The Disgrace of Disgrace
This film has won a major prize and is being given the big hype by all the trendy thinkers as a profound look at the "new South Africa." That it may be, though not in the way they mean. Disgrace is one of the vilest movies ever produced for normal viewing, and I cannot recommend it for anyone. Even though I fast-forwarded through much of it, I admit it haunts me like a bad dream—a hellish tour of Western decadence.
I have not read the novel by the South African émigré J.M. Coetzee upon which Disgrace is said to be based. Nor do I intend to. Whenever I hear that a movie is "based on" something I think of the cinema mogul in one of Evelyn Waugh's early novels who gave John Wesley a sword and a mistress.
The first and lesser problem here is John Malkovich. I have heretofore thought well of Malkovich—he has done some interesting things, has a Balkan lineage rare in Hollywood circles, and is reputed to be terrifyingly "conservative" among his colleagues—that is, he has exhibited some independence of mind, rare everywhere these days.
Malkovich's voice and mannerisms have become too well-honed and familiar. The trend has been obvious for some time and has reached a sad climax in this performance. Malkovich has destroyed our suspension of disbelief. We can never forget that we are watching Malkovich playing a part. This may be in some degree because the character being acted is at the same time so repulsive and so tedious that he can't be believed. He lacks "motivation," as they say. More than half the film is spent demonstrating that this character is lecherous, selfish, irresponsible, and, though this might not be intended, boring. If a message was intended about the society of "the new South Africa," such a goal would have been much better served by a normal character rather than one of distracting oddity. There are other disgusting, unnecessary touches as well.
Our hero is a divorced urbanite Capetown professor who loses his position because of his seduction of a mixed race (Cape Coloured?) student. He seems to prefer darker women, though his lechery is without serious racial or any other kind of discrimination. He next appears at the small remote farm (eastern Cape? Natal?) where his grown, unmarried daughter, a feminist and possibly a lesbian, lives alone. The only neighbour is a black man who is friendly and helpful but a little too intrusive. Then three black "youths" show up, gain admittance under a false appeal for help, and proceed to wreck the house, steal everything of value, kill the animals, and gang rape the daughter. Our hero, meanwhile, after pitiful efforts at resistance, is knocked on the head and locked in the bathroom.
A little later it is discovered that the criminals are relatives and friends of the neighbour, who was conveniently absent that day. The daughter refuses to call in "the police" on the grounds that if the bad boys are prosecuted, it will become impossible for her to remain on her place. It is not mentioned that in "the new South Africa" calling the police would probably make no difference anyway.
Here, I suppose, beginneth the lesson. The daughter is pregnant with a rapist's baby and does not seem too unhappy about it. After all, the evil has been committed because that is what men are like, not because these happen to be black Africans. Having a part black child will, at least so she concludes, give her an accepted role in the community of "the new South Africa" and guarantee her safety. After all, she will have relatives in the neighbourhood.
How are we supposed to feel about this? I assume that enlightened opinion will applaud this happy ending. With this example South Africa can now march forward into the long-awaited happy future. The oppressor and the oppressed have switched places, but are satisfactorily reconciled to the new way of things. So what if a little violence against the innocent is necessary to make clear who is now the boss? (Another recent film, The Lovely Bones, seems to promote a similar theme: vicious criminals should not be punished but be forgiven and reconciled with their victims. A Hollywood trend?)
My dark, reactionary mind, which thinks there is no redemption in this world and that history never rises very far above the raw fundamentals of our flawed nature, sensed another, profounder teaching. Whether this revelation was intended or is a case of art containing more than the artist was aware of, I know not. This strikes me as a prescient, dramatic depiction that Western men have lost their courage, will, pride, sense of social obligation, and ability to protect their women. They no longer display the qualities that made them Western men. Indeed, one can see already considerable evidence of this in America and Europe as well as among the outnumbered whites of South Africa. The real message may be that white women are instinctively adapting to their new masters as a tactic of survival for themselves and their offspring. Celebration or warning? I suppose it is all a matter of how you feel about it.