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
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
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.
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.
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