Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Serenity and Perversion: On Doris Lessing and Adore

Robin Wright and Naomi Watts in Adore

The death last month of the Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing at the age of 94 drew a shower of obituaries and appreciations from across the English-speaking world. But few of those pieces talked about Adore, the movie French director Anne Fontaine and English screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted this year from a story published in Lessing’s penultimate book, a collection of novellas entitled The Grandmothers. (It was published in 2003; Lessing’s final book, the novel/memoir Alfred & Emily, came out in 2008). As literary critics praised Lessing to the skies for her unabashed candor about female sexuality in novels like The Golden Notebook, credited as an influence to the second-wave feminist movement in the sixties, and for her revolutionary spirit, movie critics far and wide condemned Adore for its sexually transgressive subject: women who sleep with one another’s teenage sons. The movie people – largely male – who objected to Anne Fontaine’s lyrical and sensual depiction of what is, in essence, an incest story, didn’t acknowledge that the plot, tone, perspective and most of the dialogue came directly from Doris Lessing. And the literary people – often female – who eulogized Lessing didn’t rush to defend the movie. Why?

“The Grandmothers” is about childhood best friends, Roz and Lil, who both marry and settle as neighbors in the same small seaside resort town where they grew up. Their sons – Roz’s Tom and Lil’s Ian – grow up together as brothers in turn, and when Lil’s husband (a philanderer) dies and Roz’s husband (a conservative family man) leaves, claiming that Roz’s real relationship is not with him but with her twin Lil, the four of them become an idyllic family. Ian is still wounded by the loss of his father, and the maternal comfort Roz provides soon turns into sexual comfort. When Tom discovers in the morning that his best friend has spent the night with his mother, he seduces Lil, out of rivalry and a sense of exclusion. But both sexual conquests deepen into love, and they continue on for years, rarely discussed but intimately understood. As the boys reach mature adulthood, Roz and Lil decide they must stand together and bow out of their love affairs as a united front, and when their boys marry, they set out to become perfect, doting grandmothers. The story ends when Mary, one of the daughters-in-law, discovers a pack of letters that expose the offending, incestuous tryst among the four of them.

Director Anne Fontaine
The last sentence of the story, “It was all clear to her,” expresses Mary’s bitter revelation of the twin love affairs, which finally explain the mysterious, overshadowing power Lil and Roz have held in her life. But the line is ironic – we are meant to see that she understands only a fragment of the complicated sexual entanglements, perhaps little more than the bare fact that they once existed. The further irony of the ending is one that Lessing may not have entirely intended, and that is that even the reader – to whom, by the end, all should be clear – is left comparably in the dark. This is largely because of Lessing’s oddly perfunctory, indifferent writing style. She assembles her stories like a reporter might gather so many facts; she doesn’t allow the larger implications, the meanings of behaviors or emotions they conjure up, to resonate. “The Grandmothers” is about the primitive strength of childhood emotion, and the way, for adults, it can surface in sexual longing and desire; it’s about how two mothers raised as sisters, and their two sons raised as brothers, pair up as sexual partners to both release those feelings of love, jealousy, helplessness and desire, and to contain them safely within the family drama. But the story itself has little drama, and like its laconic characters, it doesn’t express any of the emotions with which the reader might identify. We are little better than the unlucky outsider Mary. “The Grandmothers” is an incest story marvelously free from stigma or taboo, but it’s unpleasant in another way; it’s acrid and terse.

In Adore – which was released first as Two Mothers and then Perfect Mothers – Christopher Hampton and Anne Fontaine are faithful to the plotting and themes of Lessing’s story, but they create within it an emotional and dramatic spaciousness that makes the movie far richer, more provocative and deeply compelling. Opening on a scene of two girls racing to the ocean shore, a serene paradise, it fades into Lil and Roz as grown women at a funeral for Lil’s husband. Naomi Watts is Lil and Robin Wright is Roz. They really do look like sisters, and they share a weightless, almost floating beauty; like their diaphanous beach clothes, they shimmer in the light. Their individuality, and their difference from each other, is expressed in each of their faces: Watts’ has that round, rosy softness that looks, even in her mid-forties, like it has just blossomed, while Wright’s face is square, frank, full of calm assertion. The actresses take the spare, unfeeling dialogue of Lessing’s story and its blueprint of a relationship and fill it out: Lil is sensitive, more romantic, Roz unashamedly carnal, and their deep closeness, as it often is between women, is a form of erotic rivalry. We see these kinds of homoerotic bonds between men in literature and film all the time – a famous example is “The Knight’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where two cousins, both knights, duel for the love of the woman they both pine for – but in life it is the incredible emotional openness and physical intimacy that women share that most frequently expresses what the literary critic Eve Sedgwick termed “homosocial desire.” That’s what Fontaine opens up in this film. Her sensuous approach to the material rescues Lessing’s story, which risks being little more than a thought experiment – and the effect is revelatory.

Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville in Adore

Hampton was the ideal screenwriter to hire to adapt the material. He’s not just one of the most gifted literary adapters working today; his great subject is the riddle of sexual desire, and the way it entangles us. (He adapted Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons for Stephen Frears, Ian MacEwan’s Atonement for Joe Wright, and his own play The Talking Cure for David Cronenberg’s psychoanalytic sex comedy A Dangerous Method.) The best piece of dialogue that he contributes comes at the end of the film, when Roz reflects on Ian’s repeated claim that the romantic desperation the four of them feel is all her fault. (That’s a line from the story.) Lil assures her that she is the only one of the group who hasn’t misbehaved. “Then it probably is all my fault,” Roz says. The first to succumb to the boys’ advances, and the first to propose that they put an end to the affairs, Roz does, in one sense, set the action on its course. It’s not her sexual eagerness, or her rational intervention, that is her folly; it’s that she believes reason is a fair match for desire. (That’s also her strength as a character; she endures where Lil crumbles.)

As Ian and Tom, Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville are not just handsome, they are gorgeous, exotic, and in a brief scene where they each duck under an outdoor shower to rinse the seawater off their golden bodies the camera seems to undress them. (The cinematography is by Christophe Beaucarne.) We are used to seeing actresses as screen goddesses – think of Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamarr – but rarely have male bodies been filmed as objects of beauty and desire in quite this way. Watts and Wright strip down for their bedroom scenes, but the effect is different; from their first scenes, they give so much up to the camera they are already naked. Not only the dramatic strength of all four performances – they are some of the best of the year, particularly the women’s – but the openness of all four actors to the camera physically is what makes the movie work, as well as what makes it troubling: the sexual desire of mothers for sons, or sons for mothers, is so often the anxious, buried subtext in art (and in life), but when has it ever risen so placidly, so simply to the surface? Adore asks us to believe in incestuous love between consenting adults as a romantic idyll, in which boundaries are easily crossed, and the pleasure for all for players is natural, un-neurotic and serene.

Lessing asks you to contemplate this kind of love, but Anne Fontaine allows you to feel it. Which may hold the clue to why “The Grandmothers” helped win Doris Lessing the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, but Adore left most American critics positively bumfuzzled. Reviews were almost unanimously hostile: critics called it “icky” (The Boston Globe), a “hokey soap” (New York Post), “a bodice-ripper, if people bothered to wear that much clothing” (Newsday), “laughable” (Entertainment Weekly), and a “bonkbuster plotline” (Time Out). In his Rolling Stone review, Peter Travers wrote, “Fontaine manages the trick of making sex joyless. Like porn. Then she tops that by draining her film of variety, longing and feminist insight.” (What, do you imagine, qualifies for Travers as feminist insight?) “Plenty of variations on its theme of intergenerational lust can be found on the Internet,” added A.O. Scott in the New York Times, “though you may want to clear your browser history after you’re done searching for them.”

Maybe I simply haven’t watched as much pornography as A.O. Scott and Peter Travers, but the story reminded me of Shakespeare’s long narrative poem “Venus and Adonis,” in which the legendarily beautiful goddess hungrily seduces a mortal boy who rebuffs her advances, and of Ovid’s telling of the story of Myrrha, the woman whose unquenchable passion for her father leads her to come to him as a courtesan in the night. (Lessing laces her story with Ovidian references – Ian and Tom are “young gods,” Roz and Lil look at photographs of themselves as “nymphets,” and the motif of the ocean waves expresses the metamorphic state of nature.) Isn’t it possible that we keep returning to these themes, in whatever form, because they actually express something real about ourselves? In Stephen Frears’ noir The Grifters, Annette Bening realizes that her lover, played by John Cusack, is in love with his own mother, and she exclaims: “You like to go where you’ve been!” But, in a larger sense, all heterosexual men want to go where they’ve been – not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s what heterosexual sex is. No wonder maternal and sexual bonds become confused and entangled in our everyday lives (and in our fantasies), and the squirmy, ironic, cliché-ridden reviews of Adore try to put distance between their writers and the sensual, affecting images on the screen.


But what makes Adore truly daring and original is that it gets inside of the relationship between two women friends, and the feelings of love and rivalry that are so subconscious they are acted out through sex with one another’s sons. Robin Wright and, especially, the incomparable Naomi Watts give masterful and deeply intuitive performances that reveal the kinds of shifting, inchoate emotions that lie beneath their closeness – the inexpressible question that all of their scenes ask is “who are we to each other?” This mystery – the mystery of friendship, not the mystery of sex – is at the heart of the film, as well as what makes it consistently provocative and surprising. Unlike most every other critic right now, I feel lukewarm about Doris Lessing but I’m crazy about Adore. It didn’t shock me or gross me out, and I didn’t find its depiction of mother-son love so terribly implausible: it brought me closer to the mysteriousness of the desires within myself. I don’t mind if that makes me a pervert, but I’m starting to feel like the last pervert standing.


Amanda Shubert writes about film, books and the visual arts. A founding editor of Full Stop, the online magazine of literature and culture, she is also a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Talking About Pauline Kael (Scarecrow Press, 2014). Most recently, she interviewed the actress and folk singer Ronee Blakley for The Rumpus.

18 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, Amanda. I loved the film, the novella by Lessing wasn't my favorite either. You are definitely NOT the last pervert standing.

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  2. I agree, really enjoyed the movie, that kind of story that will twist around in your head for some time...and I do think many negative critics became afraid because it really tells us something about sexual desire and bond between mothers and sons

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    1. I adored this movie. Happened upon it last night. As a middle age woman I could related. I think it was stunning. Robin, Naomi and Xavier were excellent. I did not want it to end and played it back. It has been years since I have dine that with a movie. Where has this movie been hididng? This is the stuff of Oscars.

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  3. Hi Amanda! I´m glad I´ve found a review from someone who feels about the movie the exact way I do. I think it´s wonderful. Like the previous comment says, this is the kind of story that revolves is your head for quite a while (I had to watch the movie the next day again to find out why I could not stop thinking about it!!! Note: I´m not a middle age woman in love with a boy, :-)

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    1. Yes. I cannot get it out of my head.

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  4. Thank you, Amanda! I also share your opinion about the movie Adore and I did not think it was perverted at all. As you are describing, it shows quite realistic and simply human desires, but not only desires, for me it is also about love. Not only love between the boys and the mothers (to be noted: each boy has sex with his friend's mother, not his own, so I don't really see the aspect of incest there), but also about love between Lil and Roz as best friends. To be honest, the developments in the movie really made me think that the two male protagonists (as well as the two women) were happiest when they were indulging in their respective love affairs and not when they were doing "the right and honourable thing" of marrying girls of their own age. So maybe what really shocked many critics about the movie was the fact that unconventional relationships might not only be quite "normal fantasies", but also successful real-life models of love and that bowing to conventions for the sake of it might leave people unhappy and destructive. Therefore, for me the root of the dramatic climax in both the movie and Lessing's short story is not the love between Ian and Roz or Tom and Lil, but rather the impulse (of all four protagonists, albeit in different shape and strength) to act on the conventions of their time, and thereby deny their real emotions, thus themselves.

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  5. This is an exceptional review, Amanda, and I agree with every word of it. I saw this movie last night and was just blown away by its depth and complexity, and the subtlety of the acting. I didn't so much go for the incest theme; instead, after that joking scene about "lezzies", it seemed to me that Roz and Lil were using each other's sons to express sexually the deep, emotional and lifelong love they had for each other. Or maybe that's too simplistic. Perhaps it was just a *part* of what motivated the attractions.

    At any rate, this was a movie that made me think, and I love movies that make me think. I wasn't expecting the ending because these sorts of stories usually end with everyone getting punished in some way, but not this time. And yay.

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  6. I agree, this was a great, complex film, a definite improvement on the Lessing novella it is based upon. It reminded me of Henry James's novels of romantic deception (The Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove), except that the motive for avoiding discovery was fear of public opinion instead of financial security. But there was the same intricate dance of betrayal and intimacy, the same sense of unspoken tension. The relationships were similarly complex and almost "incestuous", as when the Count marries the daughter while his former lover seduces her father (in The Golden Bowl).

    But the deceptive lovers (Lil and Tom) in Adore were almost as much victims as those they betrayed, unlike in James's works. They turned on Roz and Ian almost without meaning to, giving in to their feelings in moments of weakness and then lying about it to avoid rocking the boat. In this sense, one finishes the movie feeling that the real "villain", if there is one, is conventional morality.

    Perhaps that's why the critical reception was so negative. The movie strongly implies that their relationships, while not unalloyedly positive, were valuable and should have been tolerated. Critics like to watch the forbidden, but they prefer to see it properly punished and the status quo restored at the end of the film. This very much did not happen in Adore. If anything, the movie shows that Roz's efforts to make them "pillars of the community" was misguided, and caused all the collateral damage to Hannah, Mary, and their daughters. If she had left well enough alone, other people wouldn't have been caught up in their affair and hurt in the process. Roz, though, speaks for us when she forces them to quit, expressing most of the audience's discomfort with their unconventional sexual arrangement. So it is hard to cast her as the "villain" either.

    It's a complex story that makes you think. The shifting interplay of audience allegiances (do we root for Lil and Tom, Roz, Ian, or the wives) makes it a fascinating viewing experience. At one point you feel sympathy for one character, but twenty minutes later I would find my entire view of the story upended.

    After watching it three times, I've finally settled on an interpretation that makes sense to me, but there is still ample room for ambiguity. Ultimately, I think the director meant to suggest that the relationship between the four protagonists was beneficial and self-sustaining. However, it also left little room for outsiders, and so it did isolate them from others. On the other hand, what they had inside their "bubble" was so lovely, so emotionally satisfying, that they didn't NEED the outside world.



    All in all, a wonderful, satisfying film. The mythic overtones (the word for ocean is a homophone for mother in French) and Oedipal, near-incestuous overtones also enrich the story. The fact that the relationships are nearly incestuous, but not actually incestuous, opens up a whole new batch of questions. Is it incest if you aren't actually related, but are emotionally close? What is the relationship between the maternal and the sexual? Can they be combined in one person without engendering feelings of discomfort? And if not, what does that say about our culture (because making mothers asexual has clear disadvantages for women AND men)? The buttons pushed in this film lead directly to powerful questions about our cultural views on gender, sexuality, and motherhood. I'm amazed so many respected critics managed to ignore these intriguing questions and give such juvenile reviews of the film, but never underestimate the power of maternal sexuality to unsettle men.

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  7. One idle, dull, privileged woman tempted by the beauty of her best friend's son might have made a great, challenging drama, but the fact that two women make absurdly self absorbed decisions to have relationships with each other's sons, without condsidering the posssibly catastrophic repercussions on the boys, themselves, and everyone around them, is what made audiences laugh. They weren't laughing because they were uncomfortable. They were laughing because it's unintentionally hilarious. This visually beautiful film in most countries, went straight to DVD. You're not giving the average viewer enough credit. It's not meaningful, mysterious, discomforting 'art.' You're giving the film, and the novella, much more depth than they have. It's 'Days of Your Lives' territory, and has about as much weight as a daytime soap. Are these women deranged? The performances are for the most part, good. But I thought the film itself was offensively, breathtakingly, toe-curlingly bad.

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  8. excellent review, very good film,certainly not offensive nor perverted, just unusual!

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  9. I really appreciated your well-written and honest review. Like many others who have commented, I thought that the movie was beautiful, and had to watch it a 2nd time because I had so many thoughts and questions bouncing around in my head. I enjoy thinking about a movie afterward (and so often there just isn't anything to think about!) and I definitely enjoyed all 4 actors - all beautiful, talented and totally devoted to this film. Thank you again for a great read!

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  10. loved the movie too and was getting really sad to see so many bad reviews everywhere.. starting to think i was a pervert... o just misunderstanding the whole film. But you were able to put it in words how i feel about it. Thank you! =)

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  11. Excellent and thoughtful review. Like you, I was very surprised that the critics didn't like this movie. I am not a mother, so maybe I am having a hard time understanding how this movie is about incest. To sleep with the son of your best friend is not incest - is it? As far as I can tell, the social taboo against incest derives from a desire not to procreate with someone biologically related to you. The characters who have sex in the movie are not biologically related. Critics say that it is a kind of emotional incest, but I disagree with that too. The childhood relationships to the 'mothers' is no longer the driving relationship - these are sexually mature men whose relationships with the female characters is no longer defined by their childhood roles as dependents. So even on that level, it isn't emotional incest as far as I can tell. The emotional intensity of the relationships is perhaps what is so disturbing, as the sex is deeply connected and the actors do this justice in a way that mainstream Hollywood rarely manages to capture. But other than the fact this is about older women with younger men, I am still puzzled why everyone was so scandalised about the plot. I found it believable that emotional intimacy would lead to sexual attraction between the characters and I had no trouble believing that such deep intimacy couldn't easily be replaced, even by the appeal of sexual variety and younger sex partners. I thought both the directing and acting were superb. I have watched it several times trying to grasp the subtleties and there are still no jarring moments, even though as some people have commented, it was a very hard plot to capture so honestly. If anything, the story was believable, which is the sign of a great movie - when a director and actors can make you emotionally believe something that you wouldn't otherwise be able to grasp.

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  12. Soooo disappointed...this film had huge potential but at the end I felt like I just drank a warm flat diet coke!! or that Jerry Springer was going to show up at any moment!!
    The potential for great scenes were just passed up for scenes that meant nothing or had zero energy. I almost turned off the movie at the scene with Ian acting the roll of a powerful businessman or the two boys talking in the car. The potential for hot sex scenes was abundant but again the director chose to go "diet coke".
    My observations..
    some people on this board say its just upsetting to people because this movie does not adhere to societies imposed moralities but I observed a movie full of narcissistic characters who cannot look outside themselves when making decisions...some others wrote about the characters were only true themselves at the end.... I say these the boys were too young and had never been in the real world so knowing their true selves was impossible since they never tired or failed, etc....the mothers were untrue to themselves in the fact they did not acknowledge their need to be with each other...they just used the boys to facilitate keeping their relationship.
    First of all the boys are 16 and 17 when they begin to bed the mothers....I saw a cast interview from the Sundance movie festival and the actors playing the boys mention they are 16-17 when they started with the mothers and late twenties at the end. They are clearly not mature men.
    This movie is about the relationship between Lil and Roz....that's it....how nothing (not even the well being of the boys) will even get between them. A great example of this is when Lil finds out the Roz is bedding her 17 year son and her first instinct is about Roz and not the well being of her young son. Most mothers first reaction would be to protect the son. (she did the opposite) Lil does not confront Roz or her son but instead lets her surrogate son enter her bed in the middle of the night and bangs him at sun up!! Later when Roz breaks off from Ian she is preserving her relationship with Lil since Lil was dumped by Tom. Lis and Roz's relationship is the main theme of this movie.
    Yes this is incest (not legally but emotionally) Lil and Roz are surrogate moms to the boys. I equate it to having sex with your nanny of 17 years.
    I believe Lil and Roz do not want an equal as a husband, boyfriend, lover, etc like common relationships. They have that in each other. To be worshipped and serviced sexually is what they want. The boys provided this in abundance. This is the sick twist, since they are using each others boy for this reason which is very damaging to their development.
    One thing was clear...Ian was mentally unstable. I thought the actor playing Ian did a great job portraying this.... obviously his father's death damaged him. Add to this banging his surrogate mom as a teenager and his mental illness got worse. He and the Tom were both a man/child who never struck out on their own and were forever at their mother's "breast". Ian working for the family business or Tom's father finally having to set up job opportunities to get the boy out of the house are example of how these two never entered the real world. Even later Tom rides his wife's successful acting career. Two truly messed up Peter Pans. All four characters did not want to leave the "make believe" or "unreal" bubble they all lived in.
    It's interesting how Lil and Roz laughed at and rejected traditional men who were self reliant, successful and time tested, for two man/childs who they viewed as "gods". The boys behavior never evolves and they do not become self reliant men who have scares from life experiences or failures. The are truly untouched as they approach 30 years old. Still babes.
    sorry need to cont on next post

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  13. sorry im long winded... cont
    Naomi Watts had a great interview where she described Lil and Roz as hooked on the boys like drugs. This was an excellent comment. In most relationships each person is not an addict hook on their partner but half of the relationship. In the moive Lil cries that if she does not "get it" meaning Tom's sex that she will suffocate. In the end it turns out she was happy just having an affair with Tom. She has a relationship (Roz) but wants the romance and sex that Tom provides her. Her and Tom even used family gatherings as a chance to have sex. When people do things or risk things like this they are acting like someone who is an addict.



    I laughed so hard that at age 17 the boys for the most part "ordered" the moms into the bedroom for sex. What was creepy was how the mothers giggled like schools girls and ran off to lay under the boys.



    It was interesting how the boys looked so relieved to get rid of their wives and children, but Roz was they only one that looked disappointed and heart broken.



    It was also interesting how Tom and had no allegiance to his father. His best friend is banging his Mom and he shows no protection for his father. He let his father be made a fool of and felt no sadness for his father. Even when his Dad asked him about his girlfriend he lied to his Dad. Very disrespectful.



    Naomi Watts reminded me of Diane Lane in Unfatihful. Successful women with a wonderful life but is literally addicted to sex with a young man.



    The actors are the only thing that keeps this movie going. Even though the characters look normal, the actors give all of us a good peek underneath to see each is troubled inside.



    One thing I do agree with many reviewers is that the characters did display different morals (from the normal morality) was the ability to watch their mom or son have sex. The implied notion of foursomes on the dock or in the house was pronounced and even increased the sense of incest in the movie. Which is what the director wanted to do.



    Finally the ending was such a let down. The characters get their way and they get to bang each other into the future leaving a gigantic path of destruction of young wives and young children. But we get to see none of that and how the characters deal with it. Again they are let off the hook....they get to dispose of unwanted wives and children and the most important part Roz and Lil get to stay together which again is the main focus of the film. They did not have to pay any price that was actually important to them. Say, for some reason they had to leave their paradise to be together or maybe Lil and Roz had to move away from each other to be with the boys...would they do that? I thought a fun ending would have been, maybe Tom's father in- law was a powerful person who takes revenge on Tom and forced him to leave Australia (or face the consequences, ha) Would Lil leave with him or stay in Paradise with Roz....I think I know the answer.



    this really could have been a great movie....reminds me of the movie Bloomington another potentially great film that tasted like warm diet Coke.

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  14. Good review. I was surprised that so many critics trashed this movie. I agree that the film did a great job of capturing the many emotions. Pain, beauty, unspeakable intensity.

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