(Jonathan Demme, USA, 1998)


Jonathan Demme’s film of Toni Morrison’s Beloved provides shocking evidence of the continuing split between low and high culture, even in these supposedly enlightened, democratic times.

The story, although hinging on a magical event, is simple enough. In 1873, Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) lives alone in a modest, Ohio home with her sulky daughter Denver (Kimberley Elise) and, eventually, her companion Paul D (Danny Glover).

Racked by memories of her experience as a slave, Sethe runs her home like a fortress: the terrors and mysteries of the outside world no longer intrude.

That is, until Beloved (Thandie Newton) shows up, dazed and confused, on Sethe’s doorstep. Like a cross between the mystical visitor in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) and Truffaut’s wild child, Beloved is an obsessive, impulsive creature, arrested in her development and supremely demanding of Sethe’s nurturing.

The riddle of her identity, once solved, unleashes all the hidden, repressed, unfinished business of the past.

In essence, Beloved is a horror movie. Its central elements – ghosts, supernatural magic and a vivid payback for past racial and sexual sins – are not that far removed from The Shining (1980), Candyman (1992) or (to take an artier example) Tracey Moffatt’s Bedevil (1993). In fact, Morrison’s tale works over the most classic horrific subject of all – the haunted house.

Fans of horror cinema well know that the classics of the genre – from The Black Cat (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1944) to Psycho (1960) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) – have never had trouble exploring the most intricate and taboo of social issues, including all the historic complications now lumped under the label of post colonialism.

Indeed, horror cinema, in its development of Gothic literature, is the principal form of popular art in which broad social issues are broached in tandem with the most intimate disturbances of the flesh and psyche. The events and images of Morrison’s novel – bodily scars, sexual assault, Beloved’s communion with insects, the unholy congress between the living and undead – provide fine material for a postmodern, intellectual, revisionist horror movie.

One feels, however, that Demme and his collaborators are almost ashamed of the generic elements in their material. Occasionally the walls of the house glow red, a shock flashback flickers up, or magically inclined women wail. But the film avoids the visceral thrills that would have pushed the material toward a more expressionistic and thrilling sort of melodrama.

Beloved is eager to be perceived as a quality movie in that pompous, preening, American tradition associated with Masterpiece Theatre on television, or Billy Joel’s conversion to classical kitsch. Its production values are oddly bloated, given that the subject is primarily an intimate chamber piece involving one central set and a small bunch of characters. Rachel Portman’s score races toward an overpowering crescendo at the slightest hint of dramatic epiphany.

Mercifully, Demme does not ape the sentimental histrionics of Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985). Nonetheless, he seems overly keen to invest his film with a sober, humourless, hushed aura – a mode that makes grand heroes of every character. He also over-indulges his one signature touch – having the actors almost gaze into and address the camera in the midst of ordinary dialogue scenes – which puts heavy strains on the actors, particularly Winfrey.

Ultimately, Beloved – like Oscar and Lucinda (1997), The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and The English Patient (1997) – is an unwieldy translation of an esteemed literary source. Paradoxically, its reverence toward the original novel results in a bewildering opacity. Anyone who has not read the book must take in large sweeps of the story – such as Beloved’s seduction of Paul – without entirely grasping their deepest logic, pattern or significance.

The film becomes an odd tableau vivant. Events occur, portentous words are spoken, songs are sung, characters live and die in a majestic manner – but the key to the meaning of it all has been lost, obscured or fumbled.

MORE Demme: The Agronomist, The Manchurian Candidate, The Truth About Charlie, Ricki and the Flash, Something Wild

© Adrian Martin May 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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