Lucy is a lesbian, though the film didn't address that.

  6. Oh, I absolutely agree with you that a movie should stand on its own. And from the sound of it this is a movie that I think I can skip (for some reason, to me at least, unlikeable main characters seem so much more tolerable in books than in movies).

  7. I have only begun watching this film, and since, at the outset, it is disturbing yet intriguing – and the acting is topnotch – I decided that before continuing to watch I would see what people have said. I haven’t gone beyond this site, but I will give you my impressions thus far: this is a study of the depths of human frailty – and human courage – and it is not a film for the shallow-minded. The one thing I regret at this point (early) in the viewing is that we have so early left behind the character Melanie; she bears more study. I have not read the novel, but I shall. Whether or not it is true to Coetzee’s prose or intent, this movie appears to be a provocative and compelling portrayal of not only the black-white, male-female, evil-good conundrum of our human society, it is also a look inside of our very selves – if we dare.

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