Directed by Steve Jacobs
Having lost his mojo to the ravages of middle age, Professor David Lurie (John Malkovich) has resigned himself to life as an ivory-tower sociopath. When we meet him in the film version of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, his days are being spent glaring through windows at passersby, losing himself in hazy collegiate settings shot in soft focus, and preying on the innocence of a beautiful mixed-race student. After a public scandal ignited by his illicit affair, this punishingly grim tale proceeds like a row of dominoes, with one form of injustice toppling onto and often obscuring a host of others.
How, the film asks, will such a classically repugnant figure like Lurie come to reinhabit his humanity? A retreat into the countryside seems to promise redemption through his daughter's we-are-the-world ideals. But when she gets raped by three black strangers, the film makes it clear that its concerns lie not with the future of South Africa's historically oppressed, but with the post-apartheid white male condition. Locked inside Lurie's feelings of both guilt and victimization amid a shifting social order, we watch as this former lecher is made impotent by a nation unable to fathom its own heart of darkness.
As in Coetzee's blunt prose, Disgrace offers no catharsis, only a collection of pressure points. Even while the narrative maintains its coherence, the film feels as if it has been cut out of a much larger canvas, and as if it were insulating itself from other traumas, mysteries, and absences we can only imagine. The viewer is placed in a contradictory position, on the one hand feeling that the series of violent and exploitative acts on display are only a glimpse of South Africa's many troubles, and on the other suspecting that the film wants us to see it as a totalizing national allegory.
At times it plays like a bitter retort to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, animating the white man's nightmare of being a victim among savages in order to assert that power and oppression are constants from which we can never hope to be free. Disgrace's deep-seated suspicion of humankind suggests that reconciliation is a lost cause. This message is further fostered by a cast of clichéd black characters, who are never envisioned outside of Lurie's fearful gaze and about whom the film cannot seem to muster a shred of curiosity. Though the novel was accused of racism by several of Coetzee's compatriots, its problems with black representation could arguably be attributed to an immersion in Lurie's misanthropy and self-loathing. Cinema-especially that of the stable, aesthetically unadventurous prestige-picture variety-often has trouble creating and maintaining a single subjectivity, leaving little room for such a loophole.
Beyond this fraught issue of perspective, what really undoes the film is a lead performance so indulgently reptilian as to eliminate all emotional authenticity. Malkovich, never the most versatile of actors, attempts an accent as if he were rolling marbles in his mouth, and tries desperately to emote with wild eyes and a joker's smile. For a story so confident in its truth-telling credentials, Disgrace ultimately surrenders to its star's cartoonish extremes.
Opens September 18