A Disgraceful view of mankind

It has high artistic aspirations, but the movie version of Disgrace has a shallow view of both apartheid and humanity.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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Director Steve Jacobs’ film adaptation of JM Coetzee’s award winning novel, Disgrace, is many things. It is a tale of patriarchy humiliated, of power brought low, of man brought face-to-face with the dog-like reality of his existence. It is almost moving, almost haunting. And it is definitely sombre, sometimes with the distinctive plod of a funeral cortège. But, for all its earnest artistry, it is not true, neither as art nor as life.

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Disgrace tells the story of twice-divorced Professor David Lurie, played with an overwhelming superciliousness by John Malkovich. A disenchanted don grown lusty at the Cape Town University, Romantic poetry is Lurie’s speciality, romantic seduction his reason to be. Unfortunately, his latest conquest, a ‘coloured’ student called Melanie, does not quite go according to plan. Yes, he seduces her, indulging himself in several joyless, near lachrymose copulations. But given her blank-faced indifference, and the suggestion of coercion, the fact that Lurie is eventually reported to the university authorities by Melanie’s parents is less surprise than comeuppance. This is also his disgrace.

Forced to resign, and to endure a very public shaming, Lurie leaves Cape Town to stay with his lesbian daughter Lucy on her remote country farm. And it is here that he encounters the brutal reality of the new South Africa, one in which blacks share the land with whites, and – in the narrative’s key moment – wreak vengeance. It is here also that the achingly metaphorical nature of the film starts to pull itself apart.

In the country, Lurie, a person who has lived his life with all the entitlements and trappings of power, is brought face to face with a reality without them. Denuded, he must learn to live with himself, with what he has done, and with what must be exacted in return. It is impossible not to see Lurie’s reconciliation with his disgrace as the archetype of white South Africa coming to terms with the disgrace of apartheid, and the exploitative practices justified and exacted in its name. Lurie’s abortive affair with the expressionless, characterless Melanie becomes something else. It becomes an abuse of power, an abuse made all the worse for going unrecognised by Lurie. In his eyes it’s an exercise in Byronic self-expression.

The problem is that the particulars of Disgrace, whether characters or action, lose themselves to metaphor. Lurie, Lucy, her tenant-cum-co-landowner, Petrus, the deathless and deadly fornications are all mere terms in which something else is expressed: for the most part, a view of post-apartheid South Africa, and the guilt and shame of whites who for too long treated blacks as objects, things to be used for sex and for back-breaking toil.

But there is something more, too. It is not just a metaphor for the bloody, painful birth pangs of the new South Africa; these travails of a nation become themselves a metaphor for a yet more abstract view of human relations, of men and women, of male power and female victims. Lurie is not just white and South African, he is also male, a slave to the priapic beast within.

During an early scene we see Lurie lecturing his students on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Lucifer, he tells them, just acts, ‘his madness was not of the head, but heart’. It is not a question of right or wrong for Lucifer, but of the heat of the moment: ‘the source of his impulse is dark to him’. The problem of Lucifer, Disgrace seems to be telling us, is the problem of man. The impulse, the animal inside, the need to manifest the will cannot be held apart from social relations – it is everywhere present, in sex, in culture, in law.

This is the ultimate disgrace, trumping Lurie’s particular indiscretion, trumping even apartheid-era South Africa. Man has impulsively exploited, has unthinkingly raped, has thoughtlessly pillaged, all the while believing his civilisation to be ample compensation for his barbarism. That Lurie is immersed in Western culture, scattering literary allusions throughout his speech, has not elevated his nature, it has merely concealed and justified it.

The eponymous disgrace is not his, nor theirs, it is ours – man’s. There is neither atonement nor salvation in the amoral universe of Disgrace as Lurie himself discovers when attempting to apologise to Melanie’s parents. What there can be, what there can only be, is humiliation, the coming to be of humility. Dogs feature heavily in Disgrace for a reason. Symbols of man’s power over the animal, caged and bent to his will, they also embody the animal reality of his own existence, whether unleashed, or restrained. They are the four-legged embodiment of man’s coming humiliation. Echoing the concluding lines of K at the end of The Trial, Lurie, a man who thought himself high brought low by tenancy on the land of a black man, remarks: ‘How humiliating to end like this… like a dog.’ Lurie’s humiliation is not just his end, it is the end of man, the popping of his phallic pride, his eternal disgrace.

Given the vision of man infusing Disgrace, it cannot be anything but unremittingly bleak. Genuinely unsettling it might be in parts, but its insights are shallow. That a work so rich in literary aspiration, so densely allusive, should be so impoverished in spirit is the real disgrace. Turning South Africa into a male’s psychodrama diminishes both man and the complexities of South Africa. It is just too easy, too neat. It rings untrue.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Disgrace goes on general release in the UK today. Watch the trailer below:

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