Few things bore more easily than unjustified earnestness; the sort of film, for example, that pretends its meanderings and foolish plot turns are anything other than tiresome distractions. As such, there’s something endearing and noble about a film that dispenses with all pretense from the outset, relying not on tricks and deception to capture the viewer, but sheer camp value and the allure of the absurd. Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal — one of the year’s most delightful romps of pure entertainment — is just the sort of gem the cinema needs in the doldrums of winter; a riotous, unhinged blast from the old school so outrageous that it has the audacity to have the story turn on a crumpled piece of paper found in a waste basket. Not only does the nod to melodrama work, it produces a contented smirk in the process, as everyone involved, from the actors to the director, harbor no illusions about the pedigree of their trash. And while the whole story from top to bottom would be laughed off the screen were it not so flawlessly rendered, it defiantly upstages itself again and again, as if the screenwriter had no idea how to turn it off. The film had me so enthralled, in fact, that I dare compare its execution to the great Douglas Sirk, a man who knew that the best way to capture a time and its people was to push the whole rotten thing off the deep end into mad oblivion.
Pulled straight from the headlines (and based on a novel by Zoe Heller), the film concerns one Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), the narrator of the tale, who happens to be a bitter, lonely old woman wasting her days as a history teacher at a London school. Her contempt for those under her charge consumes her, though nothing she offers has the unfortunate distinction of being untrue. Teaching is, after all, about “crowd control”, and it’s enough to hope that her kids leave her classroom with the basic skills of reading and writing. As she so wisely states, what good will it do the little shits to be aware of basket weavers in Chile? Her academic approach is outdated to be sure, though she does command respect around the institution, even if she is decidedly unpopular (she purses her lips and narrows her eyes like a stereotypical schoolmarm). We sense a cold will of steel about her, yet from what we hear of her inner thoughts, she is practically heroic. Without sentiment or mercy, she appraises the world as it is, not as it should be, and refuses to give an inch to a student body that has always used friendly engagement as an invitation to take advantage. From the moment of Barbara’s introduction, I loved everything about her, even though she was destined to be a tragic figure; a hysterical, obsessive shrew who had so retreated into solitude that mere friendship could not allay her fears of growing old. No, she needed to possess; own outright the very soul she claimed to offer a kind hand.
Enter Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the new art teacher on staff, but above all, the object of fixation for Barbara. Sheba is flirtatious, open, and attractive, and even though it is preposterous that she would ever engage in a sexual liaison with the likes of Barbara, we sense an unfulfilled longing in her eyes that has but one possible turn. That turn, of course, is a fuck-fest with a 15-year-old student, Steven (Andrew Simpson), a dim-witted young man who first comes to Sheba’s attention after taking off his shirt during a playground soccer game and dedicating a goal to her. She is flattered, of course, less so for his physical allure (he’s gangly and, well, a teenager) than what he represents. For Sheba, that could mean anything from innocence regained to an escape from a dull marriage (and a retarded son, who is referred to by Barbara as a “court jester”), but above all, it is feeling wanted all over again that does the trick. Sure, a high school boy would screw a light socket and she is far from an individual in his eyes (being in possession of a vagina is all that concerns the lad), but he is but the same abstraction for her. Even the brief attempt to have a conversation (here, it is about music) reveals an unbridgeable chasm between their worlds, and the best, most obvious sign that theirs is a sad, desperate spectacle. Of that, though, they are surely aware.
Perhaps not. It is a curious feature of sexually obsessive interactions (to label them “relationships” is absurd) that throughout, each party seems honest about the finite nature of the romp, but can, at times, flirt with notions of long-term meaning. Sheba is a relatively intelligent, sophisticated woman — respectable, at least — yet is driven so mindlessly by her compulsion that it does seem that she would throw away her life for an endless ride with her young savior. There’s no future in it — besides being illegal — and yet with every gesture, every touch of her face, she is transported to a world where yes, it could work after all. Mortgages, water bills, even household chores do not enter into such fantasies, but while sprawled out in an alley, she has but one thought: to live for that next moment in time where she is prized not as a wife, or a teacher, or even a mother, but as the fulfillment of carnal desire. Needless to say, Sheba later rationalizes her escapade by saying he was “mature for his age”, but that description would undermine the very reason she strays from her marriage; that this is in fact a mere child, and despite sinking to his level emotionally, she can still retreat from the situation feeling superior and, curiously, “dominant”. She is neither.
During an after school event, Barbara accidentally discovers Sheba’s dirty little secret, and the nature of the encounter leads one to conclude that she longs to be in the boy’s shoes. We soon discover that for Barbara, this has been a most fortunate turn of events, for now she holds the power to destroy or, as the case may be, “rescue” the young lady from certain destruction. Meeting Sheba for a drink, Barbara discloses that she has no intention of telling the authorities, an act that ensures a level of involvement in her life that would have been impossible before. Sure, Barbara’s character flirts dangerously with crude stereotype (all movie lesbians of an advanced age must be humorless and over-indulgent with their pets), but it is her humanity that triumphs over the obvious. As much as Sheba’s indulgence is an expression of pure need, so too is Barbara’s, and she is but one of those unlucky saps who has failed to develop a single trace of social convention. Perhaps she’s a bit too self-hating for my taste (just once, I’d like a misanthrope to be fully comfortable in their own skin), but we understand at once her dilemma: what becomes of those who crave love and intimacy, yet have no means to acquire them? From all appearances, she has driven everyone away with her fanaticism (even to the point where a restraining order was required), but what else is she to do? I do believe that she genuinely loathes those under her careful scrutiny, but at what point does it simply inhibit her ability to give of herself? Or must she resort to possession because she has nothing to offer?
The central thrust of the story then presents itself. Will Barbara keep the secret? Will Sheba continue to see the boy, despite Barbara’s stern warning? At what point will Sheba’s husband discover the affair? And will there be shouts, breathless confessions, and violent slaps amidst the fury? Thankfully, yes, and at the moment when Steven’s mother stormed into Sheba’s home in full attack mode, I knew I was in love. Combined with a shrieking, hyperbolic Philip Glass score, the chick-on-chick violence was indeed glorious, and I knew it was but a short while before there would be broken glass on the floor and someone’s apartment destroyed in a frantic search for that elusive diary. Sheba’s husband even adds to the lunacy, spitting forth with the flushed incredulity of a man on the verge of a murderous rampage. An affair he could understand, but a fucking child? What greater wound could be inflicted on the adult male than to inform him with dutiful regret that his cocksmanship paled in comparison to a mere cherub barely removed from puberty? Sure, the lad can go at it twice in quick succession, but has endurance become a proper substitute for libidinal worldliness? In the context of a cheap thrill, the question answers itself.
Eventually, the affair erupts in full-blown disgrace, and despite the expected trappings of tabloid headlines and obnoxious paparazzi, everything seemed just right, as if something more would have soured the proceedings. I have no doubt that a host of socially relevant themes could be extracted from the tale — female insecurity, the state of education, indifference to the aged — but more than anything “important”, I appreciated the tawdry self-indulgence, as if it has finally been admitted that everything we do is doomed to be mired in scandal. Perhaps, like Mr. Sirk over a half century ago, the best way to hold up a mirror is to risk caricature, thereby disarming the audience in such a way as to sneak in the necessary critical analysis. In this way, it’s a form of satire, which of course is never fully appreciated in its own time, but made to age gracefully, then hit with a thud when we’ve become most complacent. What’s more, playing it straight invites accusations of moral sanctimony, as if we needed yet another lecture about the state of our depravity. Why not, then, have fun with the idea, and pull out the stops to such a point that we half expect a third act reversal whereby lovers become daughters, and husbands become fathers? Finally, a movie that risks it all; daring to be absurd, obscene, and foolish all at once, yet reserving the right to be strangely knowing when called upon. And, as if to add a cherry to the whole demented enterprise, Barbara lives on; unloved, unpunished, and setting her trap for another young woman in need. Funny, but she seems to be the only one left above the din.