I was attracted to the film Disgrace (2008) for two reasons: it’s based on the novel by J.M. Coetzee (which I read a few years ago) and also because it features John Malkovich. Regular readers of my blogs know that I am intrigued by the book-film connection. Films based on books don’t have to be strictly faithful to the original material, as far as I’m concerned, and sometimes directors/screenwriters offer a slightly different interpretation as they distill down 300 + pages into a 90 minute film. Now that I’ve said that, I can also add that, yes, most film versions of book are disappointing. Disgrace, however, does not fall into that category.
Disgrace focuses on middle-aged professor David Lurie (John Malkovich) who teaches courses on the Romantic poets. Married and divorced twice, he lives alone in Cape Town and teaches at the university. He’d like his weekly standing appointment with a black prostitute to expand into something else, but she shoots that idea down. Then he spies a young student named Melanie (Antoinette Engels) who’s enrolled in one of his classes, and they strike up a relationship of sorts. After a few awkward, clumsy sexual encounters, Lurie finds himself in front of a university committee investigating his behaviour with Melanie. Arrogant and unrepentant, Lurie is fired. He retreats to his daughter, Lucy’s remote farm where he plans on writing about Byron. But the peaceful haven he expected is an entirely different and hostile world. With a growing sense of unease, Lurie finds himself volunteering in the local veterinary clinic where Bev Shaw (Fiona Press) euthanizes a steady stream of homeless pets while trying to treat a range of animals with few resources.
Lucy (Jessica Haines) maintains the farm and sells her produce at a local market without the help of her lesbian lover (who returned for unknown reasons to Cape Town). Now a middle-aged black man named Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), who just won a land grant and whose farm is adjacent, assists Lucy with the heavier, larger projects. Lucy’s easy-going relationship with Petrus makes Lurie uneasy. All the other whites live in compounds and are armed and ready. Lucy, on the other hand, is a sitting duck….
Something horrible happens, as we expected it to, but it’s how the characters react that makes this film so vital. This is a deeply complex film that throws its characters into moral quagmires–in Lurie’s case the initial quagmire is of his own making, but as the film develops, the quagmire is due to the social disaster which surrounds all the characters, and there are no easy answers. While it can’t be ignored that Disgrace is a parable for race relations in S. Africa, its structure doesn’t feel false for one moment. The characters are very real people, and for the second half of the film, I found myself becoming very annoyed with Lucy (and shouting “what the hell are you thinking?” at the television) thanks to her choices. I don’t remember being that angry with Lucy in the book (which has freer range for its complex ideas), so perhaps it’s time for a re-read.
Disgrace examines the use of power in relationships–this is seen through Lurie’s patently false ‘relationship’ with Melanie. He refuses to see that this was never a relationship between equals and that while initially Melanie was at the wrong end of the power dynamic, she subverted the power relationship only when she found her position untenable. Lurie, for his part, acts like the arrogant white man of privilege–although he’d probably deny that he operates in life with that inherent sense of privilege if you suggested it to him. There’s the sense that he selected both the prostitute and Melanie (women of colour) because their positions allowed him to keep control–or so he thought. Then there’s what happens to Lucy. How does that fit in the spectrum of male-female-black-white power subversion? As the film progresses, Lurie comes to understand that there’s a shift in S. African society, and that he must find a place within the new order even as he straddles two worlds–his home in Cape Town complete with a home office lined with books on the Romantics, and the raw Eastern Cape farmland pulsating with the proximity of violence and death.
Author Coetzee is a vegetarian and an animal activist, and both of these elements are apparent in this excellent film. Directed by Steve Jacobs.