Friday, January 5, 2007
Night of the Iguana
What I wouldn't give to nibble that . . .
I'm forever intrigued by how stereotypes keep coming back at us in deeper layers of deniability. Much like the aliens in Star Wars - who are barely-disguised "lazy blacks" and "greedy Jews" - gays and lesbians keep popping up in various costumes in arthouse product, from the butthole-lovin' "hillbillies" of Pulp Fiction to Judi Dench's lesbian martinet in the current Notes on a Scandal. Dame Dench's performance is, to be sure, a waspish marvel of control and confidence - much like the real-life performance of her character, "Barbara Covett," who might have popped out of Bunny Lake is Missing, or some other piece of sexual paranoia from the fifties or sixties. This dyke's New Age disguise, however, is that she's repressed, i.e., she's only disguised to herself, which enables the filmmakers to drape their queer villain in a queer kind of pity, even as she circles her prey (the dewy Cate Blanchett, who by the way has never looked more tempting).
Cate and Judi both play teachers at a rowdy working-class school in London; Cate's the free-spirited art teacher ("Sheba Hart", as in "Bathsheba Hart") who wants to nurture the kids' nature; Judi, by way of contrast, is the squat, speckled dragon lady who maintains order with something like Mussolini's alacrity. And if she doesn't quite breathe fire, this reptile at least spits poison - or rather dips her pen in it, to etch in her diary descriptions of her co-workers that you'd think would burn right through the paper.
These voice-overs are both ferociously funny, and, in their inhuman way, nastily accurate; they're the film's best feature (even if they drift off into boring "unreliable narrator" territory - a ploy which never works on the screen the way it does on the page). Covett ("covet," I know - and as for "Bathsheba Hart" - oh, please) has the eye of a surgeon, and the sympathy of a spider; to her, a kid with Down Syndrome is "a court jester," while rough-housing boys are "feral." She takes her scalpel even more skillfully to the boho Bathsheba and her privileged attitudes - although these opening salvos are only a cover for her growing infatuation.
Sheba, however, has her own secrets - she's carrying on an affair with a 15-year-old boy (the highly credible, 17-year-old Andrew Simpson, above). And when Barbara stumbles on Sheba en flagrante, it isn't long before her shock dissolves into the realization that now she has the means to blackmail her love object into a kind of intimacy - which, in the end, amounts to little more than some strokes on the arm and the occasional tearful clinch.
Sheba cooperates with Barbara's blackmail - only to sink back into her pattern of sexual abuse anyway. So she's the villain, right? Wrong! If you thought that, you'd soon be having "creative differences" with Patrick Eyre, the film's director, and Patrick Marber, its scenarist. As the film's tagline puts it so neatly, "One Woman's Mistake is Another's Opportunity," and audiences - and critics - have been only too happy to play along with this rather creative interpretation of its plot. Sweet, sophomoric Sheba, you see, "made a mistake" - it's Barbara who's committing a crime.
Take the Boston Globe's Ty Burr, for example - not someone I took for a homophobe, but check out his review. To him, Notes on a Scandal is a "highbrow suspense freakout" that "sickens your bones." He admits that "some might read (Dench's) character as lesbian caricature" - but oh, not him, even though he then writes: "There are moments of tension to make you crawl up the back of your seat." These turn out to be from a scene in which Barbara breaks down after the death of her cat. It's hardly Saw III.
Somehow Ty's forgotten that it's actually Sheba who destroys her family to blow a 15-year-old boy; to him, in fact, she's "a fool we understand, even as we shrink in disgust." Really? I just shrank in disgust. Many viewers (perhaps less infatuated with Cate Blanchett than Ty) might see Sheba as a far more dangerous predator than Barbara (imagine two men in these roles, playing off a 15-year-old girl). Courtney Love might have made great hay with this part - but instead we have the delectable Cate, a technically brilliant actress who's just too wholesome to ever limn the darkness of this Siouxsie and the Banshees fan who (intriguingly) married a man old enough to be her father. This is the characterization which should be carrying the movie - and which would provide far fresher material than the dusty web Dame Judi weaves (however brilliantly she does it). But if Cate were really to dig into the role (and yes, I'm sure she has the chops), the film's whole M.O. would collapse.
To paraphrase Churchill, then, Notes on a Scandal is an enigma wrapped in a cliché. Too bad audiences aren't seeing it that way.