Prized Possessions

Mass-mediated: Oprah Winfrey in Jonathan Demme's Beloved
area theaters, starts Friday
Un air de famille
U Film Society, Bell Auditorium, starts Friday

Be advised: Beloved is no Color Purple. Yes, it rivals Spielberg's royal romance as a Hollywood Event and even resuscitates Purple luminaries Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in leading roles. But Beloved is chiefly a horror film, complete with haunted house, domestic despair, possession, exorcism, rape-revenge, and even a Final Girl who ultimately breaks free from the nightmare.

Of course, the obvious difference here involves Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, and the fact that her subject, slavery, is a primordial horror. Building on 19th-century slave narratives and newspaper reports, Morrison's Beloved lays bare the brutal proceedings that those accounts passed over in silence. Via flashbacks, the novel traces incidents in the life of a runaway slave woman that led her to slit her infant daughter's throat rather than see her family captured and enslaved. One war and 18 years later, Beloved, the ghost of the murdered baby, returns to plague Sethe, her daughter Denver, and her lover Paul D, a fellow refugee from the god-awful "Sweet Home" plantation. Morrison, determined to dramatize the most intimate consequences of slavery, probed her characters' psyches in unflinching detail.

And who better to translate this shocking vision onto the screen than director Jonathan Demme, whose repertoire includes the consummate psychosexual shocker The Silence of the Lambs, and whose signature props include cages and cuffs? Now that Demme has pictured Beloved as a work of quintessential American horror (redefining the genre in the process), it's hard to fathom that producer Winfrey first pitched the project to Jane Campion and then Peter Weir. (Campion reportedly felt she couldn't capture the nuances of African-American history, while Weir objected to Winfrey's insistence on performing the lead role.) In making his Beloved, it's as if Demme grafted the likes of Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, and his own Silence onto Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust. Call it the return of the racial repressed.

This isn't to say that Beloved's agony is unrelieved, punctuated as it is by romantic and even sentimental scenes. There are fragile moments of hard-won ecstasy, as when Sethe (Winfrey) and Paul D (Glover) make love in a washtub; when the family makes an excursion to the carnival on "Colored Thursday"; and when Grandma Baby Suggs (Beah Richards) preaches the pleasures of the flesh. Even in those moments, though, the past eclipses the present--for example, when Paul D jokes that he knew the carnival's caged "Wild African Savage" back in Roanoke. And horror segues into tragedy when Paul must urge Sethe to release her children and save herself, telling her what she doesn't yet recognize: "You your best thing."

But just as the greedy past overwhelms Sethe and her kin, the mass-mediated present likewise threatens to overshadow the film itself. Am I the only one who finds Oprah's recent photo-op in Vogue disturbing? Calculated to complement the film's release, Vogue's "A Major Movie, An Amazing Makeover" fashion spread, which features the new diva in the likes of a $41,840 couture kimono, clashes rather unnervingly with her Beloved character's bloody feet and mutilated back. Then there's the way Winfrey's infamously perpetual efforts to remold her body end up mirroring but also trivializing slavery's physical toll on black women. (She reports in Vogue that Demme instructed her to lose 20 pounds for the film, and that she forced herself through another punishing weight-loss regimen for the magazine's photo shoot.) "I've been fighting weight all my life," Oprah testifies, as if that battle could begin to parallel the real subject at hand. Her punch line: "Vogue is the big house!" Tell that to Dorothy Dandridge, the Academy Award nominee who made the cover of Life in 1954, but was soon broken by the entertainment industry's racist machinations.

Why, we might well ask, would Demme find Winfrey's body, in her words, "too big for this movie"? Are we to believe that slave women were a doll-size 4? Such concern for her physique makes sense, though, considering that the director cut his teeth in the '70s writing and/or directing chicks-in-prison flicks (Black Mama, White Mama; Caged Heat)--a genre premised on brutality and, above all, breasts. To be fair, Caged Heat inverted the formula, depicting strip searches and sexual abuse as dehumanizing rather than titillating--although countless shower scenes and panty shots still make up the meat of the movie.

Bringing this bodily bent to Beloved means that Demme gratuitously foregrounds female flesh, unlike Morrison's book, which gives equal exposure to the physical and sexual suffering of men. When it comes to nudity, Demme's Beloved writes Hollywood's 20th-century double standard back onto the slave past. So, where the camera dwells on women's bodies and bodily functions in excruciating detail, it mostly passes over Glover's (with one exception). And while the movie features a hideously protracted and explicit scene in which white men gobble Sethe's breast milk, we catch only the most fleeting glimpses of the masters' horrifying abuse of slave men.

Demme does better when it comes to rendering psychic trauma. Between the film's washed-out blue and gray color scheme at its outset and the eventually blood-red haunted house, the director certainly signals his departure from the rosy likes of Spielberg's The Color Purple. Accordingly, the various shades reflect Sethe's state of mind--from her hellish memory of fleeing across the Ohio river with the aid of a poor white girl, filmed in an ultra-grainy, super-saturated style (vividly recalling Demme's films of the '70s), to her retreat into madness, feverishly captured in bright candy colors.

And, appropriately for the auteur of Crazy Mama (1975), Demme grasps the lethal force of a mother love that's "too thick"--both for Sethe, who is consumed by insatiable guilt in the form of Beloved (Thandie Newton), and for Denver (Kimberly Elise), who almost loses herself in her mother's grief. Following Morrison, Demme doesn't romanticize the experience or the symbol of motherhood, which, in the novelist's words, can be "a killer." Like any horror heroine, Sethe has hacked a path through the woods, but the true psychological terror comes when she can't escape her own unmanageable memory. It's up to her daughter to flee her own mother and their haunted house--and, with the help of neighbor women, to exorcise slavery's ghost.

By the time Sethe attacks the benevolent Mr. Bodwin with an ice pick, we understand the trauma that causes all white men to represent the same evil in her mind. But Demme's intense focus on Sethe and her household downplays the fact that this might not be a sign of insanity so much as a healthy response and even a community consensus. "Damn. That woman is crazy," the novel's characters observe of Sethe's outburst. "Yeah, well, ain't we all?" The author also writes that "not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief." Ultimately, Morrison's national tragedy is Demme's haunted house.

The French Un air de famille masquerades as light comedy, but it's a family trauma all the same, packed as it is with sad insights and moving details. Friday is "family night" for the film's dysfunctional, if outwardly polite and tightly knit, clan, which includes Mother (Claire Maurier) and her three children: favored son Philippe (Wladimir Yordanoff), scapegoat Henri (Jean-Pierre Bacri), and rebellious daughter Betty (Agnes Jaoui), plus their significant others. Like many a domestic celebration, this party implodes when the enmeshed family turns in on itself.

The moral of the story? The family that eats together eats each other. In other words, deadening domesticity reproduces--and destroys--itself, unless family members can break free of past patterns. Henri's marital philosophy embodies suffocating nuclear normalcy: "There's no need to think. If you're unhappy, you wait it out." Meanwhile, Philippe treats his wife like a literal dog, giving her a diamond collar for her birthday and offering a toast that befits a household pet: "To the mother of my children, always by my side for 15 years. Never complaining, always chipper." As he speaks, the paralyzed family Labrador lies languishing in a corner. "He's decorative, like a rug, except he's alive," explains Henri. It takes Betty, the "unladylike" daughter, to cuss, drink, and speak the truth--to break the domestic spell.

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