Column: Art / Music / Theatre

In defence of Adoration

by Dion Kagan , December 9, 2013Leave a comment


Just from watching the film trailer you can intuit that Adoration, the recent Australian/French co-production directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), would screen to some unsympathetic audiences. Adapted from a novella called The Grandmothers by the recently departed Doris Lessing, Adoration (originally titled Two Mothers and Adore in the US) is about two beautiful best friends, Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts), who take on each other’s 17-year-old sons (also besties) in a long-term arrangement as their lovers. Reviewers have pointed to how ‘tasteful’ this exploration of taboo romance is but Adoration has also generated at least three different types of critical scorn.

The principal strain of hostility appears to be directed toward the film’s very earnest dramatisation of its (not literally incestuous but incestuous feeling) intergenerational romances. American critics in particular have said that it is ‘totally unbelievable’. Variety scathingly called it ‘a softcore cougar fantasy’, bristling that its director would take such a ‘solemn’ approach to what should have, in the reviewer’s opinion, been ‘handled as an over-the-top sex farce’ (the performances, writes Justin Chang, ‘lend the material more dignity and interest than it warrants’). That Lessing’s strange ménage a quarte morality tale might be rendered as a serious love story on screen is apparently a joke. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers appeared to take special pleasure recalling that the first showing was ‘nearly laughed off the screen’ at Sundance.

The second derisive strain is that unique form of contempt reserved for the cluster of generic characteristics that constitutes a cinema of the ‘art house middlebrow’. There’s a long history of hating on these types of films, with their easy viewing pleasures and frequently women-oriented domestic dramas, especially among devoted cinephiles. Think of that special loathing reserved for heritage films (i.e. anything by Merchant Ivory or Miramax) and for anything that can be written off as ‘sentimental’ or ‘melodramatic’ in the pejorative (as opposed to descriptive) sense.

But the harshest criticism has come from critics annoyed that Lessing’s caustic morality tale has been transformed into a film that reserves judgment. ‘There has been a serious glitch in translation’, writes Sandra Hall in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Lessing’s astringent tone has become a casualty… As a result, a morality tale has turned to mush’. Director Fontaine is

‘so mesmerised by the visual potential of bronzed young bodies flexing their muscles against blue water and golden sands that she has difficulty aiming the camera at anything else… The lovers come across as being so delighted by their own beauty and audacity that the story’s darker implications are in great danger of being bleached out of the picture by sex and sunshine’.

But the source material makes it very clear that this is a study in relationships wrought by an unusual combination of beauty, privilege and isolation. ‘These lives were easy’, Lessing writes in the novella. ‘Not many people in the world have lives so pleasant, unproblematical, unreflecting: no one in these blessed coasts lay awake and wept for their sins, or for money, let alone for food.’

Adoration’s impossibly beautiful, hermetically sealed world is plainly portrayed by the omnipresent symbol of the jetty, where the tight friendships of both Roz and Lil and later their sons, Tom (James Frecheville) and Ian (Xavier Samuel) are forged, and then later where dangerous intergenerational liaisons unfold. The fantasy image of this beautiful foursome, lying forever under an Australian sun that won’t age or destroy them, captures the essence of the film: it’s an impossible fantasy.

Scorn has something of disgust in it, which has something of anxiety. That Adoration has received mostly negative reviews, however justified on performance or scripting grounds, also suggests a discomfort with the subject matter. And fair enough. Intergenerational sex and intergenerational love is troubling. This is classic taboo territory. There are good reasons why these relationships are kept a secret among the characters.

George Orwell famously wrote that ‘by age fifty everyone has the face he deserves’. The scandal of Adoration is that neither Roz nor Lil appear all that much the worse for wear, despite the wreckage caused by their forbidden entanglements. Fontaine treats her subjects with a sort of distanced compassion, using their failings to suggest our own potential for the same. That’s what makes Adoration a bold, provocative and troubling film. That no one in it is unambiguously held up to the moral scrutiny of its gaze is precisely the unnerving, uncomfortable point. As Lisa Kennedy wrote in the Denver Post, ‘what’s shocking here is how not shocking all this is. Watts and Wright provide interesting portraits of two friends who really do appear to have an unconditional fondness for each other. They make the unfathomable believable–almost’.

Dion Kagan is a Killings columnist, academic and arts writer who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender and sexuality studies in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University. 

ACO logo


Chris Gordon

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Chris Gordon defends Last Day in the Dynamite Factory

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Readings Events Manager Chris Gordon spoke in praise of Annah Faulkner’s novel Last Day in the Dynamite Factory. Read more »


Michaela McGuire

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Michaela McGuire defends Hot Little Hands

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defense of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer and Emerging Writers’ Festival Director Michaela McGuire spoke in praise of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection, Hot Little Hands. Read more »


Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their September picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Playing It Straight: On queer actors, queer characters, and ‘bravery’

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an unwelcome trend reappearing; one I had hoped was long dead and buried, along with frosted tips. It is the discussion around whether queer actors can play heterosexual characters. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Girl Gang: The value of female friendship

For two years I was the only girl in my class, along with four boys. Perhaps this would have been some kind of fantastic Lynx-filled utopia for a boy-crazy pre-teen girl, but for someone who was just beginning to figure out that she didn’t like boys in the same way other girls seemed to, it wasn’t what you could call ideal. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Written On the Body: Fat women and public shaming

The policing and subsequent shaming of women’s bodies is not unique to famous women. It happens to all women. Feeling entitled to denigrate fat bodies, and fat women’s bodies in particular, is one of the last bastions of socially acceptable discrimination. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »


Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Straight White Men - Public Theatre - Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Jane Howard

Unbearable Whiteness: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men

Though I am delighted to see Young Jean Lee gain traction in Australia, a work by playwright who is a woman of colour should not be such a rare occurrence; nor should this only come in the form of a play that blends effortlessly into the fabric of the work that is programmed around it. Read more »


Jane Howard

Putting Words In People’s Mouths: Performing the unseen, speaking the unknown

‘Do you ever get the feeling someone is putting words in your mouth?’ A performer asks an audience member in the front row. ‘Say yes.’
‘Yes,’ comes the reply.
This theme ran through multiple shows at Edinburgh Fringe this year, where occasionally audience members, but more often performers, were asked to perform scripts sight unseen. Read more »


Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »