8 November 2003 | r-houtepen
Miraculous: the Coetzee experience on screen
The recent Nobel prize for J.M. Coetzee ought to direct new attention to this gem: Marion Hänsel's uncompromising adaptation of his novel Dust.The relentless landscape, the stains of racial and social differences, the longings and misgivings of believable characters capable of self-righteously wronging each other: this film depicts the bleak human universe of Coetzee's novels in a way I had not held possible. Good and bad, rape and revenge are committed for equally murky motives. You get the feel of naked human life and it's not a pleasant sight. But the phenomenal accomplishment of Hänsel's work is that it preserves Coetzee's empathy with the characters. When we're sensitive, we can no longer get away with easy condemnation of the foolish or brutal acts they commit. Anyone who smugly believes he or she could not sink as low as the characters, ought to reflect some more on what these South African circumstances will do unto a man or woman, white or black, property owner or wage slave. The redeeming quality of this film is the flawless execution of the tricky combination of an explosive subject matter with a quiet pace and reflective view. Thus it is not merely human drama, morality play or aesthetic exercise, but an intensely atmospheric study of passions and the failure of constraints. At the heart of this unsettling experience is Jane Birkin, playing the role of a lifetime as the white farmer's spinster who is absolutely clueless regarding the realities of her world, her company and kin and herself. When circumstances force her to stop denying her perceptions and emotions and she is propelled to living them out, this only heightens the tragedy. Life is sad, if you look at it as Coetzee did and Hänsel does.