YOUNG ADAM (David Mackenzie, 2003)

Sometimes a film takes me by surprise. David Mackenzie’s 2003 Young Adam is very good—a moody, atmospheric portrait of dead-end lives with moral overtones that have about them the air of Dostoievski. But in the world of Mackenzie’s film, which is based on a novel by Alexander Trocchi, there is no possibility of redemption; there is no New Adam.
     Here is a long, full 97 minutes, with claustrophobic shots on a small barge with four inhabitants, and mysterious shots of the sea from which a pregnant woman’s corpse is fished out.
     The corpse is sensuous, as if alive to the touch: a beautiful hommage to Eisenstein’s October (1927)—and, of course, the barge material suggests Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934). Joe, the young laborer who helps fish out the corpse, covers its buttocks and pats them. If the only message of this creepy-crawley scene had been “The guy is horny,” I would have hated the film. But things become more and more interesting and complex. The theme is sufficient to wither the soul: Nothing works out—one’s work, one’s sexual relationships, the justice system. Very pessimistic, even defeatist perhaps, but with a full draught of humanity, of the rhythm and pity of realistic lives, of the intolerable beauty through which unhappy lives seem to glide, of predetermined destinies, of a closed cosmos in which behaviors repeat over and over. This is the miracle of art: This film ought to be torture to watch; but because it is humane and compassionate, it is pleasant to navigate.
     Released here in the States in 2004 amidst a good deal of controversy because of its NC-17 rating, the film is rock-solid, very good and full of sex, and with yet more proof that Tilda Swinton is an extraordinary actress. The DVD includes a commentary track by Mackenzie that’s full of precise knowingness of the psychological complexity he has achieved, along with all the usual boring production stuff.
     Yet more proof that I’m out of sync: I would think that a film of such humanity, heartache and compassion is exactly the kind of film that kids ought to see.

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