Dour, detached, and oozing general contempt, the professor of literature who runs afoul of postapartheid South Africa in Australian director Steve Jacobs’ Disgrace might have been written for John Malkovich. In this film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s brilliant 1999 novel, the actor brings his languid creepiness, along with a hard-working Cape Town accent, to the part of David Lurie, a snooty, 50-ish academic with an aestheticized passion for the Romantic poets. Divorced and still fancying himself a roué, David maintains a chilly, power-tripping attraction to women of color that leads him to seduce — some would say, rape — a beautiful mixed-race student named Melanie (Antoinette Engel). Such is David’s arrogance that when a multiracial academic committee accuses him of flouting university rules, he readily concedes his guilt. “I was enriched by the experience,” he says, rubbing in his disdain for political correctness while refusing to meet the committee’s demands for a public apology.
Forced to resign, David leaves Cape Town for the backcountry, where his daughter, Lucy (South African newcomer Jessica Haines), a lesbian hippie as idealistic as her father is disenchanted, farms her small homestead in precarious harmony with Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), her inscrutable black overseer. Prodded by Lucy, David reluctantly volunteers at a local pet clinic, where a middle-aged animal-rights activist named Bev (Fiona Press) euthanizes unwanted dogs. It’s in these backwoods, a habitat as scrubby, raw and concrete as his city life was tastefully abstract, that David will be profoundly humbled and transformed by a shocking sequence of events. But if you know your Coetzee, you won’t be expecting a nice, liberal parable in which everyone learns to get along. There’s no Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Disgrace, no institutionalized acts of mercy, no olive branches extended from white to black or vice versa. Instead, the long-suppressed hatred of South African blacks for their erstwhile masters bubbles up in an ostensible robbery that turns into a rape and beating, whose savagery mirrors, then far surpasses, what David has done. Differentially scarred by the attack, he and Lucy react according to their disparate natures and political bents.
This bloody scenario may seem to call for the intense action picture that Africa’s postcolonial traumas have typically elicited, in movies like Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi or Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond. Here, though, the melodrama plays out with quietly brooding menace in the austere economy of Coetzee’s prose, crisply adapted for the screen by Anna Maria Monticelli. In early scenes, the movie is nervously overwrought, larded with close-ups of pencil sharpeners and other irrelevant inanimate objects, before it settles into an intelligently faithful rendering of a calling to account, whose visceral force needs no hyping.
If Coetzee’s novel won him a Nobel Prize for literature in 2003, at home, it was dismissed as racist and reductive by fellow writers both black and white. In fact, Disgrace looks the chaos and hatred of postapartheid South Africa squarely in the face, probing the terrible fallout from white denial and pride without patronizing blacks by caricaturing them as noble victims. David may fancy himself apolitical, but his intransigence echoes that of South Africa’s former President P.W. Botha, who failed to show up when summoned before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And the film will surely resonate with audiences in Australia — whose government recently issued a formal apology to its Aboriginal population, and where Coetzee now lives — and wherever skin color has been made a basis for rigid social hierarchy.
Prior to his reckoning, David is not pro-apartheid. He’s something worse: a man who’s not for anything other than the gratification of his own desires and the arbitrary assertion of a droit du seigneur that was bred in the bone of white South Africans, or at least the country’s white males. But by the end of Disgrace, David has come to the painful yet oddly peaceful recognition that in the new South Africa, men like him have grown obsolete. It’s the women who “do what must be done.” Lucy’s decision about the baby she’s carrying, the land she lives off, and the people she lives with, may seem as bizarrely over the top to Western audiences as it does to her father — certainly, it made me catch my breath. Yet in making up her mind, she reveals herself not as the dippy hippie we thought she was, but as a practical representative of a new generation of whites who understand the precise magnitude of the debt run up by their parents, a debt that they must now figure out how to repay.
DISGRACE | Directed by STEVE JACOBS | Written by ANNA MARIA MONTICELLI, based on the novel by J.M. COETZEE | Produced by MONTICELLI, EMILE SHERMAN and JACOBS | Paladin | Music Hall, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5