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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Scott McGehee and David Siegel | The Deep End


the perfect mother
by Douglas Messerli

Scott McGehee and David Siegel, based on the novel by Elizabeth Sanxay and the film by Max Ophuls, The Reckless Moment),  Scott McGehee and David Siegel (directors) The Deep End / 2001

The gay directorial team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel chose in 2001 to rewrite Max Ophul’s womens’ melodrama, The Reckless Moment, producing in their The Deep End a credible and skilled film production, which, although it had long been part of our large DVD collection, I had not seen until other day, after viewing their less successful What Maisie Knew.
       By shifting the Ophuls film into a contemporary story where—instead of a young girl dating an older man, we have an almost underage gay boy, Beau (Jonathan Tucker) in the emotional influence of a sleazy 30 year old owner of a Reno gay bar called The Deep End, Darby Reese (Raymond J. Barry)—we immediately recognize, today, as a far more problematic situation—or perhaps we should simply say it better helps us to comprehend the difficult situation with which the original version’s mother, Joan Bennett, had to deal when faced with her teenage daughter Bea’s (Geraldine Brooks) dominance by the older man of The Reckless Moment, Ted Darby (Sheppard Strudwick).
       The utterly loving mother in this film, played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton (as Margaret Hall), is clearly not so disconcerted that she has discovered her son’s homosexuality, as that he has linked up with such a despicable being, who, having also introduced her son to alcohol, has been partially responsible for a recent accident, wherein Beau has been arrested—perhaps with the drunken Darby sitting next to him in the front seat.

        In the very first scene of the film, we see the level-headed Margaret knocking at the door of the Reno gay establishment, demanding to see Reese, who she demands must stop seeing her teenage son. He, apparently, is willing to do so for a payment of $5,000, which, when she confronts Beau about his offer, the troubled and, surely, duped young boy refuses to believe; Reese has already telephoned him even before Margaret has been able to return home.
       Although Beau refuses to discuss the relationship with him, despite her attempts to openly talk about it, Margaret pushes on, dealing, despite her Navy husband’s absence (he is stationed somewhere on a distant military ship), with another son and daughter, cooking the family meals, and, with other friends, chauffeuring the younger children between their school, soccer, ballet, and other activities. Swinton plays this contemporary-mother role with great aplomb, refusing to turn it into melodrama, while representing her character’s personality, nonetheless, with a steely, if nearly impossible, managing of what it takes to me a liberated woman. If, in the original, we perceive Joan Bennett, as I have argued, as an isolated woman, protected in her suburban culture from all of the urban pressures of nearby Los Angeles, here, in the glorious environs of Tahoe Lake, Margaret is put-upon by nearly everything. And she cannot even reach her husband to discuss her emotional and, later, real-life dilemmas. And, in this respect, like Ophul’s original film, this is very much a woman’s story, despite its early gay perspective. 
     McGehee and Siegal almost convince us that the two are part and parcel of the same thing: a caring, dominant mother and a missing father surely have encouraged the confused young son seek out some emotional replacements in his life, and Reese may, despite his despicable qualities, be an attempt to find the seemingly always missing father’s love.
      Fortunately, the directors do not attempt to psychoanalyze their characters. Mostly these figures, despite their familial love, simply cannot communicate with one another; they are all too confused, too hurt, and too much in love. 
      But that condition, of course, also results in misconceptions for all involved, and creates the intense drama of the film’s plot. When Beau is visited, late-night, by Reese at his home, he attempts to quiet his lover with a visit to the boathouse, where he challenges him about his love and questions the older man about his mother’s accusations. Discovering that, indeed, his mother has told him the truth, and that he has, in fact, taken her up on her offer of money to keep him away, even the believing Beau recognizes something is “rotten in Denmark,” and pulls away from the older man, who hurt by the young man’s refusal, attempts to punish him. Like the fight between the young girl in Ophul’s film and the older man, Reese is slightly stunned (both physically and psychologically) by his violent rejection, and, after Beau leaves him, he stumbles out to pier, only to fall into a rotting fence into the water below, killing him (in both stories, improbably, he falls into an old anchor which impales him, and I do not comprehend why McGehee and Siegel had not attempted to update that absurd situation).

      Beau, knowing nothing of the aftermath, returns to his room, like any ruffled teenager, refusing to discuss any of the events he has just undergone. So, accordingly, when the next morning his mother discovers the horrible accident and the body, she can only presume—or perhaps one should say, she tragically and mistakenly, assumes the worse: her son has killed his aggressor. 
      Of course, that is the problem; although Reese has, indeed, become an aggressor, it is only because of her actions that he has become a “dangerous” one. But neither movie feels open to really discuss that. Margaret, after all, is also an innocent, who cannot easily comprehend the complex events she has just encountered. Her instincts are those of a loving mother: get rid of the evidence. And with a remarkable resilience and almost fantastic ability, she manages to pull the body into a nearby speed boat, and toss him off into a removed spot, later even returning to that spot, nearly drowning in the attempt, to retrieve his car keys so that she might move the victim’s car to a far-away location. 
     Oh the impossibilities of being a model mother! For moments after she has  accomplished the “murdered” man’s ocean burial, but she has to curry her daughter and younger son to their current events as she is, simultaneously, visited by the surely evil Alek Spera (Goran Višnjić) demanding $50,000 in blackmail for a porno film between her son Beau and the dead man, which, if turned over to the police, will surely involve him in the disappearance—and, more frighteningly, the murder of Reese—whose body has now been discovered by police.

      What’s a good mother to do? And, if nothing else, Margaret is the perfect mother, attempting to get loans (which if her husband were there, would be no problem) and remove monies from their joint accounts (always needing the missing husband’s signature)—all of which further reveals these director’s quite feminist perspectives. No one can help a busy woman, a mother, a housewife, to deal with such life-altering changes; only a man can accomplish it, evidently—despite her endless and startling accomplishments.
      Strangely, only her blackmailer, Spera, seems to comprehend her situation, trying, despite threats on his own life, to negotiate a smaller deal with his handler, Nagel. It is only fate, an accident which kills Nagel and, moment’s later, Spera himself, whom Margaret tries to comfort in his last death throes, ends in her and her family’s salvation. 
     Beau, resilient as most children are, has applied for a music scholarship at Wesleyan, and will probably receive it (he has been asked for 2 trumpet on-line recitals). At movie’s end, the telephone rings out once again; this time, presumably, reporting on news from the ever-missing husband, suggesting that the normality of society is about to return. Yet, of course, one must question, what will that “normality” consist of? Surely the memories which the entire family must now face—sublimated or still present—may never be erased. And, in that respect, like Ophul’s film, the McGehee and Siegel work is a kind of American tragedy about which no one dare speak.

Los Angeles, September 21, 2016

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