/ 14 November 2008

Just the two of us

Hollywood directors should be shot, opines one character in the new South African film Discreet. That’s because the way they present sex in their movies is wildly idealised and romanticised; it’s totally unrealistic. The earth always moves for characters having sex in Hollywood films — or at least the kitchen table moves.

We can all instantly think of examples. The moment Thomas, the character in Discreet, said those words, I had a flashback to Meet Joe Black, an egregiously pretentious and self-regarding film that included a sex scene of precisely the kind Thomas is referring to. Brad Pitt and Claire Forlani have what is not so much a tumble between the sheets as a float above them, where glossy satin and burnished skin blur into each other, and it’s all shot in golden tones that make it look like softcore porn remade by the authors of a cosmetics ad. And, as I recall, it goes on forever — like the film as a whole.

But it’s not the intention of Discreet to be a counter-example to such Hollywood indulgences, or not quite. It’s not going to throw sex of the opposite kind in our faces, to show us how ugly, boring, meaningless or plain cumbersome sex can be. That would certainly be an interesting project, worth doing even if it has been done a few times already, but Discreet takes an angle that is in some ways easier and in others harder — it talks about sex. And, hence, life in general.

The set-up is this: Thomas (James Alexander) is a young, hard-working, reasonably successful man, and a believing Christian to boot, who decides to visit an upmarket whore. He should be having a celebratory drink with his work colleagues that evening, and the film emphasises the uneasiness that arises when he has to decline his boss’s invitation (always difficult over the office urinal), but, frankly, I can see very easily why a visit to a high-class prostitute might be more compelling than socialising with one’s workmates.

Nonetheless, this is a first time for Thomas and he’s very nervous about it. At any rate, he has done his internet homework and found a prostitute who must be doing very well because she inhabits a Sandton home as luxurious as anything a BEE millionaire might possess. She’s not one of those women who haunt the curbs of certain suburbs, shivering in their mini-skirts; perhaps there’s another movie in that scenario. She’s going as Monique (Anel Alexander), and the encounter with her newest client will reveal what he really wants, if it’s not just going to be sex itself. Just as well, because if it had just been sex the film would probably have been over in 20 minutes.

What emerges is an encounter between two people that brings all sorts of things to the surface — issues of relationships, pretence and authenticity, social responsibility, money, fear and love. From the early moments when Thomas arrives in Monique’s home (moments of excruciating awkwardness) onwards, these two people will do a delicate but mutually provocative dance around each other. They will try to work out what the other wants, what the other really means to say, and thus what each of them really wants and really means. It’s like a parable of what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said was the central psychological question for us all: “What does the Other want of me?”

The close focus on just two people, almost all in one location, gives Discreet its intensity. Obviously its limited remit runs the risk of boring an audience more used to expansive spectacle, but the script, performances and cinematography are strong enough to carry it off. The script is by James Alexander and director Joshua Rous, based on their play, Discreet Upmarket 24/7, and the film has the hallmarks of such a play while using the visual space the characters inhabit (and the spaces between them) in a truly cinematic way. There’s even a fake Jackson Pollock in Monique’s apartment — always useful visually. The film is shot by Trevor Calverley with a fine sensitivity and an eye for telling detail.

Mostly, though, it’s the performances that carry it. Actors James and Anel Alexander are a couple (a “celebrity couple”, nogal, the press release tells people like me who didn’t know), and that must have enabled an intimacy and mutual understanding that plays well here as these two characters reveal themselves to us and to each other. The contrast of softness (Thomas) and hardness (Monique), as displayed in their faces and bodily dispositions, sets up a useful dynamic that enriches the interaction.

Discreet, by its very nature, feels cloistered within a particular segment of our society (though there are broader inferences to be drawn, of course) and within the specific terms of its dramatic structure. But that is also its strength; it’s ambitious enough to be willing to limit itself and do its job very well. It has a simple self-confidence and total lack of amateurishness that bodes well for the careers of its makers, while standing at a remove from the kinds of films South Africans are often told we should be making. Discreet is unusual and courageous, as well as gripping. You can forget all about the kitchen table.