Disgrace is a Complex Examination of Sex, Power and Race Relations in Post-Apartheid South Africa

[5 July 2010]

By Adele Melander-Dayton

Based on JM Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, Disgrace takes place in post-apartheid South Africa. The film is a complex examination of sex, power and race relations.  Watching Disgrace is an intense, often uncomfortable experience. The issues it raises (dynamics between men and women, a country in transition) are important and difficult, yet it is also just a film about people, and the particular challenges individuals face. 

Disgrace was brought to the screen by the husband and wife team Anna Maria Monticelli and Steve Jacbos. Monticelli adapted Coetzee’s book as a screenplay and also served as a producer, while Jacobs directed. 

John Malcovich brings gravitas and realism to the role of David Lurie, a professor of romantic literature at a university in Cape Town. Our first impressions of David are unfavorable. He recites Byron to his lecture classes in cool, indifferent tones. We see him engaging with prostitutes (and quite a bit of his naked, freckled body) twice in the first ten minutes of the film. He lives alone. 

Though David is a man of a certain age (we later learn he’s 52) he still fancies himself a lady-killer. One of his students, a pretty mixed-race girl called Melanie, catches his eye and he insinuates himself into her life. Though Melanie is a willing (if reluctant) participant in their affair, David’s treatment of her feels wrong, and is at times brutal. David forces himself on Melanie when she resists, and preys on her vulnerability. 

When Melanie’s boyfriend exposes David to the university’s administration, he calmly accepts all charges against him without bothering to review exactly what these charges are. He refuses to express guilt or remorse for his actions. “Are you sorry?” the university committee asks him. “No,” David replies. “I was enriched by the experience.”  After his dismissal, David travels to the remote Eastern Cape region of the country to stay with his daughter, Lucy (Jessica Haines). 

Lucy has recently been left by her girlfriend and has a small produce and flower farm among the stark arid hills of the Cape. She shares her property with Petrus, (Eriq Ebouaney) a black South African man who is her tenant. Lucy keeps kennels of five or six large dogs, which are partly for protection—as a white woman living alone in a remote area, Lucy is somewhat defenseless.

David tries to settle into the daily rhythms of life with his daughter. They walk the dogs together; he accompanies her to the farmer’s market, and even volunteers at the local animal clinic where Lucy’s friend Bev (Fiona Press) administers euthanasia to sick and unwanted pets, mostly dogs. Still he remains critical of Lucy’s decisions about how to live her life. 

David is mistrustful of Petrus, believing he is trying to take advantage of Lucy’s generosity and precarious status as a single white woman.When David arrives, he is much warmer with his daughter than he has been with any of other women we’ve seen him with, namely Melanie. Lucy is in her late 20s—only a few years older than Melanie. Though David’s affection for Lucy is apparent, he is still flippant and condescending in their conversations. “Everyone is so well intentioned,” he tells Lucy. “After a while, you feel inclined to go do some raping and pillaging.”

David’s words prove to be ominously prophetic. Minutes after this conversation, he and Lucy arrive home from walking some of the dogs. Three young black men are waiting outside Lucy’s house, taunting the dogs still in their kennels. “Should we be worried?” David asks his daughter. 

The men ask to use the phone, and Lucy leads one of them inside. As soon as they disappear into the house, the two other men attack David. He calls out to Lucy and sics the dog on his attackers, but to no avail. After being knocked unconscious, David awakes in a locked bathroom. The men douse David in lighter fluid and set him on fire before they leave, having ransacked the house for valuables. All of the dogs have been shot. We soon learn that Lucy has been raped, though this happens entirely off camera. 

Lucy takes David to the hospital and manages to be quite competent despite her recent trauma. The two of them spend the night with Bev and her husband. As soon as he’s up and about, David tries to persuade Lucy to report the incident to the police, but she refuses. She does not want to talk about her rape, but instead says they should go home and “clean up”. 

David grimly digs graves for the dogs around the side of the house while Lucy secludes herself in her bedroom. Throughout the film, most of Lucy’s conflicts are internal. She was a private person before the attack, and continues to be in its aftermath. 

While the scenes depicting the violence against David, Lucy and the dogs are horrific, what follows is in some senses more difficult to watch. David and Lucy’s already tenuous relationship continues to suffer because of their differing opinions on what should be done. David can’t seem to fathom why Lucy would want to stay on her homestead, and becomes enraged when he discovers Petrus is harboring one of the boys who attacked them. 

Petrus was absent from the farm during the attacks, but has since returned with a new wife. The boy in question is her nephew, and according to Petrus, mentally disturbed, but also a child and not a criminal. 

Lucy takes quite a different perspective from her father on how to continue with their lives. She acknowledges that something terrible has happened, but doesn’t believe that any action should be taken in response to her rape. “This is South Africa,” she says.  “Maybe they see me as owing something.” 

David is interested exacting vengeance against his daughter’s attackers, while Lucy is more concerned with the developing social order of the country, and moving forward. She seems willing to accept personal casualties, such as her rape, if it is part of South Africa’s transition to a more equanimous state. Retribution in important both to David and to Lucy, but they differ widely, almost generationally, in their conceptions of justice.

At the suggestion of Bev (who, bizarrely, has started paying David to have sex with her in the clinic) David leaves the farm for a time to give Lucy space. In one of the film’s few heavy-handed moments, David pays a visit to the Issacs (the parents of Melanie, the student he seduced) to apologize for taking advantage of their daughter. 

Though it is somewhat emotionally gratifying to see that David has come to feel real remorse, the execution of his regret is stilted and strange. The bulk of his apology is directed at Melanie’s father, rather than Melanie herself, reinforcing notions of patriarchy and property. David also offers an apology to Melanie’s mother and younger sister, physically bowing down on his knees in the doorway, a gesture that feels unnatural. Stranger still, he returns to Cape Town to see Melanie perform in a play, before being scared off again by her watchful boyfriend. David patronizes a few prostitutes while in Cape Town, all of them black. 

When he at last returns to the farm, David finds Lucy hugely pregnant. They both know it is the result of the rape, and that Lucy is well beyond the phase when she might have decided to terminate the pregnancy. Lucy explains to David that the baby might be that of Petrus’ nephew, and that this places both of them under Petrus’ familial protection. Lucy sees this as essential if she is to continue to live on her farm. David calmly tells Lucy he will support her in her decision, and excuses himself for a walk. He breaks down outside the house, but does not allow Lucy to see him. 

There are all sorts of allegorical connections to be made in Disgrace. David representing the South Africa of the past, Lucy and Petrus representing the South Africa of the future, and Lucy’s personal trauma as recompense for the decades of gross mistreatment of black South Africans.

Though these broader themes are important, equally compelling is David’s personal evolution. David hasn’t completely renounced his misogyny or racism by the end of the film. Nor has he abandoned his love for his daughter. David must accept that most of the world is beyond his control—his adult child, aging body, and changing country. He finds some solace in simply moving forward. For David, the path of least resistance is more difficult than any action at all. His atonement is to allow events to unfold regardless of his influence. 

The night after watching Disgrace, my boyfriend and I rented Gran Tornio directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. The two films share quite a bit thematically: both feature older white men who are out of step with the racial attitudes and changing dynamics of their countries. Both films confront their difficult subject matter head on, but with very different end results. 

Disgrace implies attitudes and realities about race, whereas Gran Tornio constructs complicated allegories so Clint Eastwood play the cowboy and teach us lessons. This is partly because Malcovich has greater range than Eastwood. Like Paul Newman or Jimmy Stewart, Eastwood is always himself, no matter what role he’s playing. 

By contrast, Malcovich disappears into each of his performances so completely, he renders himself unrecognizable character to character. Of course, this is exactly why many people love Eastwood.  We know we can count on him to be cantankerous and introspective, a softie with a tough exterior in his every role.

Disgrace is content to let actions, landscapes and expressions for themselves. When David breaks down behind his daughter’s house upon learning that she will keep her attacker’s baby, all we are given is the shot itself, and David’s muffled cries. The audience is left to determine for themselves exactly why David is weeping.

In Gran Tornio, Eastwood is compelled to explain, through dialogue—and several unrealistic montages in the mirror—each and every development in the story. It is not enough for David’s children to ignore him and ask him for money after they’ve given him a cake that reads “Happy Birthday Dad”. No, immediately following Eastwood’s birthday non-party, he says to himself gruffly in the mirror “some happy birthday to me, huh?”

There may be a place in cinema for films like Gran Torino: tightly orchestrated and message-driven films about race. If it’s realism you’re after, though, Disgrace is the movie that leaves questions unanswered and plenty of room for a moral grey area. Gran Torino may have some valid things to say about race, but they are definitively confined to the screen. Because it doesn’t try to answer our every last question (served with a shot of superiority), Disgrace bleeds into the edges of real life.

The special features on the DVD are brief, but worthwhile. There are several not-too-long interviews (including a very funny dead-pan Malcovich) with the principal cast members, Jacobs, Monticelli, and two of the producers. The interviews are insightful and discuss several aspects of the difficulties of a production like Disgrace, both practical and theoretical.  A behind-the-scenes featurette is entertaining enough, but lacks substance, and feels like more of a memento for those involved with the production.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/127740-disgrace/