Scotland’s Latest Lothario: Ewan McGregor in Young Adam

David Mackenzie’s Young Adam , based on the novel by

Alexander Trocchi, was well underway before I realized I was watching a period

film. It’s set in the years following World War II, when the British economy

was moribund, particularly in perpetually depressed Scotland. Most of the action

takes place on the waterways around Glasgow on a river barge operated by a

live-in family consisting of Les (Peter Mullan), Ella (Tilda Swinton) and their

young son, Jim (Jack McElhone). They also employ a deckhand, a young drifter

named Joe (Ewan McGregor), who boards with the family in their very close

quarters on the barge.

The picture actually begins with

some portentous underwater footage on the River Clyde-with all its detritus,

including the partly submerged body of a woman. Joe is at the wheel of the

barge when he spots the body floating to the surface, and with Les’ more expert

help, they drag the drowned woman, clad only in her slip, onto the barge. Les

is exuberant over this sensational break in his boring routine; Joe is

strangely pensive; and Ella is sullenly suspicious-particularly when she sees

Joe tenderly caress the woman’s back.

The characters and their milieu

are already shown through Giles Nuttgen’s cinematographic evocation of a

grayish-brownish world in which blue-collar river-rats scrounge to make a

living out of loading, hauling and unloading a variety of commodities to keep

Scotland’s ever-sputtering economy in at least minimal motion. The detailed

attention given to workaday minutiae as the barge traverses Glasgow’s locks and

straits reminds us of the documentary origins of British cinema, which focused

on the lives and labors of ordinary people. The limitations of this movement

vis-à-vis the moviegoing public was its exclusion of dramatic narrative and the

absence of the characters’ inner life recorded externally by the camera.

In Young Adam , Mr. McGregor’s Joe is the only character with an inner

life, and this is somewhat disconcerting as he cold-bloodedly exploits his

roguish charm to bed every woman he encounters, with little affection and even

less emotional responsibility. The first conquest we are privileged to witness

in all its NC-17 explicitness involves Joe and the fascinatingly angry Ella

going at it shamelessly with her husband and child sleeping nearby. Ms. Swinton

and Mr. McGregor project a fierce complicity amid their lower-class environs.

It reminded me of a caption in Lo Duca’s L’Erotisme

au Cinéma , which illustrates a shot of an Italian actress on a rumpled bed

in a torn slip with the generic designation le

lit neorealiste (“the neorealist bed”).

For his part, Joe is a throwback

to all the angry young men of England’s postwar theater and cinema who railed

against a world they never made, a world without any more causes or

opportunities for heroic behavior. Unfortunately, Joe has no one to whom he

feels comfortable confiding his inner anxieties. He has some vague notions of

being a writer, but quickly realizes that he doesn’t have the right stuff for

that arduous profession and hurls his typewriter into the River Clyde in

self-disgust.

Through a series of unannounced

flashbacks, we find out that Joe was involved in the accidental drowning of his

former girlfriend, Cathie (Emily Mortimer), but an innocent man was convicted

and sentenced to death despite Joe’s guilt-ridden anonymous notes to the

defense attorney stating that he was responsible for Cathie’s death, albeit in

a tragic accident. Joe fears coming forward in person because he’s afraid the

authorities will charge him with murder. (Actually, it was when the judge

pronounced the innocent man’s death sentence that I fully realized how long ago

the story is supposed to have taken place.)

The sex scenes between Cathie and

Joe are climaxed by the now-notorious custard-pie-ketchup smorgasbord that Joe

inflicts to lend spice to their kitchen-floor copulation. Unlike the proud and

self-aware Ella, Cathie completely surrenders her dignity and self-respect-Joe

picks her up on a beach with casual ease-when she pleads with him to stay after

she discovers she’s pregnant. Joe is on the verge of entering Michael Caine’s Alfie (1966) territory, but in Joe

there’s none of the poignancy and regret that ultimately punishes Alfie for his

irresponsibility and heartless hedonism. Joe’s only regret-and it’s only a very

mild regret-is that an innocent man is going to die for something Joe did.

Indeed, Joe winds up his one-man

war on women by betraying Ella in the most callous way possible: by sexually

servicing her sister in a mechanically joyless manner. By this time, Joe’s

libido is operating on autopilot and all pretense of feelings has been

discarded. The last shot shows Joe “moving on” to who knows where. Most

moviegoers-and not only the feminists among us-will be disappointed that Joe

didn’t get an adequate comeuppance for his piggish behavior. For example, when

Joe is confronted by the cuckolded Les and offers to move out of the barge, Les

tells him that he’ll move out instead, since Ella owns the barge. Somehow, it

was a bit uncomfortable to watch a cuckolded husband being economically

castrated in the process, particularly since Joe seemed just as willing to

abandon Ella if Les would only say the word.

Characters like Joe play better

in the novels of Balzac and Stendahl than in English-language movies. Not that

triumphant scoundrels are completely unknown in the English-speaking world.

Just think of Kind Hearts and Coronets

(1949), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of

Dorian Gray and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon . But in each instance, there is wit, humor and a

fleeting nod to morality that compensates for all the bad behavior. Joe is

neither funny nor witty; he rarely nods to morality-and when he does, it’s only

when women are not involved. Yet for all its coldness, Young Adam still managed to impress me thanks to the time, the

place, and the amoral sobriety and desperate conviction of its central

performance.

A Georgian Tale

Julie Bertuccelli’s Since Otar Left ( Depuis qu’Otar Est Parti ) has deservedly won many international

awards for its dynamic depiction of the heartrending love shared by a

grandmother, mother and granddaughter after a tragedy strikes from afar. Hence

the picture is all about three imposing Georgian women: the seemingly frail but

iron-willed matriarch, Eka (played by 90-year-old Esther Gorintin); her

emotionally needy but hard-working daughter, Marina (Nino Khomassouridze); and

Eka’s restless and rebellious granddaughter, Ada (Dinara Droukarova). These

three generations of women, in both familial and historical time, live together

in a once-elegant but now-crumbling apartment in contemporary Tbilisi, the

picturesque capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Ms. Bertuccelli’s direction is

singularly graceful in allotting enough space to each of her three

co-protagonists without tearing apart the fabric of familial solidarity.

Dysfunction is so much the order of the day with stories about families around

the world that it’s unusual to find so much warmth here without the slightest

trace of sappy sentimentality. For example, though we kind-hearted art-house

patrons may be inclined to be condescendingly indulgent to a stooped-over

90-year-old woman like Eka, some of us may be somewhat taken aback to hear her

yearn for the good old days of Josef Stalin, who, she says, certainly knew how

to run things.

One day while Eka is away

inspecting the family’s summer cottage, Marina and Ada receive a call from

Otar’s friend in Paris, who tells them that Otar (Eka’s son and Marina’s

brother) has died in a construction accident. Neither woman can bear to report

the dreadful news to Eka. It falls to young Ada to begin writing bogus letters

in Otar’s name to his mother. Farfetched reasons have to be invented to explain

why Otar doesn’t call on the telephone. Marina borrows money from her lover and

employer, Tenguiz (Temour Kalandadze), so she can send it to Eka along with the

forged letters that Otar is supposedly sending from Paris.

The deception begins to unravel

when Ada flatly refuses to write any more letters. She accuses her mother of

trying to keep Otar alive in Eka’s mind so that Eka never gets to the point of

finally and irrevocably rejecting her daughter’s love and consoling survival.

Ada is too young and judgmental to understand all these “games” that older

people play with their feelings. Yet Ada is far from ungenerous with her own

feelings of support when either Eka or Marina is distraught.

Unbeknownst to Marina and Ada,

who have gone on a short holiday with Tenguiz and Ada’s very temporary

boyfriend, Alexo (Sacha Sarichvili), Eka sets into motion an elaborate plan to

get visas for the family to visit Otar in Paris so that Eka can see her son one

last time before she dies. To pay for the tickets, Eka sells the family’s

valuable collection of French literary works, which Ada has feverishly

consumed. It is then on to Paris for our three hard-core Francophiles.

What happens next is so

unexpected and so emotionally complex that I would be a cad to reveal it, and I

won’t, except to say that the film has avoided all sorts of possible pitfalls

in its final resolution. Despite Otar’s unhappy fate, Paris retains its idyllic

aura for Eka, Marina and Ada, but of course, it is Paris seen more from the

outside than the inside.

Francophilia in Russia goes back

at least to the days of Napoleonic invasion, when much of the Russian court-at

least in Tolstoy’s pan-Slavic account in War

and Peace -was virtually paralyzed by its allegedly effete Francophilia. For

this terminally incorrigible Francophile, however, Otar is deliciously subversive in view of the idiotic Bushites who

profess to be patriotically eating “freedom fries” when they gorge themselves

at McDonald’s. I prefer instead to enjoy this Franco-Georgian celebration and

its affection for the cultivated ideals incarnated in the French nation.

Small Wonders

Two films that have come and gone

without attracting the attention they deserved (especially from this

self-proclaimed Diogenes-like searcher for cinema with the ring of truth) are

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s James’ Journey to

Jerusalem and Dagur Kári’s Noi ( Nói Albinói ). The former is an Israeli

satire about the low-wage exploitation of migrant labor, seen through the

luminously innocent eyes of an African Christian pilgrim named James. This

central character is beautifully played by Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe, supported

by a cynical boss, Shimi (Salim Daw), and the boss’ hilariously sardonic

father, Salan (Arie Elias). Noi is a

memorably bleak Icelandic exercise graced by the arresting performance of Tómas

Lemarquis in the title role. Catch them

both on DVD if you can.