Being J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace Starring John Malkovich

Whatever happened to the film adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s stunning novel Disgrace, starring John Malkovich? If, like me, you’ve been under the spell of this book, you may have been wondering this too. We heard about the film when it was in production, and word began to spread over a year ago that the much-awaited film was playing festivals, but it was in and out of New York City and Washington DC theaters before anybody I know had a chance to see it. It didn’t get terrible reviews; it just didn’t get much of a release at all. Then, two days ago, I suddenly spotted the title on a long list of Time Warner Cable “Movies on Demand” on my TV, hiding unceremoniously between Did You Hear About The Morgans? and Easter Bunny Kill Kill!.

I pressed a button to magically pay $4.99, and there I was catching a private viewing of the much-anticipated and mysteriously vanished film in my own living room.

My first concern, as the movie began, was whether or not John Malkovich would ham it up so badly that Coetzee’s subtle narrative wouldn’t stand a chance. I wondered if Malkovich had been chosen for the part of David Lurie (the South African poetry professor who is exiled from Cape Town University for having sex with a student) because he looks so much like J. M. Coetzee. This is not a good reason for a casting choice, especially since Malkovich is a “method actor” who relies heavily on a few signature mannerisms — the stony smirk, the simpering intonation — that do not match my vision of Coetzee’s character at all.

In fact, Malkovich does “play Malkovich” during the first half of the film in which his character loses his regular Thursday prostitute, takes advantage of a young female student, is caught and disgraced and leaves Cape Town to join his daughter on a remote farm in the wilderness. This is the weaker half of the film. But then the plot shifts, and the tone of the film does as well. Lurie is attacked and his daughter Lucy is robbed and raped, and the two find themselves trapped and isolated — not physically as much as morally — in an idyllic land that has suddenly turned evil.

At this point Malkovich finally begins to inhabit his character, and the focus of the plot turns to the triangle that emerges between him, Lucy (Jessica Haines) and the wily local farmer Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney). The film takes on a new seriousness at this point, and I was surprised that, when the final credits rolled, I felt nearly as moved as I had when I’d read the book.

Nearly, that is — not quite, but close. Director Steve Jacobs has a lush visual sense — the harsh clarity of the cinematography reminds me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm — but he also favors portentous setups, soaring Byronic arias and heavy, studied long gazes between characters. The movie also excludes a few specific moments that felt, to me, like keys that unlocked the humanity behind the sometimes diagrammatic ethical equations in Coetzee’s story. These moments include:

• David Lurie’s awkward glimpse, in the beginning of the book, of his favorite prostitute with her child, which ends their relationship.

• The way Melanie, Lurie’s student prey, desperately runs to and from him when he seduces her, revealing her almost comic moral confusion in the face of his will.

• Another almost-comic moment when Lurie visits Melanie’s father to apologize, and stupidly brings a bottle of wine as a gift, not realizing that the father would despise alcohol and see this as further evidence of Lurie’s moral failure.

But other key touches do survive in the film version:

• The argument between Petrus and Lurie over whether two sheep can be removed from their captivity for a short time (it’s clear to Lurie that Petrus will confine his wives in the same way that he confines his sheep).

• The tender love affair between Lurie and Bev, Lucy’s unattractive but kind veterinarian friend.

• Lurie’s outraged fascination with Melanie’s sexually demonstrative performance in a college play, because it so contrasts her detached manner when he tries to interest her.

The novel is better than the movie — of course — but all in all the adaptation is no less successful than that of other famous novels that have gotten much more attention, like Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Having now seen the film, it’s now even more a mystery to me why it disappeared so quickly from theaters. It’s far from a cinematic failure. Maybe it’s just too much of a bummer for date nights and popcorn.

In that case, probably the best way to see it is the way I did: alone, at home with the doors closed, in utter moral isolation.

10 Responses

  1. Reasons this movie didn’t
    Reasons this movie didn’t stay long in the public eye:

    1. No big explosions or car crashes
    2. No cartoon animals farting
    3. Not based on a Marvel comic book
    4. No vampires or werewolves

  2. So glad to hear this wasn’t a
    So glad to hear this wasn’t a complete disaster. I too had been wondering what happened to it and thought maybe the radio silence about it was an ominous sign. Now I will be able to Netflix it with a little more confidence. Thanks for the review.

  3. Yes Bill and deservedly
    Yes Bill and deservedly so.

    What were the filmmakers thinking not having a flatulent cartoon vampire-werewolf bomb-making superhero.

    Which brings us to the next adaptation that’s in the pipeline.

    On the Road is finally actually for real in real life being, or about to be, filmed.

    And it has big stars. Someone from vampire movies is going to play Mary Lou. And Kiki/Marie Antoinette will be Camille. Teenage Witch Queen Vampires are Kerouac’s women.


    In all honesty, it seems that the film makers are serious and sincere and trying to make a good movie. It’ll be interesting to see.


    There’s also a new Burroughs documentary that’s going to be distributed by Adam Yauch’s (MCA) company. Why they have Biafra as one of the commentators is a mystery to me, though.

  4. TKG, I’m in a state of denial
    TKG, I’m in a state of denial about the upcoming On The Road movie. I expect it will be awful. Maybe if I pretend the movie will never be released it won’t … this method has worked for me so far for 15 years.

    Heard about the new Burroughs doc too. Well, if Jello Biafra wants to be in it, that’s okay with me. I think it’s great that Adam Yauch is involved, glad to hear he’s active again after his bout with cancer.

  5. I think it failed because the
    I think it failed because the whole rape theme is still a very difficult subject to deal with for many people in a world where horrible cases of rape (i.e. the whole Catholic Church worldwide scandals) still happen. Many people just don’t feel comfortable with the subject of rape and it’s even more difficult when the “hero” of the movie sexually abused one of his students.

  6. I actually look forward to
    I actually look forward to the OTR film. Out of curiosity as much as anything. How are they going to do it? I, of course, didn’t audition for a part, so I don’t have as much a personal involvement there.

    When I was around 20 or so I was always writing and planning an On the Road film in my head. I thought that some voice over with the actual prose from the book would fit well etc…

    That was back in the day when I was playing in my band and we played with the Dead kennedys and all those other punk bands. I was the only person (and my best friend who played guitar in the band) who were in to Kerouac and the beats back then. I linked to the old Ginsberg rememberance page the other day and that has my little story of meeting Ginsberg at the On Broadway, a venue in San Francisco where we and the DK’s and all the other bands played regularly.

    And, at the Corso.Ginsberg poetry reading there, Biafra wasn’t there. When Burroughs read down on Mission back in 1980/81 or so with this new performer Laurie Anderson, Biafra wasn’t there. When we were hanging out afterward talking to Burroughs Biafra wasn’t there. In fact, the people I saw there at the show who were also in the scene were there to see Laurie Anderson, not Burroughs. And in fact, when an old Merry Prankster brought a bunch of old films down to Berkeley to show, I went to see it. And who do I run in to on BART going over to this? Biafra. He says where are you going? I say to see the Merry prankster films. I want to see these old films and check out Neal Cassidy. He looks at me like I’m crazy and says, Why? He was totally why would you go see this hippy crap?

    I must say, though, that not everyone was like that. Vale from Search and Destroy started Re/Search and profiled Burroughs. (But Vale wasn’t really a punk rocker on the scene per se). And Genesis p-Orridge who is in this new documentary put out old Burroughs recordings, “Nothing Here But the Recordings” which was great. I wish I still had that record.

    So, I really don’t begrudge Biafra for being in the film either and I have nothing bad to say about him at all. I just have been amazed to see how the worm turns after three decades now.

    California Uber Alles — somehow a lot of us have become the suede denim fashion police.

    Don’t vote for Jerry Brown this century this time.

  7. You know what film deserves
    You know what film deserves more attention? Lisztomania. Imagine a world where Ringo Starr is the pope. This amazing film hasn’t even been released on DVD. Rick Wakeman as Thor. It’s amazing.

  8. That’s very funny to hear,
    That’s very funny to hear, frsh. I remember hearing of Lisztomania when it came out. I think Ken Russell was trying to follow up on the success of his film version of Tommy by the Who. I never saw the film, but I remember that it bombed, and I got the impression I that Rick Wakeman’s material (he wrote it) wasn’t quite as strong as Pete Townshend’s. I sure would love to see the movie though.

  9. Plus, I just found out it was
    Plus, I just found out it was released on DVD on 2009. Personally, I think it’s a better movie than Tommy. At least it is quite hilarious. The final scenes of Tommy, with the “see me, feel me” song is quite an amazing and spiritual experience though.

  10. I found the film, tedious and
    I found the film, tedious and depressing. South Africa is depicted (probably with some accuaracy) as hostile, base and demoralizing. The Lurie character is relentless self-centred. I found most of the characters self-enclosed and unsympathetic. I believe the scene near the end where Lurie brings a dog that had started to form a relationship with him to the vet to be euthanized indicated that his pathological selfishness would not change despite whatever meagre insights he may have achieved. The subtitle might have been ‘Welcome to hell on earth!’

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