Give Her a Hand!

Running Time 103 minutes
Written by Martin Herron and Philippe Blasband
Directed by Sam Gabarski
Starring Marianne Faithfull, Kevin Bishop, Siobhan Hewlett

Sam Gabarski’s Irina Palm, from a screenplay by Martin Herron and Philippe Blasband, is based on an original script by Mr. Blasband, and one of its basic premises has placed me in an embarrassing critical bind. Let me explain as delicately as I can. I have no idea whether there are any sex clubs in Paris or anywhere else in which a male customer can walk up to a wall with a hole through which he can insert his member to obtain what is vulgarly termed a “hand job” at the hand, or, rather, the palm of an accommodating female on the other side of the hole. I do not consider myself an expert in all the sexual vices and practices of the world. In the context of Irina Palm, I found the idea hilarious, perhaps as a result of my ignorance. When I lectured recently in Providence, R.I., at the Rhode Island School of Design, I digressed a bit, as is my wont, to mention my problem with Irina Palm, whereupon a female student assured me with a knowing air that there were indeed such commercial masturbatory facilities around the world without the person-to-person contact of lap-dancing.

Anyway, Marianne Faithfull, a 40-year veteran of avant-garde movies, plays, musicals and TV shows, plays Londoner Maggie, a warmhearted grandmother whose beloved grandson is slowly dying from a mysterious and ruinously expensive illness that requires more money for a life-saving treatment than her son, Tom (Kevin Bishop), and daughter-in-law, Sarah (Siobhan Hewlett), can possibly raise. Maggie has sold her own home to help with the expenses, and even that is not enough.

Maggie tries to get a job, but without any employment history, even at her advanced age, she finds it impossible to qualify for gainful employment. We learn gradually that Maggie married at 18, and led a very dull and sheltered life with a husband who had died only recently. In desperation, she naïvely walks into a sex club with a “hostess wanted” sign outside. She is interviewed by the sex-club owner, Miki (Miki Manojlovic), who offers her a job servicing his male customers. She would not have to look at her “clients,” he assures her.

Maggie’s first impulse is to walk out of the sex shop in disgust, but she quickly reconsiders her desperate need for quick money and begins her duties, at which she proves to be so proficient that she becomes famous throughout Paris as Irina Palm. She makes a great deal of money, for both herself and Miki. She gives her earnings to her son without explaining where, and how, she got it. She constantly worries that her family and neighbors will find out her secret. Fortunately, she lives in a Paris suburb far from the city’s red-light district where she works.

But eventually Maggie is followed by Tom to her sordid place of employment, and he demands that she quit her job immediately because, he screams censoriously, he won’t tolerate his mother working as a “whore.” Miki is distressed when Maggie calls him to tell him that she is quitting. Miki can hear Tom screaming in the background, but realizes that there is nothing he can do. A definite attraction had developed between Miki and Maggie during the period of her employment. In the end, Maggie is reconciled with Tom as he and Sarah take their child away for further treatment. Maggie stays behind to consummate her relationship with an enthusiastic Miki. There is an absurdist dimension to the film in that Maggie finally takes great pride in doing what she does so well. The sentimentality of the narrative would have been excruciating without the absurdist activity at its core.

Ms. Faithfull turns out to be another actress of a certain age who is well used in a film to which she lends dignity, compassion and gravitas. In her long career she has served such masters of minimalism as William S. Burroughs, Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard. She makes Irina Palm a cinematic event worth catching. Give Her a Hand!