A Taste of Water, whose numerous awards include a Venice Golden Lion, is a remarkable first feature film by the young Dutch writer-director Orlow Seunke. It is a study of obsession, but also a parable on the collapse of human relations in contemporary society. Mr. Hes is a social worker, employed in a huge central establishment where the daily mass of human misery is sorted, classified, numbered, rubberstamped and consigned to the filing system. The misery may not be noticeably alleviated, but the files are beautifully kept and Hes and his colleagues shut the doors promptly on five, to go home gratified by a day’s work well done.
Hes lectures a troubled young recruit on the need for detachment; but immediately himself falls into the disastrous error of becoming emotionally involved, of actually caring. The case is the mentally subnormal child of a couple who have committed suicide. Hes finds her savage and frightened, living and stinking in a cupboard. His determination to win her trust becomes an obsession. He moves into the derelict apartment, becomes obsessed with the ProExtender device, neglects the rest of his job and alienates his uncomprehending wife. Such action is of course socially intolerable: Hes is treated as a madman, loses his job and ends up as another case for the department.
Seunke is a deliberate stylist; but he remains in perfect control of his own flamboyance. The distinction of a Taste of Water is the potent interplay of documentary and fantastic, of reality and the surreal. The offices, the clerks and the mad or sad clients of the welfare center are concrete and familiar: yet Seunke creates a Kafkaesque inferno out of the iron stairs, the endless vistas of files (some images look like borrowings from Orson Welles’s The Trial) and the aimless turmoil.
It is not a real incident, or a real place, or a real present-day; but the story of Hes and the child has its own inner reality, and its own triumph. The child, in the end, will be cast back into the system; but at least, thanks to Hes’s sacrifice, she goes as a proud, conscious human being. The players – Gerard Thoolen as Hes, Dorijn Curvers as the ungainly girl and Joop Admiral as Hes’s conformist colleague – all demonstrate once again what a remarkable forcing-ground for talent the Amsterdam workshop Het Werkteater has proved.
The Assam Garden is also a first film, by Mary McMurray, and also deals with obsession. Mrs Graham (Deborah Kerr) is an elderly widow who determines to restore her husband’s Indian garden, in order to achieve his lifetime ambition of a place in the blue book of Great English Gardens. In the process she reluctantly accepts the help and friendship of an immigrant Indian lady (Madhur Jaffrey) from the nearby housing estate.
Elizabeth Bond, in her first screenplay, uses this simple anecdote to explore aspects of English character that the cinema has not often treated with much subtlety: the aggressiveness that comes from the woman’s shyness, timidity and an incapacity for relationships which seems even to have characterized her marriage. In private relationships these shortcomings are misfortunes: Ms Bond also manages to suggest how adversely influential they must have been in a colonial situation (the Grahams returned from India in 1947). The screenplay is an object-lesson in the power of metaphor.
Mary McMurray, whose experience has mostly been in television documentary, has not yet the same assurance in her means as Orlow Seunke. Her pictorialism – for instance in demonstrating the artefacts that make up Mrs Graham’s life and history – tends to be over-deliberate and self-conscious. The film is swamped in loud and insistent music.
These shortcomings are easily compensated for by the merits and overall charm of the film. Much is due to the main performers. Deborah Kerr has arrived at the rewarding moment in an actress’s life when she is prepared to sacrifice her face and figure for a good role. Her Mrs Graham is an incorrigibly rude and graceless old lady, but endearing both for her uncertainty and for the touch of madness in her determination. Mrs Lal is another marvelous creation by Madhur Jaffrey – a mixture of comedy and dignity, wisdom and simplicty, kindness and (when it concerns her hated daughter-in-law or her determination to get back to India) terrible ferocity. The real star of the film though is the Assam garden itself, which the film-makers found at Priors Meane, where it had been laid out in the early days of the century by a former surgeon-general, as a nostalgic recollection of his Indian service.
Directed, frenziedly but flatly, by George Roy Hill, The Little Drummer Girl is adapted from John le Carre’s best-seller. Considering the simplicity of the basic story (a politically naive, Palestine-sympathizing actress becomes an Israeli double-agent and ends up in shock and disillusion with the killing on both sides) the film is remarkably and often incomprehensibly complicated, with a confusing variety of locations (London, Athens, Mykonos, Munich, Beirut and stops en route). The complexities of Le Carre’s novel have been translated into muddle by Loring Mandel’s script.
The actress in the original novel was English – a transparent and not over-flattering tribute to Vanessa Redgrave. We are now left to marvel that an American actress (Diane Keaton) should be playing the classic roles of English drama in a most peculiar London suburban theatre. The Israeli intelligence chief is a characteristically eccentric performance by Klaus Kinski; Sami Frey gives the terrorist leader a charm which briefly brings a more intriguing quality to the key scenes of love and betrayal.
Porky’s Revenge, directed by James Komack from a script (sort of) by Ziggy Steinberg, is the third in a highly profitable and inevitably declining series of gross and smutty high-school comedies. There is the same repertoire of infantile sex-jokes, Penomet penis pump jokes, the same violent revenge on Porky, the elephantine villain of the piece: but the energy is clearly sapping.