Thursday, December 27, 2007

Junebug by Phil Morrison

As the world becomes more and more globalized, as we are more exposed to other cultures, counter-cultures, liberal ideas, as we become street-smart, capable of being witty, fashionable and urbane, are we also losing something perchance? As we grow disenchanted from the traditional structures, from the clutches of clergy, community and conformity, are we thereby not getting into the throes of a personalized superficiality and a nostalgic cynicism? What does love mean in the absence of the historical goals of procreation and kinship?

These are the complex themes explored in the multi-layered drama, Junebug, directed by the otherwise unknown director Phil Morrison. The film is a highly original treatment of modernity versus tradition. It is, in essence, an enquiry into the depth of communication between human beings. As I have written elsewhere, in the modern world, interactions are more varied and technically easy, but are strangely superficial and devoid of warmth and genuineness.

The plot is simple. An art-gallery owner (Madeleine) discovers George, a charming man at one of the art auctions, and travels with him to meet a self-taught artist in rural North Carolina. George's parents live nearby, and he and Madeleine go and stay with them for a couple of days. There is George's brother Johnny, his wife Ashley, and George's parents, Eugene and Peg. The film revolves around the presence of Madeleine in the house and her reactions towards everybody.

The film opens with an almost predatory approach by Madeleine where she catches hold of George, a charming, unassuming man at one of her auctions. The mood and of the auction is quite phony, art of dubious value being pushed by the auctioneer to the bored rich, and it is not clear to which extent the flirtation will go. They are married a week later.

Obviously the relationship is based on something superficial, and not fundamental. Madeleine is attracted to the man on a whim, and does not discover his background and his constitution till much later.

The self-taught artist she is to visit is slightly lunatic. He paints the armed encounters of the civil and the confederate wars between white Europeans and the blacks and the native Americans. Is the theme of his paintings just coincidental? Or is the director trying to provide an analogue to the cultural difference between the visiting Chicago urbanites and the small-town conformati. In the lunatic's paintings, the prime object of attack is the genitals, suggesting that the the violence has a sexual undertone. Is Madeleine the foreign predator (she grew up around the world, and was born in Japan) who is trying to sexually and economically devour both the "native American" brothers?

The greatest performance in the film is, however, not of Madeleine. It is the Sundance award winning role by Amy Adams as Ashley. Her character begins as a caricature, and as the film proceeds and ends, her stature rises and rises, till she is undoubtedly the one we feel closest to. In a landmark performance portraying a simple but bubbly, God fearing, un-exposed small-town woman, her character can almost be compared to that of Inger in Carl Dreyer's Ordet, the woman who with her plain humanity, optimism and vulnerability, lights up the otherwise morose and difficult home. Her performance in the hospital bed, with George, ranks as one of the great female performances of our time.


As James Berardinelli states in his review, the film can be looked at as a study of three couples: George's parents, his brother and Ashley, and himself and Madeleine. There is a different dynamic in all three couples. While his parents share a deep understanding and familiarity, Johnny and Ashley are yet to cement their relationship (but the film concludes with hope for them). George and Madeleine, we suspect however, won't be together for long.

The film has been categorized as a comedy-drama (at least for the first half) and the change in tone towards depth and somberness in the second half is unexpected but not off-putting.

Physical contact and words such as "Love" mean completely different things in Madeleine's world and where she is now. It is not just the protocols (and the values behind them) which Madeleine completely fails to understand at George's home, it is also her total bewilderment at finding herself in the midst of a close (closed?) community, a river which is flowing at a depth unknown to her.

Bombarded with values (Catholicism, procreation, being there for one's family, anti-Semitism), she comes to realize her own dubiousness in using people and situations to her advantage. She uses the the word "love" with Johnny, to disastrous effects, and she plays along with the lunatic artist's anti-Semitism, to great success.

And it is this inner emptiness, this not-belonging and therefore the tendency to be false everywhere and true nowhere, that carries her close to the breaking point. She is not a villain, however. She wants to be good, but does not know how, except to be what people want her to be. Her mistakes are significant because she is unable to understand where she is erring. Her efforts at bridging the distance between George and herself on the last night are painfully superficial.

It is a film which will reward repeated viewings, it is a labor of love by the director, deserving the highest accolades for the keenness with which the camera observes the smallest nuance of comfort (as in homeliness), and discomfort (as in disorienting lack of belonging). The scenes in the final sequence, where Eugene hides his gift from Madeleine, where George and Madeleine are distant when travelling back to Chicago are masterful.

1 comment:

zap-25 said...

Amy Adams made this film to me. I felt the theme of outsider art was too 80s - you know Howard Finster, R.E.M, etc. Either Angus or Phil Morrison is stuck in the 80s. Maybe both. But I enjoyed the film, it got a little slow in the middle, but I liked it.