by Clive Fisher
GIVEN the belief upon which the Land of the Free is founded that all men are born equal, regardless of origin, colour or creed it is not surprising that so much American literature has been preoccupied with the practical corruption of such lofty idealism. In a society in which numerous cultures must co-exist it is not astonishing that so many major, though disparate, writers Hawthorne, Faulkner, Bellow, Twain have been concerned with individuals or communities ostracised and persecuted for their racial Origins or religious convictions. (It is a literary tradition which in British society, until recently, so much more homogeneous, did not exist.)
American films are notoriously fearful of seriousness and controversy, however, and have often ignored those Americans blacks, hispanics, who arrived yearning to breathe free and yearn still. Betrayed (Plaza "18") may not greatly redress that imbalance, but its conscience at least is clear. It follows undercover FBI agent, Katie Philips (Debra Winger), who has been despatched to a farming community in the mid-west to monitor a network of farmers suspected of attempting to purge their locality, and Chicago itself, of "unAmerican" elements blacks, homosexuals and Jews.
She tries to impress the locals by driving a combine harvester as hired labour. Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger), a Vietnam hero and widowed father of two children, is particularly impressed. His children take to her and it looks as though she will be wearing jeans and a checked shirt forever.
But we realise all is not well when she meets his mother, No-one, we gather, bakes white cake, whatever that is like mom (Black pudding, a staple of so many English farmers' diets, is definitely not a local dish.) When mom serves the white cake, however, and declares that America isn't what it used to he, we realise that her culinary speciality is more an expression of a political credo than an attempt to indulge her son's sweet tooth.
With black-hunting parties, Ku Klux Klan camping weekends and bank robberies, Katie not surprisingly asks to be taken off the case. Her misery only ends when she has to shoot the man she loves as he prepares to assassinate and thus martyr his organisation's presidential candidate.
As has already been remarked, Betrayed a story of a woman spy being manipulated by her masters and her quarry owes much to Hitchcock's Notorious. Winger was an obvious choice for the part. There is something about her of the reformed tomboy. With Black Widow and Terms of Endearment she established a screen persona of the hard nut with the soft centre hoarse, gutsy and determined. If anyone could penetrate these xenophobic, reactionary and paternalistic ranks, it would be her.
Tom Berenger despite involvement in expensive and prestigious productions (The Big Chill, Platoon), and despite brandoesque looks and a brandoesque ability to brood rnanacingly hasn't attained secure celebrity. At home with this moody part, he delivers a performance every bit as assured as Winger's.
But its stars, and Betrayed's good, if harrowing, set pieces, aren't quite enough. The structure is awkward; the revelation of Winger's true identity is pointlessly delayed; we never really feel that she is in danger; her FBI employers have scant opportunity to appear personally attractive or morally admirable; and the ending is long, messy and inconclusive.
Great emphasis is placed on the contradictions of American
racism. Many Bibles are
brandished, but it seetns that all the devoted family men sing
loudly in chinch and then inculcate their children with the dogma of white supremacy. One is left with a sense of vagueness; no philosophy, no explanations, just an intermittently convincing, intermittently hysterical examination of middle-American bigotry.
Chocolat (Chelsea, "15") is an infinitely more discreet assessment of racial differences. One long flashback, it presents a French woman's childhood memories of her father's administrative career in French Equatorial Africa.
Claire Denis' first film observes, rather than chastises, the dying throes of French colonialism. Beautiful music and photography combine with a sure but tactful touch to produce an atmosphere alternately nostalgic and tense and oppressive as the mosquitofilled nights. All the cast, especially isaach de Bankole as the arresting Protce, are convincing. And there are very funny scenes involving a cook trained by former, English employers who cannot prepare French food.
Episodic in content, Chocolat is not really "about" anything, unless it be about belonging, and returning home. Rut that
doesn't matter: simply enjoy his
hypnotic, poetic and eccentric