J. M. COETZEE’S ”In the Heart of the Country” (published here as ”From the Heart of the Country”) is written as a diary, in the fierce, scathing, half-mad voice of a woman living in near-isolation on a South African sheep farm. With its startling clarity and its paradoxically hallucinatory style, this brief 1977 novel would seem to be well out of any film maker’s reach.
But Marion Hansel, a Belgian director, has attempted to adapt it anyhow, and has done a job that is creditable if in some ways incomplete. The remote, barren setting for the story, on the veldt in Cape Province, has been hauntingly evoked (though the film was shot in Spain). And the characters, played by well-chosen, visually striking actors, are given life and stature.
Miss Hansel’s ”Dust,” which opens today at Film Forum 2, has a handsome look that manages, in the manner of the great American westerns, to be both classical and wild. If it lacks the surprise and complexity of Mr. Coetzee’s vision, and if its stillness sometimes borders on the becalmed, it nonetheless has a stark, streamlined manner and an underlying urgency.
Though the film creates no visual equivalent for Mr. Coetzee’s prose, it includes brief passages from the novel in a voice-over narrative from Magda, the embittered spinster played by Jane Birkin. Miss Birkin, who progresses from impassivity to pure hysteria during the course of the story, presents her haggard, beautiful features to the camera in a wholly unself-conscious way. Trevor Howard, who plays her father, must perform in an even more passive style, since his character has been given almost nothing to say. In the film’s opening passages, Miss Hansel simply records the quiet monotony of their life together, observing their daily rituals and the tattered gentility that seems so out of place in this deserted setting. These wordless scenes are slow and uncomplicated, but they do create a strong sense of deprivation.
The film tells what may or may not have happened to Magda – it is never fully clear where reality leaves off and her imaginings begin – after the arrival of two attractive young black servants, Hendrik (John Matshikiza) and his wife, Anna (Nadine Uwampa). The shy, lovely Anna is pursued tirelessly by Magda’s father, who in earlier scenes with his daughter has seemed to have so little energy. Hendrik, meanwhile, becomes a fascinating and disturbing figure for his virginal employer, whom he half-tauntingly addresses as ”Miss.”
Though sexual longings become catalytic forces in this drama, they exist also as a way of expressing tensions between the black and white characters, and of undermining the feudal bonds that hold them together. In any case, the sexual possibilities introduced by Hendrik and Anna are enough to destroy Magda’s tenuous self-control and send her frighteningly and irrevocably over the edge.
These developments occur one at a time on screen, while on the page they seem to take place almost simultaneously, swimming in and out of narrative focus. The film is artful and intelligent, but it is left with a skeletal quality, ultimately separating the events of the story from the deep, tortured feelings that engender them.
Subtitles:English, French, Dutch, German, Spanish