John Malkovich is almost too perfect for the part of Disgrace’s David Lurie. His patina of erudition, his reptilian eroticism, and the air of amoral self-absorption he so often embodies onscreen all fit the protagonist of Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel like a bespoke suit, but putting him at the center of a Job-like two-hour travail almost makes you long for someone slightly more likeable to watch suffer. Then again, Coetzee’s novel and director Steve Jacobs’ faithful adaptation, now out on DVD and Blu-ray via Image Entertainment, are largely about what we get rather than what we want or think we deserve.
A chilly white literature professor at a South African university, Lurie embarks on an affair with brown-skinned student Melanie (Antoinette Engel), although calling it an “affair” makes it sound like fun. The way her foot absently dandles during their first tryst, the excruciating slowness with which she later joins him in bed, underline his heedless abuse of his authority over her. David’s actions, and his casually defiant lack of remorse for them, lose him his standing and his job and send him on a road trip to visit his earth-mama daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) at her remote farm, which she shares with black tenant Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney). Not feeling his wounds, much less licking them, David helps out around the farm and at a local animal shelter until a savage attack by a trio of black youths mortally injures his remaining illusions regarding what his life has become.
The predatory affair with the darker-skinned student, followed by the white characters’ slow-dawning realization that they have no power over the land they own, or the blacks who “owned” it before them, set up obvious allegorical resonances with South African society, pre- and post-apartheid. But Coetzee’s book, adapted here by screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli, isn’t so simplistic. While David’s experiences with external forces drive the plot, the real story centers on his internal struggle. A specialist in Byron, he espouses the poet’s imperious view of individual passion as cause and license, despite having outlived the youth that fueled the Romantic poets’ fires. As the cosmopolitan life he enjoyed and the comforts and assumptions that came with it fall away, he comes to rethink the value of his desire and pride and acquaint himself with the basic acceptance of what any given day, or any given person, has in store, whether it’s a companionable roll on the floor or the knowledge of death.
It’s a painful process, and not always easy to watch as David, Lucy, and Petrus each make decisions that they all three must live with, for better or worse. But Malkovich’s adroit embodiment of David, aided by Jacobs’ light touch, makes each step of the journey clear and memorable.
An entirely different father-daughter dynamic plays out in 35 Shots of Rum (Cinema Guild DVD), the latest film from extraordinary French director Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day). Unlike David and Lucy, Lionel (Alex Descas) and Josephine (Mati Diop) are close. They share a small but pleasant Paris apartment and share meals together when he’s not at work driving metro trains and she’s not attending college or working in a CD store. It’s idyllic, really, but widower Lionel isn’t getting any younger, and neither is Josephine. A fellow conductor’s retirement seems to remind him that his own waning years are around the corner, and Josephine’s lithe beauty hasn’t gone unnoticed by handsome young upstairs neighbor Noé (Beau Travail’s Grégoire Colin). Lionel urges his devoted daughter to get on with her life without him as he faces what to do with the rest of his life. They both find their paths forward, though not necessarily in the ways you might first expect.
Denis and Jon-Pol Fargeau’s script essentially rewrites Yasujiro Ozu’s 1949 film Late Spring for contemporary Parisians, and like Ozu’s masterpiece, Denis’ film is surpassingly subtle. The history of Lionel and Josephine’s nuclear unit is doled out at the pace of acquaintance, and their entanglements with others, from Josephine’s thus-far-platonic friendship with Noe to Lionel’s loose bond with neighbor/former girlfriend Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), are limned with equal nuance. The neatness of Lionel and Josephine’s apartment silently speaks volumes about them, just as the dirty carpet and ratty cat found in Noe’s does about him. And as the story moves forward, the purchase of a rice cooker or a car’s transmission failing on a rainy night carry the force of a major plot turn. 35 Shots swerves toward melodrama at one point, and at least one blatant red herring interrupts the film’s delicate geometry, but this is fairly exquisite filmmaking, suffused with the kind of simple, unsentimental human warmth rarely seen in this quantity or quality, on big screen or small.