Adoration (The Mothers or Adore) – Anne Fontaine re-imagines taboo based desire after Nabokov. (Film review)

Adoration opens with a pair of twelve-year-old girls teasing and chasing each other through a lush forest.  They burst onto a large pristine empty beach, disrobe, and swim out to a small floating dock where they have secreted away sample bottles of spirits for their own illicit amusement. The footage immediately references the opening scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, when a twelve-year-old girls foot is being erotically caressed, the nails painted blood-red (presumably) by the girl’s mother, a symbol of the half space between child and woman occupied by all teens (not just girls) for around ten years or so of their life. Immediately from the nail painting scene, Kubrick moves to the ruins of Humbert’s house, and we are firmly planted in Humbert’s point of view, the famous silence of Lolita as powerful as Humbert’s narrative itself.

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Adoration never moves to Humbert’s point of view as the clumsy outsider. We watch the girls drink their alcohol, wrap their arms around each other as they watch a pod of dolphins dance playfully by, there is a lingering close-up of feet paddling softly in the water, then the girls sit on the dock and stare out into the vast, empty ocean. The camera places the shot slightly to the viewers right, they’re not centred, so we continue to experience the measureless ocean around them, as suddenly we are watching the girls stare with great desire into each others eyes. The gaze between them is held, until a seamless movement transports them both through time, and they are two adult females, on the same ocean, the same raft, with the same look of love, longing, and unexpressed desire in their eyes. The two girls, now women, will go on to have affairs with each others young sons, lasting well into their old age.

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Dorris Lessing has written about the repressed female experience in the 1950’s.  The Grandmothers, the short story at the heart of Adoration, is a novella written at the end of her career (2003) after witnessing and documenting the challenges of expression and transformation of the female experience. On the big screen, it is impossible not to connect Adoration with Lolita because of the subject matter, and yet point of view makes so much difference in the two narratives the initial threads of connection are difficult to take up. These nymphettes (as Nabokov labelled them, and Tom affectionately refers to the mothers in the film) grow without the incest-rape-centric relationship of a predatorial Humbert, and yet the same issues he faced exist for the two women Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts) when they look at their youthful child-men playing in the ocean before them. We’ve been dumped in the same sea of themes, incest, rape and age difference, although in the Lessing telling, rape is virtually removed by virtue of the fact of the boy’s age (they appear to be over eighteen, although it is very clearly implied the attractions and longings had started when they were much younger) and in their actions as perpetuating sexual contact; but constantly evident is the emotional power the mothers have over the sons, so that the relationship cleverly remains in question despite the “legalities” of rape removed. The result produces turgid waters indeed, as we swing between emotional responses (just as Nabokov experienced with Lolita and Kubrick experienced with his erotics-watered-down film version) that lesser mortals might decide to blame on the film making itself, but others will see as an opportunity to take a deep breath and dive right in.

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For freshly raised questions around Kubrick’s film (Nabokov’s novel), and many other reasons, Adoration becomes one of the best Australian films to come out in years, if not decades. The French film influences, represented in the production and initial project jettisoned to life through the optioning of French producers Dominique Besnehard and Michel Feller, begin with the purchase of Lessing’s novella, and Anne Fontaine and Philippe Carcassonne joining the project. Almost immediately they recognised the need for an Anglo-saxon setting to remain true to the characters and South Africa was a natural choice for setting, until Lessing herself revealed the original story as related to her, occurred in Australia, where screen Australia and Hopscotch were clever enough to get on board. (An interesting aside; Lessing heard a story of Two Grandmothers who had almost life long affairs with each others sons related from a third-party, a young male peer of the boys, who spoke of the relationships with so much envy that Lessing felt compelled to write about it.) Seal Rocks was chosen as the perfect setting, to provide, again similar to the Nabokov/Kubrick vehicle, a place so beautiful it is almost surreal in its ability to separate protagonists from a certain reality that allows mouldy old morality to fester within.  It’s almost as if Lessing and Nabokov – or Lessing in response to Nabokov – are telling us that these sorts of relationships only exist in dreams.  They can’t happen in real life without the overwhelming misery of fractured souls and hearts. For Humbert, it was his own fetishisation of reality that provided the dream scape powerful enough to obliterate a certain truth. For the mothers in Adoration, it is the engulfing enormity of a pristine ocean, as the opening and closing shots in Fontain’s direction reveal.

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As with many French films, Adoration is sparse on dialogue, big on emotive gaze, environment capturing emotion and enormous events being folded subtly into the everyday, and yet the Australian influence is never subdued. The pared down emotion in the dialogue is posited remarkably well against the relaxed Aussie ethic – so much so that the end result is the film couldn’t have been made anywhere else. Dialogue is carefully constructed, Christopher Hampton weaving Lessing’s original in to the film narrative perfectly. The ignored men, perpetually on the outside, Harold and Saul played by Ben Mendelsohn and Garry Sweet (Lil’s husband is emphatically dead throughout the entire film) appear restrained and perplexed by the sparse speech while the two couples appear comfortable in the wordlessness of every look. Language becomes so important, just as it was when it was missing from Lolita, every word spoken, particularly between the couples, is a word throughly thought out before it leaves lips. Actions spring from desire, not consciousness, and yet consciousness is powerless to find the adequate words to stop what is happening. As is also with many French films, morality is abandoned so that judgement is left squarely with the viewer as to what is right and wrong in this complicated, erotic relationship.

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A final word about the erotics of the film.  Adoration is a beauty based film about desire, with every frame a dedication to seduction of the senses. Naomi Watts and Robin Wright are the older women teen male fantasies are made of, while Xavier Samuel (Ian) and James Frenchville (Tom) as the seductive sons are breath-taking in their beauty.  Ben Mendelsohn and Garry Sweet have a relaxed sea-washed fervor, and the houses where most of the indoor action takes place are open, airy, light and connected to their environment. Every frame is washed with desire, though don’t expect a lot of lust. This is definitely a slow burn when it comes to attraction, although I found the film to be fervidly rapturous.

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