Fallen from grace

“I knew it would be a tough film,” says Steve Jacobs, the director of Disgrace. Jacobs is an Australian whose previous film as director, La Spagnola, was made, like Disgrace, with his wife, writer-producer Anna Maria Monticelli.

“The idea for making it into a film was Anna Maria Monticelli’s,” he says. “I thought it was a great book.
It moved me. I hadn’t thought about how I was going to execute it or how the script was going to work out, but I knew it was cinematic.”

It’s a tough film, he says, because it was hard to finance, and also because it isn’t exactly light entertainment.

“The issues and the situation it addresses are things that confront an audience. It doesn’t relax an audience; it doesn’t give it a happy ending. You’re giving people something that perhaps they find offensive. They may not want to go there. It may dredge up their own prejudices. It’s not something you can go to and forget. It wasn’t an easy film to finance, not an easy film to make. It’s not a multiplex film. We read books like that and we go to films like that because we want to investigate our own society.”

I wondered whether he and Monticelli found it hard to translate JM Coetzee’s book to film. As a novel, its basic technique is style indirect libre or “third-person attached”. That means the character of disgraced academic David Lurie is not telling his own story, as such, but is the focal consciousness of the narrative. His thoughts inflect our responses to the action, whereas the tension between his internal life and the implied viewpoint of the author give it much of its crackle as narrative. To subtract Lurie’s thoughts, as a film must do because it is made of what can be seen, is to remove many of the possibilities for sympathy we might have for Lurie.

But, says Jacobs: “That didn’t bother me. The tough part was to finance it.”

Despite repeated attempts, no financing was forthcoming from South Africa. (Disgrace was shot largely in South Africa, with some bits done in Australia.)

Getting John Malkovich for the role of David Lurie helped in funding terms, though: “You needed to find an actor who was the right age, but also a marquee name who’d bring financial interest to the picture. You also needed someone who was willing to go to places a lot of actors who are famous don’t want to go to. When it comes down to it, they’re thinking: ‘Am I going to get the next dad in a Disney movie with this?’ It demands someone with integrity and courage.”

Ralph Fiennes was initially attached to the film, but he had to bow out. “John Malkovich,” says Jacobs, “was a choice we thought of immediately after that. Fortunately, John knew Mr Coetzee’s work, was an admirer or his novels. We sent him our first film, La Spagnola, and the adaptation of Disgrace. I flew to LA to discuss how I saw the project unfolding. He came on board, and we waited till his schedule was free.”

In case there is anyone who doesn’t know what happens in Disgrace, it deals with David Lurie’s disgrace for a sexual misdemeanour and what comes after. He retreats to his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape, where violent events force them both into a negotiation with loss and powerlessness; the novel is a hard, complex look at many issues that confront post-apartheid South Africa.

The film cleaves as closely to the book as it can, but provides a slightly more upbeat ending. Critics at the screening I attended were annoyed by this (though Coetzee had script approval, so he must have not minded much). I asked Jacobs what led to that change.

“It was a decision made by Anna Maria Monticelli as the adapter, but I totally agreed with it,” he told me. “Was it a film about a man and his dog? No. It was about many other things and many other people. It doesn’t change what happens in the novel, but it switches the final moments. In film, you have to acknowledge the journey you’ve been on. So the ending included some kind of reconciliation, some kind of contrition from the David Lurie character.”

Another thing that irked some viewers was that although much of the story is set in the Eastern Cape, and reference is made in the film to Grahamstown being nearby, it was clearly shot in the Western Cape. The Hottentot’s Holland mountains are quite recognisable at one point.

If South Africans feel a sense of ownership of Disgrace, or at least of its setting, they are going to be bothered (perhaps unduly) by what they see as lapses in authenticity. Jacobs says he felt the story was universal rather than purely South African, and that setting Lucy Lurie’s farm in a beautiful landscape made more sense of her decision to stay there, despite the awful things that happen to her in that place.

“In terms of where we shot it, there were two reasons for that,” says Jacobs. “One was economic—we had to be close enough to Cape Town. The second was that I wanted something that had an epic quality to it. I wouldn’t have shot it in the Eastern Cape. I didn’t even bother going there. It wasn’t my intention to shoot somewhere that was drab and flat and boring. I wouldn’t have done the picture that way. Other people saw the location shots, including Mr Coetzee, and they thought it was appropriate. I’m not an expert on South African landscape. I’m in the movie world. I’m dealing with a visual medium. I took a visual slant on the film that I thought was correct. It’s now up to people to decide if it’s successful or not. We did what we set out to do and I’m pleased with the result.”

The film has received good press in Australia, but the reactions I’ve heard so far in this country have almost all been negative. Besides the ending and the landscape, people are irked by accents—against the South African Jessica Haines, who plays Lucy, the foreignness of Malkovich and, especially, the Francophone Eriq Ebouaney (who plays Petrus, Lucy’s fellow-farmer), is palpable.

But, says Jacobs: “That’s the way the film world works. It works on an economic and talent basis and if people have problems with that they should have financed the film in South Africa and done it in the Eastern Cape.”

Also read The barbarians have arrived

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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