Monday, April 28, 2014

The Family Romance

Although we live in an age of sexual explicitness, perhaps than in any other period of human history, it doesn't mean we have solved the mysteries of sex and repression. Writer Amanda Shubert found that out when she reviewed Adore (an adaptation of Doris Lessings The Grandmothers) for Critics at Large.   

Serenity and Perversion: On Doris Lessing and Adore

Robin Wright and Naomi Watts in Adore

The death last month of the Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing at the age of 94 drew a shower of obituaries and appreciations from across the English-speaking world. But few of those pieces talked about Adore, the movie French director Anne Fontaine and English screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted this year from a story published in Lessing’s penultimate book, a collection of novellas entitled The Grandmothers. (It was published in 2003; Lessing’s final book, the novel/memoir Alfred & Emily, came out in 2008). As literary critics praised Lessing to the skies for her unabashed candor about female sexuality in novels like The Golden Notebook, credited as an influence to the second-wave feminist movement in the sixties, and for her revolutionary spirit, movie critics far and wide condemned Adore for its sexually transgressive subject: women who sleep with one another’s teenage sons. The movie people – largely male – who objected to Anne Fontaine’s lyrical and sensual depiction of what is, in essence, an incest story, didn’t acknowledge that the plot, tone, perspective and most of the dialogue came directly from Doris Lessing. And the literary people – often female – who eulogized Lessing didn’t rush to defend the movie. Why?

“The Grandmothers” is about childhood best friends, Roz and Lil, who both marry and settle as neighbors in the same small seaside resort town where they grew up. Their sons – Roz’s Tom and Lil’s Ian – grow up together as brothers in turn, and when Lil’s husband (a philanderer) dies and Roz’s husband (a conservative family man) leaves, claiming that Roz’s real relationship is not with him but with her twin Lil, the four of them become an idyllic family. Ian is still wounded by the loss of his father, and the maternal comfort Roz provides soon turns into sexual comfort. When Tom discovers in the morning that his best friend has spent the night with his mother, he seduces Lil, out of rivalry and a sense of exclusion. But both sexual conquests deepen into love, and they continue on for years, rarely discussed but intimately understood. As the boys reach mature adulthood, Roz and Lil decide they must stand together and bow out of their love affairs as a united front, and when their boys marry, they set out to become perfect, doting grandmothers. The story ends when Mary, one of the daughters-in-law, discovers a pack of letters that expose the offending, incestuous tryst among the four of them. 

Director Anne Fontaine
The last sentence of the story, “It was all clear to her,” expresses Mary’s bitter revelation of the twin love affairs, which finally explain the mysterious, overshadowing power Lil and Roz have held in her life. But the line is ironic – we are meant to see that she understands only a fragment of the complicated sexual entanglements, perhaps little more than the bare fact that they once existed. The further irony of the ending is one that Lessing may not have entirely intended, and that is that even the reader – to whom, by the end, all should be clear – is left comparably in the dark. This is largely because of Lessing’s oddly perfunctory, indifferent writing style. She assembles her stories like a reporter might gather so many facts; she doesn’t allow the larger implications, the meanings of behaviors or emotions they conjure up, to resonate. “The Grandmothers” is about the primitive strength of childhood emotion, and the way, for adults, it can surface in sexual longing and desire; it’s about how two mothers raised as sisters, and their two sons raised as brothers, pair up as sexual partners to both release those feelings of love, jealousy, helplessness and desire, and to contain them safely within the family drama. But the story itself has little drama, and like its laconic characters, it doesn’t express any of the emotions with which the reader might identify. We are little better than the unlucky outsider Mary. “The Grandmothers” is an incest story marvelously free from stigma or taboo, but it’s unpleasant in another way; it’s acrid and terse.

In Adore – which was released first as Two Mothers and then Perfect Mothers – Christopher Hampton and Anne Fontaine are faithful to the plotting and themes of Lessing’s story, but they create within it an emotional and dramatic spaciousness that makes the movie far richer, more provocative and deeply compelling. Opening on a scene of two girls racing to the ocean shore, a serene paradise, it fades into Lil and Roz as grown women at a funeral for Lil’s husband. Naomi Watts is Lil and Robin Wright is Roz. They really do look like sisters, and they share a weightless, almost floating beauty; like their diaphanous beach clothes, they shimmer in the light. Their individuality, and their difference from each other, is expressed in each of their faces: Watts’ has that round, rosy softness that looks, even in her mid-forties, like it has just blossomed, while Wright’s face is square, frank, full of calm assertion. The actresses take the spare, unfeeling dialogue of Lessing’s story and its blueprint of a relationship and fill it out: Lil is sensitive, more romantic, Roz unashamedly carnal, and their deep closeness, as it often is between women, is a form of erotic rivalry. We see these kinds of homoerotic bonds between men in literature and film all the time – a famous example is “The Knight’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where two cousins, both knights, duel for the love of the woman they both pine for – but in life it is the incredible emotional openness and physical intimacy that women share that most frequently expresses what the literary critic Eve Sedgwick termed “homosocial desire.” That’s what Fontaine opens up in this film. Her sensuous approach to the material rescues Lessing’s story, which risks being little more than a thought experiment – and the effect is revelatory.

Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville in Adore

Hampton was the ideal screenwriter to hire to adapt the material. He’s not just one of the most gifted literary adapters working today; his great subject is the riddle of sexual desire, and the way it entangles us. (He adapted Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons for Stephen Frears, Ian MacEwan’s Atonementfor Joe Wright, and his own play The Talking Cure for David Cronenberg’s psychoanalytic sex comedy A Dangerous Method.) The best piece of dialogue that he contributes comes at the end of the film, when Roz reflects on Ian’s repeated claim that the romantic desperation the four of them feel is all her fault. (That’s a line from the story.) Lil assures her that she is the only one of the group who hasn’t misbehaved. “Then it probably is all my fault,” Roz says. The first to succumb to the boys’ advances, and the first to propose that they put an end to the affairs, Roz does, in one sense, set the action on its course. It’s not her sexual eagerness, or her rational intervention, that is her folly; it’s that she believes reason is a fair match for desire. (That’s also her strength as a character; she endures where Lil crumbles.)

As Ian and Tom, Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville are not just handsome, they are gorgeous, exotic, and in a brief scene where they each duck under an outdoor shower to rinse the seawater off their golden bodies the camera seems to undress them. (The cinematography is by Christophe Beaucarne.) We are used to seeing actresses as screen goddesses – think of Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamarr – but rarely have male bodies been filmed as objects of beauty and desire in quite this way. Watts and Wright strip down for their bedroom scenes, but the effect is different; from their first scenes, they give so much up to the camera they are already naked. Not only the dramatic strength of all four performances – they are some of the best of the year, particularly the women’s – but the openness of all four actors to the camera physically is what makes the movie work, as well as what makes it troubling: the sexual desire of mothers for sons, or sons for mothers, is so often the anxious, buried subtext in art (and in life), but when has it ever risen so placidly, so simply to the surface? Adore asks us to believe in incestuous love between consenting adults as a romantic idyll, in which boundaries are easily crossed, and the pleasure for all for players is natural, un-neurotic and serene.

Lessing asks you to contemplate this kind of love, but Anne Fontaine allows you to feel it. Which may hold the clue to why “The Grandmothers” helped win Doris Lessing the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, but Adore left most American critics positively bumfuzzled. Reviews were almost unanimously hostile: critics called it “icky” (The Boston Globe), a “hokey soap” (New York Post), “a bodice-ripper, if people bothered to wear that much clothing” (Newsday), “laughable” (Entertainment Weekly), and a “bonkbuster plotline” (Time Out). In his Rolling Stone review, Peter Travers wrote, “Fontaine manages the trick of making sex joyless. Like porn. Then she tops that by draining her film of variety, longing and feminist insight.” (What, do you imagine, qualifies for Travers as feminist insight?) “Plenty of variations on its theme of intergenerational lust can be found on the Internet,” added A.O. Scott in the New York Times, “though you may want to clear your browser history after you’re done searching for them.”

Maybe I simply haven’t watched as much pornography as A.O. Scott and Peter Travers, but the story reminded me of Shakespeare’s long narrative poem “Venus and Adonis,” in which the legendarily beautiful goddess hungrily seduces a mortal boy who rebuffs her advances, and of Ovid’s telling of the story of Myrrha, the woman whose unquenchable passion for her father leads her to come to him as a courtesan in the night. (Lessing laces her story with Ovidian references – Ian and Tom are “young gods,” Roz and Lil look at photographs of themselves as “nymphets,” and the motif of the ocean waves expresses the metamorphic state of nature.) Isn’t it possible that we keep returning to these themes, in whatever form, because they actually express something real about ourselves? In Stephen Frears’ noir The Grifters, Annette Bening realizes that her lover, played by John Cusack, is in love with his own mother, and she exclaims: “You like to go where you’ve been!” But, in a larger sense, all heterosexual men want to go where they’ve been – not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s what heterosexual sex is. No wonder maternal and sexual bonds become confused and entangled in our everyday lives (and in our fantasies), and the squirmy, ironic, cliché-ridden reviews of Adore try to put distance between their writers and the sensual, affecting images on the screen.

But what makes Adore truly daring and original is that it gets inside of the relationship between two women friends, and the feelings of love and rivalry that are so subconscious they are acted out through sex with one another’s sons. Robin Wright and, especially, the incomparable Naomi Watts give masterful and deeply intuitive performances that reveal the kinds of shifting, inchoate emotions that lie beneath their closeness – the inexpressible question that all of their scenes ask is “who are we to each other?” This mystery – the mystery of friendship, not the mystery of sex – is at the heart of the film, as well as what makes it consistently provocative and surprising. Unlike most every other critic right now, I feel lukewarm about Doris Lessing but I’m crazy about Adore. It didn’t shock me or gross me out, and I didn’t find its depiction of mother-son love so terribly implausible: it brought me closer to the mysteriousness of the desires within myself. I don’t mind if that makes me a pervert, but I’m starting to feel like the last pervert standing.

- originally published on December 25, 2013 in Critics at Large.

– Amanda Shubert writes about film, books and the visual arts. A founding editor of Full Stop, the online magazine of literature and culture, she is also a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Talking About Pauline Kael (Scarecrow Press, 2014). Most recently, she interviewed the actress and folk singer Ronee Blakley for The Rumpus.

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