Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"No country, this, for old men." Thoughts on Disgrace

“…A mad old man who sits among the dogs and sings to himself!”

That mad old man is David Lurie (John Malkovich) a professor of the Romantics in Cape Town, South Africa. He’s at the center of Steve Jacobs’ film Disgrace, based on the best selling and award winning (and one of my five favorite books) J.M. Coetzee novel. How he becomes mad is only the surface of this story – this isn’t a film about good deeds or bad deeds, or about redemption and rebirth; no, this is a film that asks hard questions that don’t have answers, a film that observes with the objectivity and coldness of fact. It’s also one of the best films of the year, and is filled with deep moments of power, poignancy, and truth; it will leave anyone who watches it in a state of heated conversation about the morally ambiguous dilemmas that plague the film’s characters.

We’re introduced to Lurie as he approaches a student on campus and invites her over for a drink. This leads to some casual sex, the kind that, in Lurie’s mind, is common place and has no repercussions because of his position. Consider for a moment, though, that the film takes place in South Africa in the 1980’s, that Lurie is white and Melanie, the student he sleeps with, is black; consider also that the world around Lurie is changing and his casual incident has sparked a controversy on campus. After these events we see Lurie reading Byron in class, asking about the Lucifer character who is a fiend, an immoral person who does what he wants. He’s not mad in the head, but mad in the heart – like Lurie is.

Lurie is a man who used to be able to get away with these affairs with students, but he’s getting older, less interesting to female students, so he has to become more forceful, more intruding…which is his downfall (and interestingly enough a nice metaphor for later in the film). The casual incident with Melanie turns into a bit of stalking by Lurie, and she has filed a complaint to the university. Before he knows it there is a committee at the college being formed to ask him questions about why he not only slept with the student, but gave her a grade for an exam she was not present for.

Lurie, not concerned with the unethical implications of his actions (a theme that arises more than once in this film), is flippant in front of the committee. He’s an old dog who doesn’t understand the new South Africa. He talks about wanting to play it ‘by the book’ and that he was a victim of ‘Eros’, not understanding the ramifications of what his actions mean in this new South Africa. The idea that he’s an antiquated entity, an old dog, is a brilliant metaphor that is masterfully executed by the end of the film when he learns what the real South Africa looks and feels like. He’s accustomed to being the smartest man in the room, he’s accustomed to being a white man in South Africa; however, things are changing – he’s a dying breed, an old dog that is being put out to rest…this is why he gravitates towards the dog caretaker Bev, a character we’re introduced to later in the film.

Back to the story: Lurie leaves disgraced and drives out to the country to live with his estranged daughter, Lucy. She has a smallholding on a farm that is unofficially owned by a man named Petrus. Petrus is black, Lucy is white, and David doesn’t understand their relationship at all. The author Coetzee has so many nuanced subtexts…sure the themes of apartheid and the black/white dichotomy seem obvious, but Coetzee doesn’t make them obvious tropes, he doesn’t draw attention to them in a way that makes you roll your eyes, and neither does director Jacobs. In the film when we see Lurie sleeping with Melanie it is a clear scene of dominance: his power as her professor and his power as a white man in South Africa. Melanie’s eyes are gazing off in the distance; her head titled to the side in disinterest…it’s almost as if it’s rape, continuing with the dominance theme.

I dare not reveal anymore of the story, but once David and Lucy begin living together things begin to fall apart in both of their worlds – which are both to be defined by a horrific event that occurs mid way through the film. It’s one of the film’s most horrific scenes – the moment in the story that changes everything for David and Lucy – and Jacobs wisely keeps the horror of the moment off camera. It’s a powerful moment because of the director’s choice to go subtle, just like the novelist Coetzee would. This particular moment is a little more defined in the novel (as most things tend to be when novels are turned into films), but it’s not necessarily a key moment solely because of what happens, and again this is where Coetzee’s writing is so powerful: he’s just showing us the way things are, but he’s not over-showing us.

Moral ambiguity is a norm for Coetzee’s work. He doesn’t care about what happens (although there are sure to be debates about what is “right” and what is “wrong”), rather he cares about the way things are. This is South Africa. Look at it. Deal with it. Try to understand it. This is the way Coetzee works, and in the midst of his stark realities he fashions masterful and nuanced stories of human pain and great poignancy.

Lurie is one of the more interesting characters in literature because Coetzee can run so many themes through this protagonist. One of the key themes of the film is that Laurie is obviously a smart man, but that he doesn’t know what’s going on his country. Lurie’s smarts are irrelevant on the farm – and this is where he finds himself – he has to rebuild his identity, find who he is going to be in the waning years of his life. Lucy reminds him of this throughout the film, and in a powerful scene she reprimands David for wanting to call the police on a boy that Petrus knows who has done wrong by Lucy and David. Lucy yells at David that this isn’t his world, and that she has to live here, not him, so it really does no good to try and do the “civil” thing in an un-civil part of the country; for Lucy that would just make things worse. She’s alone on the farm and has adapted to the shift in the country, the shift that David sees is occurring, but doesn’t comprehend as he tries to see where he fits in with this shift. Like the quote I used for the title of this post (which I pulled from the novel), this is no country for an old man.

The performances across the board are strong and memorable. I especially liked Fionna Press as Bev, the caretaker of a dog kennel that David seeks refuge in. And then of course there is the matter of the lead performance by Malkovich. Could there be any other actor besides Malkovich that could have pulled off this role? I ask because if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand this rhetorical question. Malkovich has always been a great, interesting actor, making interesting choices with his facial expressions or vocal inflection; here, as David Lurie, he creates one of his most memorable characters. It’s a performance that will be remembered long after his career is over, and it’s easily one of the best performances of the year.

Disgrace is filled with interesting and intense conversations of moral ambiguity, something that made the novel so memorable – there are also themes of gender roles, race relations, dominance/rule in post-colonial societies, and other buried subtexts that make the film (and especially the novel, which always better lends itself to deeper explication) a deep and enriching, not to mention uncompromising and difficult to swallow, film experience. You’re on the edge of your seat listening to these people engage in philosophical discussions because they aren’t compromised characters; they stay true to their values and the realities in which they must deal with on a daily basis. This isn’t a parable with a happy ending; apologies don’t suffice for these characters – it’s about what they are to do with their lives, the tough decisions they must make, after they apologize for the wrong they’ve done. This is hard, tough, and morally ambiguous film that raises more questions than could possibly be answered; but it’ll have you thinking about those questions long after the film is over. This is a film that sinks its claws into your brain and stays with you for days. I can’t think of anything that is wrong with the film…it’s the perfect adaptation of the perfect novel, and it’s one of the best films of the year.

J.M. Coetzee is one of the five best authors working today. If you liked this film I highly recommend you read the novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1999. I also would suggest his powerful Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K.; all three are just stunningly brilliant novels.


  1. Well Kevin, on this film you and I are in complete agreement, which is somewhat a relief after the strong divergence on ANTI-CHRIST. And God, you have penned an extraordinary review here. I tip my cap to you. Your discussion of the film's moral ambiguity, subtlety and presentation of hard facts without answers is dead-on, but your rightful appraisal of the film's superb performances really place it on a level far ahead of ELEGY, a film with a similar subject that I found superficial. Even Kingsley, Cruz et al could not match the quietly reflective and nuanced performance of Malkovisc, Lurie and company. This is a powerful film which never overplays its hand.

  2. Sam:

    Hooray! We agree on something, hehe. I'm glad you loved this film, too. Malkovich is simply astonishing here, and the film doesn't diverge into moral grandstanding or melodrama. Which I was kind of afraid of at first (until I read Ebert's fine review of the film) because the author Coetzee is so nuanced and make a film adaptation of his work that goes for big dramatic moments and a preachy attitude would be doing a disservice to the author. So, I was beyond relieved when I saw that Steve Jacobs adapted the story to be just as nuanced and powerful as the author intended.

    Thanks for the kind words, Sam. Here's to more agreeing in the future! (although it's fun to discuss out difference in particular filmmakers every now and then, hehe).

  3. I failed to mention that I am continually amazed at your command of contemporary literature. Your avid reading always gives your film reviews an added enriching perspective.

  4. Thanks, Sam. I got BA in Literature more for fun than purpose I think, hehe. There's not much money to be made in going to school as a Lit major -- but sure was a lot of fun, and made me 100 times smarter, hehe.

  5. Indeed Kevin. Both my BA and my MA are in English lit and all I get extra is $1,500 a year for the extra degree. It meant absolutely nothing in a practical sense. I agree with the "fun" aspect, but in your case it's also clear it really stoked a sustained love of reading.

  6. Sam:

    That is why I am going for my masters in education. It might be worth more (just barely) than a masters in Lit. Hehe.

  7. Is this on DVD now? I remember hearing about it last year (probably from you) and wanted to give it a shot.

  8. Also -- Sam is right -- you do have quite the grasp of literature and it shows in your reviews. Sometimes I wish I had chosen that route in my education, but I guess swimming in a pool filled with gold doubloons and sleeping on a bed of cash every night makes me happy for my engineering degree...hehe.

  9. It's on just have to "find" it, hehe. How's that for being secretive. Ah that Puerto Rico or Goa?

  10. I think the films was amazing. I watched this film with my friends. And seriously we people enjoyed it very much.