Beyond Convention

by Stanley Kauffmann | June 28, 2004

Quietly, almost politely, English film-makers have in recent years been developing a sub-genre in social heterodoxy. These films do not break convention, they ignore it completely. Two instances: Stephen Poliakoff's Close My Eyes, about a man who accepts his wife's affair with her brother; Anthony Harvey's Richard's Things, about a widow who discovers that her lately deceased husband had a mistress, seeks the mistress out in curiosity, and eventually has an affair with her. Common characteristics of this sub-genre are that the acting is spotless and that the directing too has a neatness about it, as if the film-maker wanted to emphasize the bizarreness of the story by presenting it in an especially acceptable context.

Now here is The Mother, which follows the affair that a widow in her sixties has with her daughter's boyfriend. The screenplay is by Hanif Kureishi, who, since My Beautiful Laundrette, has been a considerable presence in British film. Kureishi likes subjects that many might call wild but that he treats in appealing terms without taming them. He could hardly have dared more than he does here. (I may subsequently regret having said that.)

Roger Michell directed. He made Notting Hill, the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant vehicle that was an adequately packaged product. The key to his directing of The Mother is that he didn't essentially change styles. He didn't brace himself for oddity; he simply directed this film as if it were about just another subject. Indeed, the only difference from Notting Hill in this regard is that the new film looks even more domestic, or domesticated. Michell engaged the production designer Mark Tildesley, who made every room in the film especially tasteful in the current English manner. Sometimes a few chairs and a table, themselves sleek, are posed against a dark, solid-color wall. Even more frequently Michell, along with his cinematographer Alwin Küchler, composes shots like salon photography: every object--a vase of flowers, a book, whatever--is meant to partake of the space and to contribute to the mood. Michell also likes to slit characters vertically. Sometimes one of the people in a shot is only half in it, making it seem that the frame is only part of what is going on: the world outside continues to be the world. The film takes place for the most part in London, and Michell moves his people around the city in a way that discloses it, much as Sidney Lumet has done with New York. It would be very easy to make a book of impressive photographs from the frames of this film.

All these elements, along with an acutely recorded sound track, are intended to keep us from thinking that we are at an experimental venture. The very texture of the film insists that this story is figuratively in our society and is only one instance of extraordinary human behavior in that society. The Mother is not meant to uncover an endemic sexual secret. It simply tries to testify to possibilities that we may not think are possible.

At the start May and her husband are an unexceptional middle-class couple in their sixties who go to London to visit their daughters, one of whom is married and the other apparently divorced, both with children. May's husband dies suddenly of a heart attack, and she stays with Paula, the divorce. Construction is going on in Paula's house, in the hands of the thirtyish Darren, with whom Paula is having—in her view anyway—a serious affair. (To keep things complex, Darren is married and has a son.)

May likes Darren, and they become friends. Eventually impulses that she no longer cherished begin to stir in her. She makes the opening moves toward him, and Darren accepts. She is not attractive in any physical way--she calls herself "a shapeless old lump," which is an exaggeration though not a lie--but he responds to her, apparently out of curiosity. Perhaps, too, he gets a charge out of sleeping with his girlfriend's mother, despite her age. Unaware of the May-Darren encounters, Paula fixes up a date for her mother with an elderly man, and an unpleasant bedding occurs. After a time, however—not a very long time—Paula learns about Darren and her mother. (This happens through Kureishi's one arrant mechanism. May likes to sketch, and she has done some highly erotic sketches of herself and Darren. It is unlikely that she would have left her sketchbook on a table where Paula could find it.) Explosions follow. At the finish, May, after her revisit to younger life, is reconciled to the inevitable. The future of her relationship with her family is left open. But she has had a stay from exile into age.

Affairs between older women and younger men are not new in films—witness Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude and Rainer Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul. But those stories didn't have all the complications of The Mother. This film holds and convinces, even evokes empathy, because of Anne Reid, an actress long experienced in British television and film. She gives May intelligence and spirit and a somewhat genteel wonder at the resurging of desire. Reid helps us to understand May's behavior. Darren is played by Daniel Craig, who was Ted Hughes in Sylvia and is still burning. And, as noted, the director and designer of the film have provided a texture that encloses it in seriousness and weight.

The disturbingly gifted Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke has made his own small-scale apocalypse. As he showed in Funny Games and even more starkly in The Piano Teacher, he wants to abrade us, to force our focus on the discomfiting. His ideas have been so overwhelming and his directing so skilled that, especially in The Piano Teacher, he made us accept the impermissible.

His new film, Time of the Wolf, is an allegory. No locale is named, no details are given, but a catastrophe has smitten the world. A youngish woman named Anne, her husband, and their two children have arrived at their weekend place in the country, seemingly to escape the catastrophe, and they find people in their house—refugees, not thieves, one of whom kills Anne's husband. She flees with her children, and they join a group of other refugees at a railroad station where the rest of the film takes place. All the people there are waiting for a train that may or may not come.

The group in the station is meant to be a microcosm of the human race in extreme crisis. Quarrels, petty and otherwise, erupt; hope rises and flickers as they wait. We never see a train arrive. The last shot is from the window of a moving train, but we don't know whether the train is on the way to the station or has stopped there for passengers or has raced on through. Haneke leaves the future of the human race ambiguous.

Or would have left it so if his allegory had worked. But the film is such a pat construction, so dingily shot in heavy light, so dependent on our cooperation without earning it, that we are more aware of the exercise than affected by it. After Haneke has put his people in a fraught situation, their interactions during their wait are insufficiently interesting. Several good actors are on hand, including Isabelle Huppert of The Piano Teacher, Olivier Gourmet of The Son, and Patrice Chreau, the actor-director who made Son Frère . (Once again, this Austrian director has made a film in French.) But all the roles are so dimly outlined that the actors can hardly be said to give performances. Let's hope that in future Haneke will forgo symbolism and get back to making us realistically uncomfortable.

Royal slip. In Troy Brian Cox plays King Agamemnon, not (as stated here) King Menelaus. Sorry, sire.

This article originally ran in the June 28, 2004 issue of the magazine.

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