Monday, June 27, 2011

Lady of the Flies

(Jordan Scott,
Spain, 2009,
104 mins.)

"The most im-
portant thing
in life is desire."

--Miss Gribben
(Eva Green)

From the trail-
er for Cracks,
the first feat-
ure from Rid-
ley Scott's
daughter, Jordan, I expected a cross between 1931's Mädchen in Uni-
and 1975's Picnic at Hanging Rock. That's not quite what I got.

The casting of Eva Green (The Dreamers, Casino Royale) and Juno
(Atonement, Kaboom) added to my curiosity, not just because
they're actresses drawn to sexually provocative material, but because all
three have famous parents: Algerian-born French actress Marlène Jobert
in the case of Green and British director Julien Temple in the case of Juno.

Like many of Sir Ridley's films, though, Jordan's adaptation of Sheila Koh-
ler's novel focuses more on power than sex (not that the two are unrelat-
ed). In this case, an exotic figure enters a regimented scene, and every-
one feels powerless, though the interloper isn't as powerful as they think,
and the more presumptions they make, the more powerless she becomes.

Filmed in Ireland, the story takes place on Stanley Island in 1934. Green
plays Miss Gribben, whom the girls call Miss G, a glamorous and free-spir-
ited physical education teacher at a remote boarding school for girls. Noti-
ceably younger than the other instructors, she wears trousers and sneaks
smokes in private with Temple's Di (Sinéad Cusack plays headmistress).

From the way Di looks at Miss G, she appears to adore her. From the way
Miss G looks at Di, she appreciates the adoration. If Di, the head girl of her
section, worships her teacher, she can be cruel to the other girls. Miss G
also loans her banned books. "I don't think it's wrong to want to know
about the real world," Di tells a friend. "We can't stay pure forever."

Then, the school admits Fiamma (María Valverde), a Catholic student
from an aristocratic Spanish family. The other girls, who harbor strange
superstitions about Catholics, are less than welcoming, while Di is down-
right unpleasant, but Fiamma takes it in stride. Despite her asthma, she
impresses Miss G with her diving skills, which makes Di resent her more.

As winter gives way to spring, everyone but Di warms towards Fiamma,
while Miss G looks at the dark-haired girl the way Di used to look at her
(she also hides a few of Fiamma's belongings in her room). Though they
share stories of their travels, the tide turns when Fiamma discovers that
Miss G likes to embellish her past--and may have never left the island.

Soon, the teacher also sees her as a threat, and pushes her too hard during diving practice, knowing she should take care with an asthmatic. (Miss G also takes the girls skinny-dipping in a scene more suggestive than explicit, though Green and Temple have done nude scenes before.)

The title comes from the cracks that develop in Miss G's composure. Self-
assured at the outset, she becomes paranoid once Fiamma finds her out,
at which point Di steps up her campaign, which upsets Fiamma. The cracks,
in other words, take on a life of their own, though Fiamma has done noth-
ing to cause them. The struggle continues throughout the film.

Just when things can't get much worse, they get better, but it's the calm
before the storm. The way D.P. John Mathieson (several Ridley films, in-
cluding Gladiator), shoots the surrounding water and the way Miss G ob-
sesses about diving as an end in itself--she has no interest in competition--
creates the impression that someone will drown (or suffocate) before this
claustrophobic tale is through, and when one of the women oversteps her
bounds, tensions reach a boiling point. Something has to give, and it does.

Cracks isn't as much of a genre classic as Mädchen, and some critics are
likely to dismiss it as casually as they did Notes on a Scandal and Asylum,
melodramas which share a similar hyper-feminine, hothouse atmosphere.
Except for a few quick cuts at the beginning, Scott's directing is fluid, and
all tech credits, as one would expect from a Scott heir, are first-rate.

Assuming you buy the story, and
I was willing to go with it, that
leaves the acting, an area where
Scott seems likely to improve
with experience. The actresses
aren't bad, but no one went as deep as they could (Temple and Imogen Poots, who plays Poppy, have been better in other films).

In the end, it all comes down to
Green, who shows more range
than before, but her performance
rests largely on the surface,
though she deserves credit for
taking on such a challenging role.

With her looks, she could make
a lot of easy money, but since
The Dreamers
, she's avoided
rote rom-coms and expendable girlfriend roles for movies like the dys-
topian drama Perfect Sense from Asylum director David Mackenzie.

If the ending arrives as a foregone conclusion, Cracks kept me riveted
from start to finish, and Scott handles the thriller-like final act well, even if
the calm, cool, and collected epilogue feels anti-climactic in comparison.

So, I didn't get the Mädchen or Hanging Rock I was expecting, as the film
plays instead more like a cross between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
and The Virgin Suicides (as Noel Murray notes in his AV Club review, Koh-
ler also wrote her book in first-person plural). And I'm okay with that.

Cracks plays the Varsity Theatre (4329 University Way NE) through Thurs., 6/30. For more information, please click here. Images from IFC.

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