Disgrace (US - BD RA)
Gabe visits the dark side of South Africa with a near career best John Malkovich...
Just as it often seems there are no modern movies about Germany that aren’t expressly or metaphorically about the Holocaust, it seems that there are no modern South African films that aren’t expressly or metaphorically about Apartheid. Both events mark horrific spikes between each country’s past and present, and both events subconsciously spring to mind when each country is mentioned. Disgrace doesn’t feature Whoopi Goldberg singing about Apartheid, or a rugby team fighting against public expectations about Apartheid, and it doesn’t replay parts of the period with insectoid aliens, but it is still very much about the ripples still splashing over South Africa’s national conscious (conscience?). Based on Nobel Prize winning author J. M. Coetzee novel, the film follows Professor David Lurie (John Malkovich), a Cape Town university professor who begins an affair with a student, Melanie (Antoinette Engel). When the affair is exposed David’s nihilistic reaction disturbs the faculty, and he’s dismissed from his position. With nowhere left to turn David takes to the South African countryside to spend time with his estranged lesbian daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines).
As it begins, Disgrace feels kind of like a nightmare version of American Beauty. The environment and relationships are emotionally antiseptic, and off-putting. The early parts of the film have a drowsy, dream-like quality, but the tone quickly turns realistic, creating a hard, disaffected, uncomfortable edge. This edge is occasionally enhanced again by dreamy act break, but the crushing reality is never far from the screen. David detached philosophical leanings, and the slow creep of the narrative can become a bit difficult to endure, but these perceivably pretentious elements are important to the drama, especially when it takes a brutal turn. The turn takes the film on a Straw Dogs path, and like Peckinpah’s controversial masterpiece, Disgrace is a consistently challenging experience. The tone is oppressive, and the film feels long, but I have no suggestions on what to cut. Seemingly extraneous elements almost always feed into the subtext at some point. Clearly we are meant to be frustrated by this experience. The ‘putting down dogs’ metaphor is probably a bit too heavy-handed, but the film mostly works as an effective meditation on some unavoidable gaudy subjects.
Actor-turned-director Steve Jacobs has some undeniable skill behind the camera, and just as the story refuses to take expected routes, Jacobs avoids the usually cinematic clichés at every turn. Some of the dialogue scenes are roughly cut, breaking the natural rhythm, and generally standing out among the otherwise visually stimulating film. Malkovich’s performance is, no hyperbole, one of his best, and he really does anchor the film. Without his input the listless narrative and moral ambiguity could have very easily dragged the entire film into the dust. The other performances are far from inadequate, but Disgrace is told almost exclusively from David’s point of view, and in the hands of a lesser actor the character could’ve veered too far into or out of sympathy. Even worse, David could’ve been a boring character, which would’ve left the film without any kind of center.
Disgrace is an aesthetically stimulating feature, and is inherently an inconsistent experience in terms of video quality. There isn’t a lot to say pertaining to an overall experience, though there are clear problems with grain where I’m assuming they were unexpected. The pallet is rarely particularly vibrant. The South African countryside features its share of plant life, but the colour of said plant life is pretty far removed from lush greens, or primary highlights. The transfer realistically expresses this environment. There are a few night scenes that feature more colourful production design (the baby shower, scenes when David returns to Cape Town), and more impressive contrast, but for the most part the look is arid and blown-out. Details are reasonably sharp on all levels, though more impressive in close-ups than wide shots, where fine details become a bit muddied. Besides the prevalent and inconsistent grain, the transfer’s only major shortcoming is some over-sharpening artefacts, which possibly couldn’t be avoided based on the exposure used during the bleached-out daylight photography.
Disgrace features an incredibly naturalistic approach to audio. Instead of the stylized impressions of sound we’re used to hearing as a film audience, noise is presented as it would likely actually sound were the audience physically situated on set. Sometimes the mix is a little awkward in terms of the movement of sound, but for the most part the effect is very effective. Vocal performances don’t just sit warmly in the center channel, the often escape into the surrounds, based on the size and make of the room, and placement of the camera. Music often plays from an undisclosed source, and moves throughout the channels based on cuts and dollies. Juxtaposition again becomes a major thematic element. The college world is largely aurally sterile, the city is aurally mechanical, and the country side is alive with both the pleasantries and terror of the natural landscape. There aren’t many aurally bombastic moments on the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track (at least none that I can discuss without major spoilers), but this is still an immersive audio experience.
Special Features begin with a series of eight cast and crew interviews (, set with no ‘play all’ option. Subjects include writer Anna-Maria Monticelli (6:40, SD), producer Emile Sherman (3:40, SD), director Steve Jacobs (8:10, SD), actors John Malkovich (3:00, SD), Jessica Haines (3:40, SD), Antoniette Engel (3:30, SD), Eriq Ebouaney (3:30, SD), and director of photography Steve Arnold (3:00, SD). The whole thing is a bit dry, and interviews often sound more like sales pitches, but these discussions are a decent substitute for a commentary track, and are informative (which is important based on the film’s thin internet back-story). The best story comes from Antoniette Engel, who was writing an essay on the book when she got the casting call. Disgrace: Behind the Scenes’ (9:50, SD) is a rough assembly of behind the scenes video set, including set construction, costume fitting, direction, stunts, working with animals, editing, scoring, and sound editing. Things are completed with a trailer.
Disgrace is an emotional investment, and full of frustration, but it’s mostly worth the effort. I don’t think it’s unfair or shortsighted of me to compare it to Straw Dogs, though not for the more obvious thematic similarities (the home invasion and rape aspects aren’t really the point of either film). Disgrace is easier to read than Straw Dogs, especially considering the obvious Apartheid subtext, but both films come to challenging conclusions, and put their intellectualized protagonists through the emotional ringer. This Blu-ray features an adequate transfer, and a surprisingly immersive DTS-HD soundtrack. The extras are brief and dry, but informative enough.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 27th April 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, French
Extras: Cast and Crew Interviews, Behind the Scenes, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Steve Jacobs
Cast: John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Natalie Becker, Antoinette Engel, Antonio Fisher, Isabella De Villiers
Length: 118 minutes
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